Mi abuela came to America wearing a tattered potato sack, holding my mother, swaddled in palm leaves, in her good right hand, her only one left. With what little money she had, plus a few good games of poker, she bought a dingy, one-bedroom apartment in the basement floor of a crumbling complex in Hialeah, then declared from then on she’d only know success in life, whatever the cost. That was when the arsenic green wallpaper peeled off and the cockroaches fled through the near clogged drainage pipes and the rats darted out through the broken air vents and the front door. That was when my mother first cried after being silent since birth.
When I was born, Abuela repainted the walls sky blue, because it was a more regal color than brackish plaster. When I was born, my mother had barely entered high school, and my father had barely entered prison for preying on students. When I was born, I was named “Paris” because I reminded Abuela of her home city, the one she refused to remember and yet couldn’t forget. When I was born, I saw the color blue. To me it was the sky and the apartment was the world. The cracks in the wall were lighting, the faded paint the clouds, the leaky pipes the whistling rain that made me giggle while my abuela patched up the chipped paint.
My mother went to school in faux-mink coats. I went to school with knock-off Gucci bags when mink went out of fashion because of the mink abuse involved. Abuela decorated us like Christmas trees in fake diamond earrings and fake ruby necklaces and fake emerald rings, even though we always lost the fake jewelry that still cost her a pretty penny from the electricity bill. Abuela got us finishing school lessons so we’d have the same manners as the pretty rich girls at the good private Catholic schools my mother had always been pressured to get into through academic merit. Abuela somehow got me into one of those private Catholic schools despite raising me atheist.
When I was fourteen, I asked her if this was what success looked like.
“No,” she conceded. “But it’s close enough.”
For now, she added in Spanish under her breath.
“What does true success look like?”
Abuela sighed and flipped on the vintage TV set without color to The Real Housewives of Orange County, pointing out the opulent, tacky furniture and the women in Louis Vuitton heels.
“That. That’s what it looks like.”
My mother said that after she graduated community college she’d show her mother what real success looked like. Then she gained her Associates Degree in Nursing from Miami Dade, and passed the Boards Exam with minimal studying. Her first week on the job, she overworked three nights, and almost died of a heart attack, having to recover at home for three months, her left foot partially paralyzed, still allowing her to walk but with a noticeable limp like she had sandbags sewed to her leg.
“Is this what success looks like, Mama?” I asked her the morning after.
My mother glared for a minute, then weakly laughed. “Yes, mija. This is our pinnacle! Blue walls! Cracked ceilings! All we’re good for!”
My mother wanted to one day buy a pretty white house in Coral Gables, a lakefront property covered in palm trees and grand oaks and nearby good free public schools where cocaine wasn’t hastily hidden in ziplock bags stuffed down the boys’ urinal. My mother didn’t want to wake up another day to a decaying Victorian dresser, or an antique wicker rocking chair that looked chewed through by giant moths. My mother didn’t want fancy fake diamond jewelry. My mother didn’t want to wake up and see the same blue walls so faded, they seemed clinical.
Abuela said my mother was going around gaining success all wrong, that fortune required a sturdy foundation. In her homeland, a four-bedroom house wasn’t bought after growing out of a one-bedroom. Walls were torn down with hammers, recycled, rebuilt into new rooms, into new floors, new ceilings. A family home grows out of a tiny hut like a papaya tree grows from a single seed. A blight passed over the land—one of poverty and ill-lead revolution—which tore down long standing orchards full of sweet fruit. But here a new grove would grow. Here a new grove would thrive.
“Now hand me that roller,” she said after the lecture. “The wall paint is chipping off again.”
If success was blue wall paint, then success meant a new washing machine, a new radio, a new vanity mirror—all things my abuela bought with her own savings, also known as the electricity bill. So, on my first Black Friday in community college, I bought a flat screen TV with what money I’d saved scooping ice cream at a local Baskin Robbins by our apartment. My grandmother couldn’t hold in her joy when she saw it, hugging me in a near death grip and sobbing into my shirt.
“Now we can watch TV in color like our neighbors!” she exclaimed.
“It’s just a TV,” my mother said after getting home from her shift.
“It’s a flat screen!” Abuela argued.
“A flat screen means nothing if we can’t pay our electricity bill again this month.”
That night, Abuela abuela and I watched Desperate Housewives for the first time in color. That night, I saw in gold and silver the true wonder and splendor the reality stars lived in. That night, I saw clearly the cracks in the walls, heard and felt the leak from the pipes hitting the plastic bowls beneath them, saw in detail the fading or chipped blue paint. The next day, we sold the flat screen to pay the electric bill. We went without a TV set after that because we’d thrown out the vintage and couldn’t afford a new one.
And a few months later, she passed. And the day she died, I asked her if she missed Cuba.
“No,” she said. “You can’t miss what you’ve chosen to forget.”
“Why don’t you want to remember?” I asked.
The rocking chair she sat in creaked against the rotting wood floor. A single droplet of water landed on her nose, like a little glass piercing, clear and still as she slowly sat back in her seat until the rocking chair rocked no more. She seemingly looked through me, straight through as though I were a window pane, to the blue walls behind me, chipped and fading again, to be refurbished tomorrow. She sighed.
“We’re building a new life here, mija. To remember would be to love, and I want to love what we made here instead.”
“What did we make here?” I asked.
She passed before she would say.
After the funeral, my mother repainted the walls of the apartment white to make way for a “fresh start,” for true success apart from what came before. She sold the old furniture and fixed the pipes herself. Half the money that went toward paying my tuition at Miami Dade now went toward paying the electricity bill.
“It’ll be tight right now, but it’ll all be for the best in the end,” she said. “Once you graduate and pass your board exams, we’ll finally have the life we always wanted, the success we always dreamed of.”
I didn’t argue, didn’t make a peep in response. Instead I listened to the silence of the pipes, felt the lack of cracks on the not-so-thunderous walls. Instead I stared at the whiteness of our tiny, one-bedroom apartment. The cheap paint was either fading or chipping. I could still see the sky blue underneath.
Blood is dripping from her mouth as she brushes her teeth. Her eyes have a dull intensity as she works the electric brush left to right, always left to right. The routine is unvarying as she proceeds to the next stage, up and down movement. The blood trickles down her chin and onto her tee shirt.
He sighs, a weariness hanging over him like a low, dark thunder head.
“Lydia,’ he says softly. “Done. You’re done.” Her eyes are tiny focused dots in the mirror.
He reaches to her arm, touching softly with a lovers touch. The flesh stiffens under his fingers as he gently eases the brush away from her face. He sets it on the bowl of the sink as he reaches for the paper towels. Never cloth, too much blood. He blots her, not rubbing, because the rubbing irritates her, so it feels like dabbing up a spill of precious liquid.
“Not done,” she mumbles.
“Remember, Lydia, we talked. When you see the red—the blood, it’s time to stop. Your teeth are clean then.”
She turns to him, her eyes scanning, momentary loss of recognition. She’s lost the image of his face somewhere in the thick sediment of her damaged neurons. For a moment he can see the searching, the processing and then a whisper of knowing. She nods.
He leads her to the bedroom his hands on her shoulders, guiding with small pressures. She has adapted to this new way of moving and follows the reins of his fingers.
Thirty five was too young to have a stroke. And in yoga class. The instructor said she was reaching skyward, her hands in a heavenly supplication when suddenly her body became liquid and splattered to the floor like spilled milk.
“Her eyes were blank. Staring at the ceiling. We knew something was seriously wrong though she was breathing. Paramedics were here in minutes.” The instructor sounded like she was apologizing for the aberrations of the universe.
Six months ago. An eternity. Aphasia, degenerative motor skills, trouble talking and OCD. He thought he could at least overcome the other things: the falling, the seizures, the crying. He could help with those but the irrationality of the OCD wore on him. It manifested in compulsive, non-stop teeth brushing and combing her hair until the brush was clogged with strands. She became upset when things were out of line on the kitchen counter, twisting her hands and pacing until she was able to line up containers, salt, pepper, oil and jars. She shuffled them around until tears came.
Three days each week for physical therapy, neurological tests, memory retention exercise. His routine was wrapped around those days not like wrapped in a warm blanket but more a tarp thrown over a broken tractor.
He pulled the tee shirt over her head as she sat on the edge of the bed.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you try. I try.” She choked on a sob. “Put me somewhere, a place where you don’t have to worry.” Before the stroke they laughed and giggled like teen lovers even after ten years together. Their arguments were few and unsubstantial, like snowflakes she would say, not a full blizzard and she would burst his angry bubble with her laughing eyes. During arguments when he felt maligned, he tried to hold on to the anger like a stubborn child. She shattered his hot bubble when she launched into stories about her family of witches. “My Bubba was a witch,” she joked. “She brought ancient magic from the old country. Croatia. Beware! I am an elemental. She taught me how to focus the evil eye.” She would squint, screw up her face and wink at him and until the anger puffed away.
Her skin sagged on her frame now like a deflated balloon, her once tight muscles atrophied and withered. She’d lost thirty pounds since the stroke. He had to feed her at first, carefully so she wouldn’t choke. Chewing should be involuntary, he thought as food dripped from her lips. He felt a tightness in his chest, a physical ache seeing her like this. Lydia had taken such good care of herself, yoga, running, sweaty workouts at the gym. Now, she moved from room to room in a slow zombie shuffle. It was all she could manage.
Friends came in the beginning, bringing food, sitting with Lydia, but she wasn’t the Lydia who had shopped with them, shared coffee and laughed. They tried, he gave them a grade for that, but the toll abraded the kindness like harsh sandpaper. The visits became less frequent, finally dropping to a faint trickle of emails and Facebook posts. Now it all fell on him, a muddy landslide of responsibilities. He was treading water at the bottom of a well with not even a faint glimmer of hope candled against the dark walls as her condition deteriorated. I didn’t sign on for this.
The results of physical and cognitive therapies had plateaued they told him. She had improved as much as possible given the extent of the damage. Time would not be a friend barring a miracle.
He prayed. Something he had not done since childhood and it failed to comfort him.
“You look exhausted,” he shrugged at the doctor’s comment.
“Yeah, well. . . “
Lydia was in another room with the physical therapist. He watched though the glass partition. She moves like she’s ninety.
“Have you thought about placing her somewhere?”
“Can’t afford it. We’ve maxed out the insurance, for those times when I absolutely have to leave her alone, I have to pay for a home health worker out of pocket. You guys have said, what? Given the pace of her failings, maybe another year. I’m trying to hold out. What choice do I have?”
“There might be something. We’ve been working on an experimental procedure. I have to point out, it is NOT approved for human trials. There may be legal ramifications.” He paused. “The animal studies have showed promise and the science is solid.”
“Why isn’t it approved then?”
“These things take time. It appears our research department is the only one working on this procedure and it is very controversial.”
“Not everyone believes the stem cells can be made to differentiate into neurons. Some think it may cause even more damage.”
“How does it work?”
“We’ll inject a special type of stem cell directly into her brain at damaged sites,” the doctor said. “If all goes well, these cells will differentiate into neurons and repair the areas she’s lost. When they grow back the broken functions will return.”
“What’s the risk?” he asked.
“We’re not sure they’ll grow into the proper cells. Uncontrolled growth leads to cancer but the tests on rats have been promising.”
“If it doesn’t work?”
The doctor shrugged. “It’s so new. We honestly don’t know. You have to understand that her condition is inevitably deteriorating. She’s not going to get better if we do nothing.”
“There’s been improvement. You indicated some of the functions were restored.” His voice was pleading.
The doctor shook his head. “It will reverse and will get bad really fast. I wish there was some other way. Think about it. Talk to Lydia on day when she’s in the moment.”
He explained it to her the best he could, repeating the complicated parts. He didn’t understand all the science of the procedure himself.
“I want you to get better,” he said. “If there’s any chance.”
Her head bobbed up and down, almost a nod. “Me too,” she sighed. “Don’t. . .like. . .be. . .ing. . .this way.”
Together, they agreed to allow the procedure.
Thursday was one of her better days, one that gave him hope, but she’d had them before only to waken the next morning with meanings lost in a jumble of wrong words and hands not able to hold a cup.
“If there is any chance for us to be normal again. I want to do it,” she said. “I want to be able to entrance you with my witchy powers again.” They both laughed. Strained to be optimistic. On the good days, things almost seemed like they were before the stroke, other than it was hard for her to walk or putter in the kitchen. Her humor still bubbled to the surface. He longed for those precious days where they made silly jokes and laughed. It was as if the gods cursed them for being too happy.
They shaved her head again. “You can have a blonde or redhead until my air grows back. I’ll get different wigs to seduce you with once the procedure is done.”
He hoped it would return to that but he was afraid. He’d lost her once and didn’t know if he could stand a second time.
When they wheeled her into recovery after the surgery, his knees gave way and he held on to the ledge of the window to keep from falling. She looked like a corpse.
“It went well,” the doctor said. “It should take about twelve hours for her to be responsive again.”
“How long before we know if it’s working? I guess we forgot to ask that.”
“Neurogenesis is an unknown. In theory some of the cells should migrate to the damaged areas and differentiate into the requisite neurons but this is so new. We just don’t know how long it will take. In some of our experiments it was hours. In others it was weeks and as we discussed, occasionally it didn’t happen at all. We’ll just have to monitor her closely. Watch and measure the changes.”
He went home and sat on the couch staring at nothing. Eventually he tumbled into an exhausted sleep.
When he brought her home four days later, nothing had changed except she couldn’t stand and wasn’t able stay awake for more than a few minutes at time.
Maybe he expected too much, he told himself after putting her to bed. He poured a bourbon and sat on the couch staring at the television with the sound muted. In the morning, a nearly empty bottle faced him from the table. It became a pattern. Somehow the alcohol induced oblivion assuaged his pain. It was not his nature to hide in a hole and after five days he stopped. Lydia could talk but could only raise her arm with effort. He managed to load her into the car and take her back to the hospital. When he lifted her into the car, she was so light, she felt hollow, like a Styrofoam bird.
“It isn’t working,” they said. “Call hospice.” The change of attitude slapped him.
The doctor’s head swiveled up and down the hall as he leaned in close enough to taste his aftershave. “We’ve lost funding. The department is being investigated. I’m sorry.”
“You son-of-a-bitch!” he shouted at the retreating figure.
He took her back home, put her in bed and fell asleep in the chair in the bedroom.
Together they had been their own unit, drunk on the feelings for each other. They made efforts not to exclude family or friends from their circle but were overwhelming content with each other’s company. He felt the loss of private intimacy along with its warmth and freshness. Since the stroke he felt a cavernous emptiness. Lydia seemed to sense the loss too but her energies were focused on relearning simple skills. He kissed her cheeks or forehead, gave her a squeeze but the physical part was laid waste like a dry desert. He missed her delicate hands touching him in prelude and during the coupling but felt submerged in guilt because he still wanted her.
His eyes were thick and burning when he wakened. The muscles of his back ached from the contorted position and rebelled as he pushed himself up. He went to her bed.
“Lydia, babe…” There was no response. He watched her chest rise and fall. Let her sleep. The rest would help the healing. She didn’t waken that day or the next. He called the clinic.
“You can bring her in but it is probable that she has slipped into a coma.”
“That can be good. Like she’s healing, right?” He could hear the deep sigh on the phone.
“Not likely. I’m sorry, we advised hospice.” He clicked the phone to off. He wanted to throw it against the wall but stoved his anger. He understood if he let go once, he’d be useless to her.
A whisper called to him like a faint rustling of leaves, almost words. Almost a voice. He climbed to the surface from sleep forcing himself awake. Sleep welcomed him in a strangely deep embrace most nights on the chair braced by random pillows.
“Lydia!” Panic punched him in the chest as he opened his eyes.
Her eyes were open. He sat up, his muscles resisting with stiffness from sleeping in the strained position.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” she answered. “You looked so uncomfortable. Your head was lolling to the side. Your neck must be stiff.” Her words were clear, her voice stronger than it had been in a long while. He stepped across the room, leaned into the bed and kissed her forehead.
“I feel like I’ve been asleep for a month. And I’m hungry.” His eyes widened.
“Are you sure? Maybe some oatmeal?”
“Yeah, that would be good. And eggs.”
When he returned with the tray of food she had propped herself up with pillows. Her eyes were bright and her face held a tentative smile.
“I feel better,” she said. “Not great yet, but better.”
By the weekend she was walking, slow, tentative shuffling steps but on her own. He called the clinic again.
“It is better than we anticipated. You have reason to hope,” the team doctor said. “With caution. This is new. Give it two more weeks and we’ll do scans to see how much has changed.”
“I thought funding dried up?”
“No more research but we are tracking followups. In the future,” The words dropped off. He felt they had been used like the lab rats.
On the way home in the car, she said, “It’s going to rain tomorrow. Heavy downpour.”
“What? You’re watching the weather channel now?” he laughed.
Before she turned to stare out the window, her eyes were constricted dots.
The day started bright and sunny with a water blue sky painted with stray dobs of white cotton balls but by noon, sinister dark clouds rolled over the buildings and let loose a deluge of heavy rain. The streets ran with water like rapids for two hours before gradually tapering off.
“Boy, that was some rain. The weather guys said it blew in off the coast unexpectedly and you said it was going to rain. Where did you hear that?” He asked as she sipped a warm tea and nibbled a piece of toast with marmalade.
“I don’t know. Just felt it. Maybe my witch powers are coming back.” she smiled.
“I never saw any witch powers before. You said your grandmother was supposed to be a witch, back in the old country. I remember you talking about that.”
Another week and she was still weak but showered without help and fixed her own breakfast. She beamed across the table. “It’s just Raisin Bran, but I poured it out of the box without spilling any and the milk too. I made you a bowl too but without sugar. That’s how you liked it, right?” She paused. “I know it isn’t much but to me it is a huge deal. I felt trapped inside a body that wouldn’t work.”
“Do you think you could get by a day on your own. Or a half day. If I can go back to work even for a little while, they’ll reinstate benefits. The company has been good to us but they really need me to come back.”
He called her five times that first day from the office. He couldn’t concentrate from the worry. When he came through the door she was at the stove.
“I’m making mac and cheese,” she said. “From a box.” He wrapped his arms around her and breathed into her hair. It was like after a summer rain, clean and fresh. Before the stroke her hair had the scent of her shampoo. This was different—natural.
He worked the remaining days of the week. He heard music as came up the walkway. The living room furniture was back against the walls and Lydia twirled round in the center of the room. She was never a dancer. She had grace and style in her walk and movements but it didn’t translate to dance. She stopped mid spin and came to his arms.
“I just felt a sudden need to dance. To kind of let loose. Unfettered.” She grinned. “I did keep my clothes on though. You, know, had that kind of feeling like when you just want to run and dance naked.” He shook his head but reveled in the newness of her. Had it only been a week? It was as if a wind had blown through their lives, scooping up the residue of worn and wasted material into a funnel cloud and carrying it away past the horizon. Don’t let this go away again.
The kitten showed up on the front stoop one rainy evening. A faint pathetic mewing slipped around the door and caught their attention. A tiny shivering gray thing huddled against the mat. She had to bring it in, towel it dry and offer it a saucer of milk. It looked up to her with warm wet eyes.
He reminded her she was allergic to cats.
“I was,” she said. “It’s so cute. Admit it, you think so too. If I start to sneeze or get a rash we’ll take it to the shelter but we can’t leave it out on a night like this.” A slim white stripe of fur ran down the front of it’s face.
He left her alone each day and went to work and called her once each morning and again in the afternoon. A week at work and life was almost normal. Friday she greeted him at the door holding the kitten. She named it Gray and there were no signs of allergy.
“We should go out. Dinner. A movie. Something,” she scratched the cat’s head. It wiggled against her hands purring. “Gray says we should have some fun.”
The nearest parking space was three blocks from the theater. She said the walk invigorated her but the movie ran late and it was after eleven when they strolled along the deserted street toward the car.
“Wow, there were tons of cars here when we came in. Now look, our poor little thing is sitting alone under the light.” Then she stumbled, bumping into him.
“Whoa, you are right?” he asked, taking her arm.
“Yes, I think I just lost my balance or my heel caught on something in the sidewalk. But, you can keep your arm around me anyway,” she giggled.
He thumbed the key fob in his pocket as they got closer. The lights flashed and the latches clicked open and he felt her weight pulling him down. Lydia crumbled like a wilted flower as he desperately tried to hold her up. He heard himself calling her name. Her face was slack, not there, unconscious. He managed to get her into the passenger seat and the belt around her. He started the engine, his thoughts racing. Nearest hospital? Call 911?
They would ask if she was breathing. Did she have a pulse?
He head lolled toward him. He reached inside her coat. A pulse throbbed against his fingers. Her chest rose and fell as if she was asleep.
“Lydia,” he called. “Shit!” He keyed the word ‘hospital’ into the GPS. Saint Mark’s was ten minutes away.
He screeched under the overhang where the lights said, ‘EMERGENCY’. Inside the florescent lit room, he yelled, “My wife. Somebody help.” A woman in blue scrubs with a stethoscope around her neck came running toward him. He pointed toward the door. Words stuck deep inside him somewhere, refusing to vocalize. The woman called something into a radio on her belt and men were pushing a gurney toward the door.
They managed to get her out of the car and onto the gurney.
“Move your car away from the door,” one of the men said. “You can park over there.” He pointed into the darkness. When he gave the man a puzzled look he said, “So if an ambulance or another person can get in. Don’t want to block the entrance.”
He moved the car and hurried back into the waiting area.
“My wife,” he said to the woman at the desk.
“She’s in the ER but you can’t go in. You’ll be in the way. They’re working on her. Doing everything they can. I’m sure someone will be out shortly. I’ll need her name and medical history.
“Her name is Lydia and she had a stroke a few months ago.”
“Thirty-five.” the woman glanced up with raised eyebrows.
“Family history of stroke? Is she on birth control?”
“What? No, not now. They did a procedure—at the University Research Center. Something new. It restored functions, helped neurons regrow.”
“Do you know what it was called? The procedure?”
“No. It was experimental.” Again, the look.
“I’ll need as much information as possible. Do you have a contact name over there? Our people will need to get with them.”
He nodded and dug into his wallet and then his phone for the contacts.
“Go sit down before you fall,” the woman pointed toward the glassed waiting area. A sitcom acted without sound on the television mounted high up on the wall. A woman held a sleeping baby in another chair. The minutes ticked by like slow moving traffic, all red taillights. Every few minutes he would catch the woman’s eye and she would shake her head. It was well past an hour when a doctor approached him.
“We’ve stabilized her and moved her to Intensive Care. You can go up now.”
“Is she conscious? Is she going to be alright?”
The doctor’s face was solid, stoic. “I’ll take you up. We’ve been in touch with her neurologist.” The doctor guided him toward the elevator. “ICU is on seven.” he said.
“She’s had another stroke and I need to be honest with you. It doesn’t look good.”
“But she was recovering. She was almost back to normal. How can that be?”
His stomach felt hollow and the air he pulled into his lungs was like some useless inert gas.
“As near as we can tell, all the cells that regenerated failed again,” he paused. “Which resulted in exacerbated deterioration. I don’t think there’s anything we can do for her. I’m sorry.”
He felt himself slide against the back wall of the elevator but it was like watching outside his body. It was not his own.
He willed his legs to carry him into go into the room, stumbling like a broken automation. Her still figure lay propped up in the bed, her face slack. If he didn’t go in, things could still be normal. His hands were shaking as he stepped toward the bed, a forced smile on his face.
“Hey, babe, looks like we’re back at it again,” his throat tightened and he choked. He took her hand and slumped into the bed side chair. “It’s going to be all right,” he lied. “It’s going to be all right,” he said again. “And the weather guys say no rain for tomorrow.”
Camacho knows guys from a town over; he has cousins there. Not a one of them—he or his cousins—grew up anywhere but a rural corner of overlooked American community. You’d never see them anywhere in the media, unless one of them committed a crime too horrendous not to share. And even with that notoriety, they’d be a fuse that fizzled on a dud firecracker. Camacho did well enough—made friends, was well-liked, held the favor of a handful of high school teachers; he didn’t finish in the top ten of his class, but he did land consistently in the top third, which was enough to get him lumped in with the smart kids. And he rode that reputation, for whatever it was worth. It was a currency that seemed to get him somewhere, though it might have been a gold-leafed finish on an antique sewing machine whose owners assumed was worth more than it really was. In that rural Tennessee community, one invested in whatever currency was available. But dammit, the cool cousins lived a town over—same county, but a different world altogether in Camacho’s mind.
He wanted to be like them, though he had no way of conceiving such a transition. Ain’t it funny how the world, whose parameters we know to be vast, and whose celebrities we know to be impossibly positioned for the life they have—ain’t it funny how that world still shrinks to the dimensions of a life? Inside the walls of any given house, you will find millions of people living dramas as poignant as that of any film, and the only explanation for this is that the human condition dictates it.
No, Camacho was not his real name; it was a name born of his friends calling him Macho Camacho for reasons lost to time. By tenth grade, it had shortened organically to just Camacho, and it stuck, no matter how white Charles could be. Yes, his real name was Charles. In fact, his mother, a curly red wig-wearing wannabe line dancer on CMT, called him Chuck most his life, but even she had taken to calling him Camacho by the time he graduated high school. At graduation, a contingent of underclassmen chanted “Camacho, Camacho, Camacho” when Charles crossed the raised platform to shake the superintendent’s hand and receive his diploma. They’d announced he was going to the University of Tennessee at Martin to major in biology. “Camacho! Camacho! Camacho!”
He was living his personal, film-worthy drama in the summer after graduation, just as one may suspect: late nights on backroads; mid-mornings in the kitchen at McDonald’s, toasting buns; evening meals with his mom and little brother, and then back to those aimless backroads with the very same friends who’d designated him Camacho. He dallied in his parents’ church’s youth group, taking on a periodic lay counselor role—a role requiring little other than a willingness to show up. There was Vacation Bible School, youth camp, and a trip to Dollywood. He counselled younger kids, meaning he went along for the ride, soaking up attention from the younger girls which made him feel good and he was still young enough that it didn’t seem creepy. Hell, he was still a kid at eighteen—so what if the girl crushing on him was only fourteen? He was smart enough not to pursue it. He thrived on the possibility something could happen, not that it would happen.
One July night, on one of those rural backroads, with little fear of sheriff’s deputies—who had a reputation for confiscating your beers and sending you on your way, though everyone feared being the kid one of these deputies decided to make an example of—Camacho and his friends ran into two of those aforementioned cool cousins. The eldest’s arms were tatted up—it was hot out, so they all had on short-sleeves, but they weren’t tight shirts, because they weren’t so juvenile as to need to show anything off, muscle-wise. The three of them were standing by a vehicle, each smoking a cigarette; their faces were blurry in the moonlight. A bug-mute field of soybeans dipped to a shallow bowl behind them.
“Phillip? Is that you?” said the oldest cousin—real name Dewayne, nickname Rasta. Phillip was Camacho’s middle name, and for uncertain reasons, the branch of the family comprised of the cool cousins had always called him that. They were the only ones ever to do it.
“Yeah. Hey, what’s up?” said Camacho out the rear lowered window, through which he’d been yelling, “I’m invincible!” only fifteen minutes before, with the Doors’ “Not to Touch the Earth” blasting through the scrub oak. Drunk buzzes were plentiful that night. The country pavement ferried all the young men to transcendence, even those cool ones who effected boredom, like Camacho’s cousins. Charles “Camacho” Phillip Ridenour was now trying to effect a modicum of sobriety—he didn’t want his cousins to know just how drunk he really was. The night was humid in that special memory-making way of rural southern towns. The roads were microcosms—of what, no one was sure. Earlier, they had played some vehicular variant of the game chicken—gambled with their lives—nearly leaving the ground as the Sentra had all but gotten airborne crossing Old Lake Road at high speed—no preview of oncoming traffic, just a hope and a dose of intoxication, and an unchallenged belief in youth’s immunity to tragedy. The world had been as much before them as the cornfield they’d nearly tunneled into.
But now the daredevil ecstasy had faded, and they were parked with half their wheels on the shoulder of Possum Trot Road, smoking cigarettes clumsily and laughing over exaggerated encounters with girls. Camacho wanted so deeply to be cool—for those cool cousins, especially, leaned against their own car—a beater, really, but somehow infused with unsayable coolness (what had they done in a previous life to earn such easy coolness?). The sky stretched wide with blue-blackness, with a luminosity akin to translucence—bony branches of dead hickories prickling staunch into the low light. Camacho, though his drunkenness had passed into the lethargic stage—the bygone, head-tossing unbelievability stage—was craving a piss and a burger, in that order. The piss came easily, the mound of grass beside the car as privy to the mystery of consciousness as the sky with her distant stars. He drained his bladder into the privet and honeysuckle, imagining he communed with the earth, watering her with his waste, which to the earth was more than waste. I suppose she’s as good a god as any, he thought, meaning the earth. The humidity blanketed his beer-numb nose, exchanging sweetness for sweat. And what is that metallic smell, and is ‘metallic’ even the right descriptor?
And what happens over in Lake County? Truth be told, the young woman he was with—a bona fide drinking friend with occasional benefits—would rather have limited his access to the neighboring county, but what could she do? She and he knew that, over there, beyond the penitentiary, they partied—meth-saturated benders where anything could happen, and the price paid in rotten teeth and prison terms held little concern. There were shacks among the corn and bean fields—rickety, flimsy pseudo-shelters where crystal methamphetamine was cooked with impunity. Of course their sheriffs knew about the cook sites—once in a while, they might raid one of these meth houses and round up someone of meager significance, and you could bet the local paper would print a front-page story about how the authorities had leveled a big hit against the illegal drug trade. And labeling it a “trade” had the unfortunate side effect of legitimizing many a loser’s path to lifelong shitty-ness.
They made their way, outward, outward—toward the lake—a geography bereft of accurate notation; loose legends of native people haunting the bluffs whenever anyone bothered to pay attention. The two-lane roads were named for families. Some of the curves were hairpin. Allegedly, creeks flowing into the watershed had their mysterious origins in the bluffs, but though they appeared on a map, they weren’t giving up their sources to the engaged passerby, not even in daylight.
“Can there be a word today as vapid as the word ‘cool’?” asked Jennifer D. She had been Camacho’s off-and-on crush, and she didn’t even know it. Or maybe she suspected it—he sure did hang around a lot. If she wasn’t interested romantically, though, she no less enjoyed the attention. He frequently looked at her breasts, but she tolerated and even forgave him this, because why, she didn’t know; the intricacies of human connection preclude civility. At least he hadn’t tried to touch them, like so many drunk boys.
They were headed to a party—all of them: Jennifer D. and her closest girlfriends and Camacho and his drinking buddies. Two separate cars but one unit, clearly—often in communication, despite the yards between them. Camacho had turned his hat around at some point—not like a private function of the self, the way some men do, finding pieces of their identity in such easy gestures, but turned a full 180 degrees in a brazen, redneck manifestation of coolness—an artist who’s opened his studio for strangers to linger with wine buzzes and drone on about aesthetics, while he sits close pretending not to listen—a backwoods art crawl through the canvas of trees and enough kudzu to wrap a forest, making of its mature plants a sculpture garden worthy of ancient deities. Out there, the spoken word of Jim Morrison made sense. But this wasn’t the usual backroad recklessness—they had a destination. So The Doors was now out; in their place was Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy (in the car Camacho rode in; in the other car, it was straight Meek Mills).
The hills of Possum Trot rolled along in sharp bands—that’s how the road clung to them, like a ribbon of black taffy, faintly tar-scented. A party! They were going to a party, and parties in the sticks—which, though it technically was at a house beside the lake, flanked on each side by a row of similar houses, ranch-style and modest, was far enough from home to be labeled “the sticks,” for the kids who lived in town, of which Camacho and Jennifer D were two; parties in the sticks held a mystique that parties in the quiet neighborhoods of the town, though often quite fun, could not match. Between the little community of Possum Trot and the lakeside town of Samburg was one of those kudzu-wrapped dioramas of giant trees, bordering a deep ravine that, in the dark, looked twice as cavernous. On this late-spring Friday night, the tall, sculptural trees appeared to be moving as their cars rolled past, drifting heavy like brachiosauruses. And soon the cars were making a deep-graded descent from the bluffs to the lake, from Choctaw-haunted mounds of hardwood forests to flat, cypress-riddled shores of gently lapping waves—waves that one had to be within a few feet to even hear, but once that close, mesmerized the listener into commune with the black water itself, into the cottonmouth prayer and murk, whose far-off splashing of god-knows-what reverberated in parallel worlds of matter and spirit, sending a quickening through the veins of both the abstinent and the drunk.
To be at a party at the house beside the lake was to be aware of that quickening, but it was also the kind of thing a reveler could tune out, and this is what Camacho did. Jennifer D. had vanished into the living room soon after entering, seeking out friends. Camacho, however, got hung up in the kitchen where a couple of his friends were doing shots. The shots came from a gallon-size plastic jug, and the booze was a shade of clear brown that could have been either Scotch or tequila—he would never figure out which—the spirit’s identity was secondary to the effect it would give, anyway, and he was numb enough and swim-brained enough that he couldn’t have told the difference anyhow. It should be noted here that the young man was reviving, a phenomenon different from sobering up, and one that is strongest in youth, but it’s that ability to rally from a nearly asleep drunkenness and be ready for the next round. The party atmosphere was, itself, enough to provoke this, because the thing Camacho enjoyed more than a good buzz was to have a good buzz in a room full of people who also had good buzzes. He perked up quickly.
“Here’s to friends and lovers and fuck all the others!” It was a toast that rang out often at these things. The young men downed their brown liquor and winced and coughed, but no one threw up.
“Shit, that burns!” said Joe.
“Woo!” shouted Chad.
Camacho said nothing but grinned and wiped his mouth. The ocher linoleum danced at his feet, little vibrations faintly electric, projecting waves of purple and pink from out of the dark yellow. He raised his head to look around at the partygoers—he’d only heard of the guy whose parent’s house this was. It felt like everyone else knew the guy, but this couldn’t have been true. Most of the faces were familiar. Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” was playing somewhere. Camacho began to walk, assuming a low center of gravity to help him walk straight, passing through the living room. He said something flirty to a girl he knew was out of his league, and she graciously responded, because she was kind. He was tempted to think maybe she’d fool with a guy like him, but he knew better. They both knew better, and this had to be okay, and it was okay. No trace of a hard feeling arose in him at the soft refusal; he’d respect her for the rest of his life, but he’d also know he’d flirted with her, and that was worth something.
Back in the kitchen, having made a round through the parts of the house that weren’t locked or otherwise off-limits, he rejoined his tequila-scotch swilling buddies. More people were gathered there now, and the drunkenness was taking on a performative aspect. It wasn’t to see who could get the drunkest, it was more to see who could be most amusing, and in this, if nothing else, Camacho excelled. Yes, he would love to make out with a cute county girl, but just as satisfying, he’d love to make the whole room laugh, and it was the second of these scenarios that was most immediate (with hope held out for the latter, of course), so that’s what he did: on the Formica counter, a red dish towel was gathered loosely around a white paper doily—whatever had sat on the doily previously was gone—and he grabbed a dry erase marker from the family whiteboard near the door and scrawled a set of eyes and an impossibly large grinning mouth on the doily, and then he stepped back, paused for effect, and in as serious a tone as he could, said, “Ronald McDonald.” The room erupted. It was goofy good vibe drunkenness—stupid humor, innocent in its way, the kind that feels like it could veer into wittiness or absurdity, often in the same night. The smile of a pretty girl from the county school rippled through the air, nearly missing him, but he caught it and, emboldened, shot it right back; she turned back to her friends, all of them aglow with the interchange, flirting vicariously and in support, the way packs of young women sometimes do. This is how we know we’re animals: these interchanges are immediate—no need for words. Pure instinct began its work of driving the two into proximity, pheromonally almost, despite the game of disinterest they each felt compelled to play. It seemed as if the only thing that might interfere with a hook-up was the whim of those with whom they’d ridden—a sudden decision by a designated driver to leave, that is—a plausible threat in situations like these.
Everyone was laughing, everyone thought he was funny. He could feel it, too, the way showing out at a drinking party could earn a weird sort of admiration, existent on a parallel plane, not understandable at all, but recognized and carried over into the following week, potentially to follow a person to his grave. The inherently romantic grave, to the young, for whom death is never final; it only becomes final in quaking middle age. True finality—you see it from a vantage point of years lived. But the Camachos of the world aren’t seeing death that way, they’re seeing it through a lens of whiskey buzz and longing. And dark enchantment—poets naked on the Brocken, doting on Dionysus, who will spare their heads. Working-class boys, fully-dressed in their best jeans, racing through Shawtown and Possum Trot—what god of the fields will spare their heads?
No need for head-sparing, though, at the house by the lake. All the partiers feel safe within the glow they share. No one wants to go home yet, not even designated drivers, of which there are very few, because immortal teens need not resort to such measures (though one sophomore girl will find herself the exception, and she’ll live the rest of her long days with a bitter ache). Everyone young gets a pass to feel invincible—the universe grants it, no matter if it’s backed up by reality. We feel lucky on the winding backroads, wrapping round cornfields still in their mown guise of fall, stubbled and faded yellow, pale like bone. The kids from the town go out and mingle with their counterparts in the county—the pretty girls who have been friends since kindergarten, playing basketball and being cheerleaders at the same satellite elementary schools. All the shared memories, and now, too, this night, the party by the lake, to be yet another shared memory. Oh, they’ll joke about not remembering things, because of the alcohol freely flowing, but enough will remain.
Crash! A card table’s legs buckled under the weight of drunken Billy Forsythe, whose daddy was a judge. It was natural that Billy’s nickname was Judge, given his father’s prominence, presiding over both juvenile and adult cases and known by all. Billy “Judge” Forsythe the Younger was affable sober, and downright hilarious drunk. As early as high school, he had the easy manner of one who’s experienced things—it didn’t matter that he really hadn’t.
Enter Camacho to help up his friend Billy.
“C’mon buddy, you alright?” said Camacho, laughingly.
“I’m right as rain,” said rosy-cheeked Billy, nearly laughing at his own comment. “A comment is a comment, even if it’s a cliché. We must remember that.”
“What?!” shouted Camacho, and all within earshot laughed outrageously. “Right as rain,” a phrase so antiquated that no one there got it, and they all thought it was the brown liquor talking, writing it off as a hilarious offshoot of the Judge’s quirkiness. They all loved him, no matter what he said or meant. One or two of them might hear that phrase down the road and remember they’d heard it somewhere, but not a one of them would link it to Billy “Judge” Forsythe.
Eventually, that near-imperceptible point came when a crowd knows to start thinning. People were leaving, but why? The party was so much fun. This felt so unfair to Camacho, who’d thought the party was truly just beginning—had believed it in his heart-of-hearts, whatever that meant. The house was a vessel emptying. A cozy, general mock-up of any house where a family might live its day-to-day, except this one was transfigured by merriment—wood paneling printed with country scenes, somehow charming: a whitetail deer jumping a barbwire fence. And now, though—and now, in the wake of merriment, the ache of its absence.
Fuck ‘em all. That classic counterfeit rage that a young person summons at will was returning. Camacho was coming full circle, as they say. He’d gone from drunk to sleepy to revived drunk and now just drunk-drunk and with a spot of anger, with sleepy soon to reappear. Guns ‘N’ Roses played somewhere in the house—the back half of Appetite for Destruction—“My Michelle,” maybe. Yeah definitely it was that. GNR was decades old, but that music endured, and if fit so right fading into the night. He finished the keg beer, squashed the plastic, tossed it into the trash beneath the kitchen sink, and walked out onto the back porch of the house. And guess who was there.
Those cool cousins stood in a jagged arc around the back porch, as if they’d been waiting for him. The oldest, who was closest in age to Camacho, held a plastic half-empty liter of something—again, a clear brown, but this one distinctively yellow in tint, which made Camacho think it was tequila. That cousin, Dewayne, extended his tattooed right arm to Camacho, passing him the bottle. How does he have so many tattoos at his age? Dewayne’s little brothers, a sophomore and a very worldly freshman, waited patiently for their swigs, not judging, not jostling like kids. They didn’t have tattoos yet because they were still too young, but there’s no doubt that when the time came, they’d embark on sleeves to rival their eldest brother’s. He’d seen them on the road somewhere outside Possum Trot, and now they were here at this party, or at what remained of this party, and suddenly the departing crowd seemed not to matter. It was eleven-ish, and he was supposed to be home by twelve, but this opportunity beset him. What opportunity? To hang with his own blood—his not-as-known-by-him-as-they-should-be cousins, the sons of a cousin of his mother—the branch of the family that called him Phillip.
“There’s a party at the levee,” said Dewayne, often pronounced Dee-wayne.
“Where’s that?” asked Camacho.
“Out past Tiptonville.”
“That’s not here,” slurred a shot-bemused Camacho. Dewayne laughed.
“You wanna go?”
Camacho was caught up in it, and it was all the sweeter due to their familial relation. It felt instantly extra close. He imagined this bond thick, despite a lack of shared experience. He’d leave behind the friends he’d come with—including Jennifer D.—and ride out to the party at the levee. All the while, with cypresses sliding by overhead, they’d pass a bottle, listening to Tupac. Camacho and Dewayne and Dewayne’s little brothers, whose names Camacho couldn’t keep straight. A car full of cousins—a Jeep Cherokee, to be exact, a dark cherry red, black in the night, windows half rolled-down to let out smoke. It was so dark by the lake—roadside structures hid in deep shadow. They rolled past Blue Bank Resort and the little park where a miniature train used to run; past Boyette’s restaurant and the long boardwalk that put you in communion with the root knobs dotting the shores, where you walked slowly, hoping to spy a beaver or water snake. At night, though, it was all subsumed by blackness, the line between liquid and solid erased, so that one could conceivably pass into the next realm just by wandering out to the furthest points of the boardwalk, lost forever.
Ain’t nothin’ but a gangsta party. Tupac half-singing, a little flat but somehow making it work.
They felt tough, possessed of a street cred none of them had, except for maybe Dewayne, who was known to always win fights. There was a stretch of two-lane blacktop bending in a long, wooded arc, all the way into Tiptonville. Camacho couldn’t come down here without sensing the nearby prison. He only had a vague idea where it was—he’d never been close enough even to see its razor-wire. But still, he had visions of convicts escaping, sprinting from shadow to shadow on the moonlit Tiptonville lawns. It was a time of night when he felt they may encounter an escapee, decked out in stolen jeans and a Levi’s shirt, trying to pass himself off as a hitchhiker, though surely no convict would be so bold as to stand by the road, what with patrols panting after him—half-person, half-bloodhound those cops would be, testing the air with their moist noses and deductive reasoning.
No wary strangers in the margins, though. In fact, not a soul was to be seen out-of-doors in Tiptonville at this hour, Saturday night or otherwise. Nothing at all was going on until they got to the little house at the further edge of town, beyond the city limits but still incorporated, if only loosely. Had it been daytime, the levee would’ve been visible, concealing the flat brown Mississippi. But dark as it was, nothing across the road from the wood-slatted house was visible but a few dozen yards of unsprouted field.
At the house was the opposite of nothing-going-on. Flood lights backlit a pair of silver maples in the front yard, one of them having sustained a lightning strike, half-dead or half-alive. Camacho peered up into its arthritic branches. There were swollen knots at the bends of the limbs—giant hag’s fingers, frozen mid-clutch. There were no leaves, so maybe the tree was fully dead after all. He couldn’t stare upward for long for fear of plowing into a car—automobiles in every space of the yard—not junkers in a makeshift scrapyard of the poverty-stricken, but functional, modern cars, clearly having been driven there that night—people coming to this party. There were voices and music, a faraway pulse of excitement leaking from inside. A few groups of smokers stood in whatever empty spaces they could find, laughing and gushing in the happy exaggeration of intoxication. Hard laughter, interspersed with “Awwwwws” and “No ways” and, occasionally, an “Are you fucking kidding me?”
They had found the real party—the possible rager till dawn. And when would the cops be there? Then Camacho saw a patrol car in the grass beside the unpaved driveway, where facets of gravel gleamed an infinite gray scale under the moon. The car was quiet and unoccupied. DeWayne saw Camacho processing this, and the other cousins were lighting cigarettes.
“Cops gotta party, too.’
“What else you think they’re doing in there? D’you seeing anyone trying to get away?”
“C’mon, it’s cool,” said Dewayne, patting his shoulder.
Camacho knew none of the people smoking outside, but Dewayne nodded at a couple of them. They were in a rural area adjacent his own rural area, but none of the faces were familiar.
There was no storm door, just a white wooden one with a diamond-shaped window about eye level. The door opened without having to turn the knob. Dewayne pushed inside, and before Camacho could get a clear look, he heard someone yell, “Dee-wayne!” The music and the crowd noise were nearly even, neither overpowering the other. The hip-hop beat that was only a hint outside was now clear and forevermore would be the soundtrack of the single-camera film in Camacho’s head, that’s how he’d think of it later. He walked in behind Dewayne and the packed living room spread before him like a wide-angle shot. A happiness hung in the air, a communal, extended release—the early part of a good party, before things start to go sloppy. It was almost midnight, and this party was just getting started, and Camacho, swaddled in a haze of his own, having already once gone sloppy himself and then rallied, was finding it easier and easier to ignore his curfew. He was with family, after all, and he counted on this to soften whatever consequence might come his way. And what’s more, a police officer was there. See, Mom? It was safe.
Right away, a girl was giving Camacho the eye. She was ordinarily pretty—wholesome—brown eyes, brown hair, feminine figure not too fully concealed beneath a loose shirt. She’d make a perfect girl-next-door fantasy. Maybe she looked familiar—the first to do so. Then he knew: she was a sophomore, or at least had been the past school year. She was one half of a pair of identical twins, and he saw her every day in the cafeteria and in the band house. She’d flirted with him before, or so he thought: it was so subtle he couldn’t tell whether it was flirtation or friendliness. It was a gentle flirtation—the kind that charms a heart but never breaks it. And he was mildly shocked to find her at this party—a party where he was one of the young ones. Yet she, a full two years younger, was here, too? He envied her freedom, but then maybe she was transgressing like him—abusing a privilege, maybe even using “time with family” as an excuse. Maybe it was easy for her, too, to pretend there wouldn’t be consequences.
Someone handed him a cup, a rim of foam sloshing inside, two-thirds full, rocking in his hand like a micro tempest—the color and stink of cheap beer, probably from a keg concealed in the bowels of the house, heavy and sweating on linoleum. It was a generous offering, and Camacho felt forces in the universe uniting behind his inebriation. This is a thing that happens—you can see its reflection in the bulbous, fluted plastic of cheap beer pitchers raised high in smalltown pool halls; it’ll have you swearing you’ve found your people.
“Swallow the night,” was the beer-giver’s response, himself clearly intoxicated, still in the happy phase of it. This beer-giver figure had to be in his late twenties—a grown-ass man in the eyes of an eighteen-year-old.
Camacho stood with his entourage. What was the policeman doing? He was talking and laughing—not visibly drinking, but approving the entire affair, nonetheless, by his mere presence. Only in Lake County, someone said, noticing Camacho was watching the cop. But probably not only in Lake County—it was probably in every backwater of every rural town: the all-out bender sanctioned by law enforcement, because everybody knows somebody who knows someone else, and we’re all friends here, right? Until we’re not.
“But does the night swallow?” shot back someone whom Camacho couldn’t see. The comment struck him, and he laughed hard, and those around began laughing, too. “Does the night swallow?” he shouted. And in it was absurdity and yearning.
the hands of a clock
raise arms in desperation
fighting against time
It was Saturday and I had made up my mind to waste the day. I never made plans for a weekend. I just let the day roll towards me by the hour, or let the hours pass by slowly.
I walked down the street, crossed Rue Lafayette, and saw my friend Loïc, from Brittany, from a distance. He sat in front of his antique shop, sedate, thick and comfortable, with a Gauloise in the corner of his mouth, and, already in the early morning, in front of him, a glass of red wine on a small round table.
He said that he had just dealt with some customers who, of course, had bought nothing, but only had complained about the bad times.
They were now standing sadly, like death birds, ‘les oiseaux du mort’, as he put it smugly with raised eyebrows, on the other side of the street, looking at the display in a bookshop. Following my gaze, he sighed, without losing the cigarette from the corner of his mouth: Ah, les français.
I let him reach into the paper bag I was holding and shared with him the small croissants I had just picked up from Boulangerie Dujardin, which were still warm.
His shop was full of rarities, such as old radios, boxes of old photographs, medals and decorations, old toys, which generate memories, porcelain dishes and figures.
“Can you take my place for a moment? I have to pick something up from the pharmacy,” Loïc asked.
Some Saturday morning idlers poked their heads into the door but decided to move on.
A while later, an old, bent over man with a black slouch hat entered the shop. I could barely see his face. His accent sounded German.
“I come back to this Meissen porcelain figure.”
He pointed to the shelf. There were about ten figures displayed.
To find out which one he meant, I said: “Why don’t you take the figurine in your hand, it will speak to you?”
He carefully took one, representing a shepherdess with a lamb, in his trembling hands and carefully put it back in slow motion.
I stepped closer to the shelf to see the price. On a small sticker, written in Loïc’s handwriting, it showed 250 euros.
He said: “It was mine; the figurine and I are the only of our family which are left. I got it on my Bar Mitzvah.
My questioning look made him continue.
“From one minute to the next we had to leave our flat. I was separated from my parents at the station Gare d’Austerlitz, where we were rounded up to be deported. My father had implored me to go into hiding. I escaped to Spain but never saw my parents again. Our flat was ransacked, all our possessions taken.
By chance, I was made aware of this antique shop by Mrs Belmonte, who owns a bookshop in Rue Liancourt.
I have been searching antique shops for years. But fate leads us to what we are looking for. It is often mysterious. Maybe the dead lead us.”
“But there may be several similar figures on the market. How can you be so sure it is yours?” I asked him.
“Turn the figure over.”
Two Hebrew letters in gold lettering were on the underside. Gold on white. Alef Beit. A B
“The initials of Aaron Blatt…That is my name. How much do I owe you?”
“The price tag says EUR 250.”
“You might expect that I will try to beat the price down. On the contrary, I would like to reward the owner. I will take that price as a basis, plus appreciation, handling, storage, interest…” He thought with his head down. “Let us say EUR 550?”
“That’s a lot of money.”
“Money is only printed paper and I like to spend it to repair suffering, to free myself from the past.”
Wrapping tissue lay on the counter and I carefully wrapped the figure. He took it, almost tenderly, put it in his old leather bag, left the banknotes on the counter, and with a slight limp left the shop and disappeared.
I saw Loïc on his return hobbling across the street.
“Ça va?” his sonorous bass voice resounded.
“I represented you well and I just sold a Meissen figure, the shepherdess.”
“For how much?? For the full price?”
“You are a genius. It has been sitting on the shelf for years, gathering dust. Who bought it?”
“A Mr. Blatt, and he added a good bit to it.” I told him the story.
“Oh yes, I think I remember him.”
“He said a Mrs. Belmonte had recommended your shop.”
“Ah, Mrs. Belmonte. She is a bit weird, creepy. Has an antiquarian bookshop near the catacombs. So, so, Mrs. Belmonte? Hmmm. Her nickname is Chaperon blanc. White riding hood. She is a witch, white magic, you know?
“She had settled in the 14th arrondissement as a mature woman in the 60’s with her father who died shortly after their arrival. From where she came nobody knows. She must be over 100. Strange.
“I will tell you what, I will close for the day and we will visit her antiquarian bookshop, you will be interested, you are a book lover, the antiquarian bookshop is unique. And a little creepiness whets the appetite. I’ll invite you to a bistro tonight.”
Loïc closed his shop and we drove with his old, likewise “antique,” Renault 4 in about ten minutes via Place de la Concorde, down Boulevard Raspail, past the Cimetière du Montparnasse to Rue Liancourt.
When we dove over Boulevard Raspail, Loïc said: “Do you know that we are driving over six million dead. Beneath us are the catacombs of Paris.”
The bookshop was in a street with a few small shops and bistros, one of which, oddly enough, was called Les Petites Sorcières. White facades, with wrought-iron balconies and wooden shutters, gave the street a Mediterranean flair.
From the outside, the bookshop was inconspicuous, rather unspectacular, with a plain shop sign over a heavy entrance door ‘Librairie Belmonte.’ When we opened the door, the pleasant, peculiar smell of books hit me. I loved this smell and absorbed it, hoped to internalize all the wisdom these books contained.
The first thing I noticed when we walked into the bookshop was that in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the books were arranged horizontally, lying flat, with the spines parallel to the shelf so that you avoid tilting your head, rather than lining books vertically, spines perpendicular to the shelves, as most people do. As I looked across a layer of bookshelves, I could see a neat arrangement of stacks of books, each about 10 to 12 books high. The second thing I noticed was smaller books placed vertically, nestled in between these stacks of large books as if to plug in the holes.
Loïc nudged me. I turned around. In front of me stood a small woman with snow-white hair and a face that belied her age. Her eyes were light, ethereal blue, which made them seem almost entirely white and eerie.
“What can I do for you?” she asked in a voice with a dark timbre.
“Mr Blatt, whom you directed to my shop, bought a porcelain figure today. Thank you. I wanted to show my friend Édouard your bookshop. He’s a book addict.”
“Mr Blatt? But he died six months ago. I attended his funeral.”
Loïc looked confused, puzzled, but said nothing. Mrs. Belmonte did not react. It seemed to have no meaning for her or did not surprise her.
I said “You have an impressive collection of books. Probably you are often confronted with the silly question: ‘Have you read all these books?’”
“Yes, I have. I only recommend books I have read.”
I looked around. Roughly 5,000 books. Maybe the same amount on the upper floor.
I calculated, generously estimating 6 days reading time for a book equals 60,000 days, divided by 365 days per year equals 164 years.
Although minimalistic, the shop seemed out of time, with a somehow wearying, overshadowed atmosphere I could not describe.
She looked at me penetratingly. “What are you interested in?”
“Poetry, philosophy, some contemporary writers. Walser, Dürrenmatt, Houellebecq, Handke.“
“Books contain secrets and mysteries, especially these old books, some are nearly 200 years old. This is where our secrets lie. All existed before. We are just moving in a loop. We think we have died but are only in another sphere and think it is still our reality.”
She pointed to the left.
“If you take one of these books at random, the book will reveal your past. Here,” and she pointed to the right, “a book will contain your wish which will never come true and here in the middle you will find your biggest regrets in your life.”
I hesitated. Who wants to discover what might have been missed and what one did wrong? It reminded me of a habit of my grandfather who closed his eyes, opened the bible, and pointed blindly on a piece of text, which would give him a sign, advice or hint for the day or in time of distress.
“You have an interesting theory of death”, I said, “I think death is the only calculable and reliable thing in life.”
“Have you ever visited the catacombs, this collection of death?”
I shook my head.
“Come with me,” she pointed with her head to the back of the shop.
“She will show you the ‘Chamber of Horrors,’” whispered Loïc.
We walked to the end of the bookshop, past all those tempting books.
She opened a door, ahead of us stairs that ran into a basement.
We descended many stairs, then walked along narrow dimly lit corridors, seemingly a network of old tunnels stretching under Paris, cavernous passages, until we reached an extraordinary sight, a part of the subterranean ossuary: bones and skulls, all stacked neatly, part of the remains of inhabitants from many graveyards from the past to find their final eternal rest in the former limestone mines, remains collected from improper burials, open graves, abandoned graveyards and unearthed corpses.
The words abyss came to my mind and the words: ‘..he descended into the realm of death…’
“Do you know the poem Memento by Mascha Kaléko?” she asked.
“Yes….” I said.
“I am not afraid of my own death,
Only of the death of those who have been close and dear to me.
How shall I ever live if they are no longer here with me?…” she recited.
She jumped swiftly up the stairs, turned around and for a moment it seemed to me that I was looking at the face of a young girl.
After I had felt my way back up through the semi-darkness, I stood in front of the shelves with the old books that had magically fascinated me. I stood in front of the middle shelf.
I randomly grabbed a book, a thick tome, that had attracted me, and bought it.
Mrs. Belmonte smiled sadly. “You have a lot of regrets.”
All the while I was aware of what would happen with Jakie later. He had been trailing behind Seema all across the house since she had worn that perfume. His insecurity returned and grasped him wholly as he followed us into the bedroom and saw the bags were packed up. He traveled across the room sniffing, inspecting corner to corner, as if it was a new territory to explore, and climbed up the bed. I said, “You are going mad for no reason.” He jumped off the bed and sat down at Seema’s feet.
Seema, cloaked in a newly bought overcoat, had been sitting next to me on the edge of the bed for fifteen minutes without uttering a word. Her hand was in mine; our hands were resting in my lap. Her handbag and a luggage bag were placed beside her left foot, propped against the bed, waiting to be lifted and carried out.
Two weeks ago, Seema had first shown her desire to go back to Banglore to spend time with her sisters and friends in a warmer place; it had started getting cold up here in Uttrakhand. But with a different pretext each time, I refused her. However, at supper last night, while discussing what should be done with Jakie if we go out again to earn a living, our light-hearted arguments turned into a typical marital feud, followed by a long, cold, sleepless night. So early this morning she took a hot shower, dried herself off, and sat at the dresser before I had even rolled out of bed. We had morning coffee together, looking out the window at the fog.
“It’s getting late!” Seema said, and stood up. Jakie imitated her, clutched her overcoat’s sleeve in his mouth, and pulled her back. She frowned and said, “He should understand.” I said, “He wants you to stay a little longer.” Looking at Jakie, Seema sat down again in frustration. Jakie, too, sat down on the floor, close to the luggage as if guarding it. While his head laid down on his left leg, his erect ears frequently changed directions to every little noise, his copper-brown eyes scrutinizing each sound that came from the walls.
“He’s a poor little dog.” I said, looking down at Jakie.
“We’ve got our lives too, don’t we? And we are meant to live them.” said Seema.
“He doesn’t like to be without us. Isn’t it sweet?”
“Well, it’s rather irritating.”
“But what? He’s seven, don’t you know?” she blurted out, “It’s been seven years. It seems sometimes he is an unnecessary burden to us, to our lives! Pardon me for saying that, but it’s true- we are caged in this house all the time with him, can’t you see?” Seema stopped, shaking her head ruefully. Lifting her hands in an agitated gesture, she looked around as though she was cursing the walls. “We never took a moment to teach him that he’s got life without us too. But yes, it is my fault as much as it is yours.”
I remained silent, partly because that was the way I always acted in her presence, and partly because she was right. We never trained him when we had the time to do so. It was all fun, all the time, we were busy playing with him and carrying him wherever we went. He was just a mere puppy. But now what a pity!
I grabbed Seema’s hand. “Even if we leave fifteen minutes later, I’ll make sure we get there on time.” I put my arm around her, feeling the tender touch on the back of her neck. She looked up at the clock on the wall, which seemed to pace faster than it should. “We must leave now,” she said removing my hand.
But I took her in my arms and let my head rest on her shoulder for a while. Her perfume was enthralling, like some old Malbec wine. Had she not worn the overcoat over the shirt, I’d have started undressing her right away. The overcoat and the shirt inside were not a big deal though (It was way easier than removing the skin-fitted jeans in a public bathroom in the middle of a cold night). But after looking at the clock ticking unfavorably, I changed my mind. Her reddened lips parted to say something, but before she could say it, I laid my lips on hers.
It was a long kiss. I couldn’t remember the last time we locked our lips like this. Later, I sucked my lips in desperation of not getting enough before. Her hands slipped away through mine, and the moment she pulled herself back, Jakie began to whimper. A low squeaking, capable of sending depressing chills to freeze you on the spot. No wonder why I spent days and nights laying beside him in the bed or even on the floor sometimes after Covid-19 broke out in April and snatched my job under the excuse of a total lockdown that had just ended a few days ago. But now it was over, and life started all over again- only if you believe it had started; strangely I couldn’t believe it this time.
“I am sorry,” Seema said, peeking into Jakie’s rheumy eyes. She patted his head, “Poor dog!” and got up and walked to the door. Jakie stood up too. After glaring at her face, looking for a sign, his ears now dropped low in submission. His tongue stuck out, lolling, and a few beads of saliva falling from his mouth made a row on the brown carpeted floor as he went closer to rub his head against her knee. One could see how anxious he had become just by looking at the handbag hanging from her shoulder.
I’ve learned from experience it was better to avoid Jakie’s silent pleadings while leaving him behind than to pat him and whisper good words. We went out; he followed us to the door anyway. After succeeding in pushing his stuck out head inside with my knee, I slammed the door shut and locked it. Through the glass that also reflected my worn-out face and scattered greying hairs of my early thirties, the poor dog saw me. I went out carrying the bag, bravely.
Once in the car, I turned to face our house. It was painted white and sea- green. When we had planned the house nine years ago, Seema fancied to make the windows on the ground floor higher, but I objected, changed the design myself, and kept the windows low. Through one of them, I could make out a dark brown figure now tilting his head as the half-dried leaves of the myrtle tree in our small garden were blocking his view. He started scratching the panel where it was already ruined by his claws.
I lowered my eyes, rubbing lightly on the leather of the steering wheel with my thumb.
“The more you wait, the more he cries,” warned Seema.
“Alright,” I agreed, though my ears found a hint of a canine shriek dwelling in
the thin morning air.
We drove off through streets submerged in the crispy greyness of a late November morning.
I changed the direction of the mirror, remembering how Seema had kept the same hairstyle for all these years. But now it was tied behind in a low bun, making her look a bit different. Even so, an urge to touch her, to feel her exposed neck, struck my mind. While shifting the gears, I intendedly brushed Seema’s hand with mine, and finally, she regarded me with a smile. I slid my hand into her lap and handled the steering with the other. I grabbed her hand; slowly, it warmed our joined hands. That time I wanted to say something to her, my chest was swelling up with the prolonged thought. But then she continued scrolling down the over-brightened screen of her mobile phone, not smiling anymore. Right then, the high pitched howl of the dog came to me from behind; it was heart-wrenching.
This morning, the road was quite busy. I have always been cautious, even when it was altogether unoccupied, but today I couldn’t keep my eyes forward and was looking out of the window to catch the glimpse of the stray dogs; fortunately, there were many. In this part of the city where we lived were a hell of stray dogs. From our house, whichever direction you turn into, you would spot them in the packs, growling and eating the wasted food humans have left for them.
As I turned left to the main road, I noticed a starving lapdog sitting by the footpath. My eyes were captivated by the way he was licking the maggot wounds on his hairy back. All of a sudden, as soon as I looked back to the road, I jerked Seema’s hand away to hold the steering steady with both of my hands and pulled the brakes. The wheels screeched, and the car stopped.
Ahead of me, about a meter away, was a puppy, walking briskly on his tiny, scared paws towards his mother, who was anxiously waiting for him at the footpath. It was a wide lane. Many small and large vehicles were crossing it. But nobody cared to slow down to give the little one the necessary space and safety. No one really cares if their actions make someone feel insecure for their life. On the contrary, some take pleasure in it.
This malnourished black pup reminded me of the day we took Jakie home seven years ago. An uncontrolled scooter had bumped into him, giving him bruises, fractures, and cuts all over his body. He was unable to stand upright, and laid there alone to die on the road. When we found him, he was fighting for his life, breathing rapidly as if someone was pumping the air into his baby lungs- or, more precisely, taking it away. I lifted the blood-soaked body with my bare hands and took him to a veterinary clinic nearby. There, he was put under medical observation for 72 hours, and later, at home, we fed him with the nutritious diet a dog needs. When he was able to walk again, we inquired about him around the same place where we found him injured. We came to know that his mother had died in a fatal car accident, and all of her pups died of ailments or starvation in the winter nights except the one we had in our hands. We decided to adopt him, as we always wanted a pet, and raise him like our own child; so we did.
Looking at this frightened puppy, seized by the ruthless traffic yet trying to reach his mother only if he could, I had an impulse to open the car door, to go out and carry him to his mother, to ultimate safety. But I turned left to look at my wife. Her face showed an unusual indifference, and the way she had been complaining about the time all along the way I was left with nothing to say but to start the car right away and move on, leaving the puppy on his own poor luck.
I parked the car with Jakie and the puppy stuck in the traffic lingering in my head, so it took more time than necessary. The tightened muscles around Seema’s eyes proved it. I was panting as if I had been running for a long time, and it was funny because I had just gotten out of the car. We walked in; my heart kept racing.
The railway station looked outlandishly grey, and way less noisy than it was the last time I visited. We were scanned at the opening. Then throughout the way, I heard a lady announcing arrivals and departures of the trains, along with how the rules of travelling after the pandemic had been changed. Her voice, though young and gentle, surged my blood with anticipation each time she mentioned a name of a city or a station. But five minutes into our plodding toward the platform, passing a few passengers eager to give you the way just by looking at your masked face, I didn’t really hear the young lady say anything about Bangalore. That made me smile in my thoughts. Many trains were cancelled without any prior notification, and I thought how jolly Jakie would be if Seema returned home with me.
But what was projected on the screens over our heads erased my smile. The train to Bangalore was shown amongst the delayed ones, not the cancelled ones. Seema and I looked at it angrily. We inquired about the train at the ticket window and the double-chinned man inside first yawned and then laughed, explaining satirically why they hung up those wide screens and how much stress he would have if people stopped having good eyes. We just moved on.
“Let’s go and wait there,” I suggested signifying the wide-open glass door of the not-so-clean-looking waiting room. Seema’s face showed an expression of unwillingness, but there was no other choice.
The waiting room was warm and cozy, with twenty rows of steel benches; their metallic edges reflected the light of the thin sunlight that came in through the huge windows.
Seema just sat down at a bench a little away, talking to her sister or a friend or someone on the phone, swearing about the delayed trains with the jerks of her hand. The cold hesitant flames rose from my gut when I thought of sitting by her. She was still my wife after all. Anyway, I sat there, and she cut the call. “She’s also mad at the trains,” Seema said to me.
“Yes, she must be,” I nodded.
Shifting toward her, I put my arm around her and asked her to put her head on my shoulder if she could. She did. This pleasant warmth of closeness between us had always been soothing for me, but this time I just shivered. I asked her, “Should we have coffee? I feel cold.”
On the right was a canteen. I waved, and a waiter came to us. A queer, multi-colored muffler was tightly wrapped around his gaunt neck. Looking at it caused a painful fluttering in my stomach. He seemed in a hurry when he came to us to take the order. He was breathing rapidly when he said, “My boss gave me this beautiful muffler.” and stopped to breathe again before he went away. I wished he’d take more time to deliver the order so that I can be with Seema for a little more.
Outside, a blue train came on the first track but passed the station swiftly with an aerodynamic sound that lasted a few seconds. The next train on the other track came slower and stopped with an irritating noise of the wheels which somehow matched with that of my whimpering dog’s, and the passengers began to rush in. I felt jittery, so I preferred to look at Seema.
That moment in my arm, her body looked stunningly alluring. Her breast was firmly pressed against the thick cloth. I began to rub her shoulder, feeling her creamy skin through the layer of her overcoat. I was dying to tell her something, whisper some words to her, but then the waiter came with our coffees. We picked up the cups and, unlike my wife, I sipped slowly looking out of the window at the fog and tracks that had emptied again. The cup was warm and pleasant to hold.
“He must be whining madly by now, you know?” I said to Seema, just to break the silence.
“Well, I know. You think I don’t?” Seema snapped, pouring out her frustration at the delayed trains and other things on me.
“Of course you do! I didn’t mean that” I tried to explain.
“You said it as if I do not care.”
“You do care darling. With all my heart I know.”
“Don’t talk like this, at least not when I am going.”
“Okay. But, I didn’t mean what you are thinking. I mean – oh, I just don’t know what I meant – It’s just that you are going, I guess, I am losing my mind.” I shook my head.
“It’s simple! Just don’t think too much.” Putting down the empty cup on the table, she studied herself in the window-glass, rubbing her lips together. Looking at the pout of her lower lip, I fantasized about kissing her. But the very next thought that came to my mind forced me to reconsider my desires. I saw myself in the glass; I seemed sleepy and old. Rubbing my eyes with my index finger and thumb, I said, “It’s not easy to stop thinking,” as though complaining about something I don’t know.
“That’s the real problem. It’s crippling you. Good for Jakie too, if he learns to keep calm when left alone.”
“He’s too old to learn anything new.” Saying this, the image of his greying muzzle floated in front of me. The last time we took him to the vet for the regular check-up and vaccination, the thin, calm man said to me, “It’s too early for a dog to go grey. Aren’t you feeding him as suggested? Eggs? Sweet potatoes? Few drops of salmon oil in the food?” The doctor made a perplexed face, rubbed his stubble, and continued, “This dog of yours is suffering, I don’t know what”. Only later when I googled about dogs going grey in their early ages did I find out what the doctor couldn’t tell us, and what Jakie was really suffering from – the separation anxiety!
“As now I am going, you and the dog have plenty of time to learn anything, new or old,” said Seema, glaring down at her wrist. It was rude. So, like any other time, to not worsen an already dismal situation, I said nothing. I just swallowed down my thoughts and closed my eyes to forget them; most of the time it worked. Then she wanted us to go out. She said it was already too much waiting, and the coffee made it even worse. I stood up and lifted the bag.
Passing through a lighted passage with slightly dirty tiles under our creaking shoes, we took an overpass. The tracks below us went in both directions as far as my eyes could see and all of them were empty, but I could hear the train whistle coming over from the west. While descending the steps on the other side, I heard the lady mentioning ‘Bangalore’ twice or perhaps thrice. Few people walking wearily next to us just broke away from their yawning and made a quick leap towards platform number 7 when the lady finished saying the train to Bangalore had just arrived and will be departing at 9:40- 5 minutes from then.
People almost ran. Seema was jumpy. Contrary to her, it turned my legs into pillars of cold steel. She wanted me to walk at least as fast as others. But without a thought, I grabbed her arm and drew her back to me. Staring deeper into her widened eyes as if searching, the words came out of my mouth, “He’s gonna miss you a lot.” That’s all I could manage to say. Raising her brows, she said, “You’ll take care of him.” Noticing that her lips had dried up, I craved to moisten them with mine. “I’ll miss him too,” she said and walked away. I stared at her moving shoulder, the bun, and the overcoat, all disappearing in the wave of the crowd.
With a heavy bag in my hand, I jostled my way through. My eyes tried to catch a glimpse of her. Soon I found myself panting. The screeching noise of hundreds of shoes agitated my ears. No longer did I want to listen to the soft voice of the lady making announcements. I heard the exasperated sound coming out from my nostrils while struggling with the broad-shouldered, taller people. The smell of my own sweat was suffocating. Finally, I was spewed out by the crowd onto the floor. With my palms on the ground, I was breathing almost like a dog. There at the edge of the platform, I found Seema. I made my final tread toward her. The bag in my hand was getting heavier and heavier with every step further.
“I thought I had to leave without the bag!” she said jokingly. I went inside the car after her and found that it was half-empty. With the altered regulations, passengers had to sit leaving one seat between them vacant. So, they marked those seats with a red cross. I felt bad looking at this bloody, obscene sign. The train gave a loud signal of departure.
“I must go,” I said.
“I’ll call you when I am in Bangalore. I don’t know when. It’s already too late,” she replied. I exhaled from the bottom of my heavy heart. She was finally going and was happy. I gave her a goodbye kiss on her cheek.
As I stepped out of the train, it began to move. For a moment I thought I was drifting backwards with the platform, but I realized that was a lie as soon as I looked away from the train at the faint sun above. Seema came to the side to wave at me, smiling ear to ear. I waved back but failed to return the smile. It was strange. All along the way, from the moment we left home while driving leisurely and struggling with the crowd, at last, I waited for something really painful to occur right in the center of my chest, at least at this very moment when the train would leave, but to my shock, nothing really happened. Even before she was out of my sight I turned and began to walk out of the station.
The glow of the sun on the brown tiles of the platform and my skin was soothing to my eyes as it was deliberately sweeping out all sorts of coldness. I stopped to see through the panel of the waiting room. It was full of passengers, strolling here and there, worried about their baggage. At the other door, a crabby old man was sweeping the floor each time someone stepped onto it with dirty shoes. On the right, a mother was trying to breastfeed her crying child. There was a man at the same bench where I had been sitting. He had held his head in between his palms. My eyes were glued to what was going on in the waiting room. Hard to believe we were there a few minutes ago. As if it was all a dream and now I was woken up by a hard push or a blinding light or a deafening sound like a train siren.
A stout man went past me, shoving my shoulder. I stumbled, almost fell to the ground. Getting upright, I walked on, my eyes on the floor until I was out of the mechanical door. I was desperate to go out, far, far away from all the stone-faced people and the hubbub of the station.
On my way back I bought a pack of cigarettes. An unusual craving for something serious had been boiling up in my stomach ever since I left the station, not to mention it had been several months since I smoked anything.
I drove smoking and staring at the stretched ahead road I had driven many times in my life, knowing it was the same road with the same hoardings, and the buildings on both the sides and the empty parks and the shops. Knowing that only Seema and Jakie were not with me, I felt the emptiness coming back to me. I smoked and saw the fog slowly lifting. One could make out the upper windows of the tall buildings and clearly read the signposts on every turn, which were helpful if you were new in the city. The sun parting through the leaves of trees that grew on the sides was much clearer now.
I slowed down where I saw the puppy in the morning. My eyes examined the road and the footpath and beyond, but found nothing. My heart was relieved when I saw no signs of a casualty. Hoping that the pup must be happy somewhere playing with its own shadow, I just moved on.
I knew Jakie would turn up in the window any moment hearing the noise of the car engine while I parked it – I was accustomed to this behaviour of him – but he didn’t, which was beyond my belief. I unlocked the door and walked into the house, and my eyes started looking for Jakie on instinct, but he was nowhere to be seen. What they found instead was damn disturbing.
All the things that were once kept safe: the diary mentioning household expenditure, the pay-bills of water and electricity, the receipts of car loan instalments, the newspaper cuttings of advertisements of properties, the resume that I prospected to mail to the IT companies probably by the end of this month or next –I hadn’t decided upon it– and the other important papers such as the medical report from a gastrologist who had rather frankly asked me if I was getting enough sleep or not. Next to these were cushions, table cloth, dog food, the hiking shoes we bought for a future adventure, and the gifted woolen gloves Seema had intentionally left behind on the couch as it was warm where she was going to. All these things were either torn apart or chewed up in frustration and scattered about the floor as though the remnants left after a flood had dismantled a once-tidy house.
I had to rearrange it, now or later. I chose later. First I wanted to see where Jakie was and if he was alright. I found him sitting in a corner beside the couch, trying to make himself so compact that he’d not be seen. Almost hidden, he looked as though a different dog. To my shock, he didn’t even get up to greet me nor did his tail show any movements except his eyes, which followed my feet as I proceeded toward him, looking at what he had done to the house.
I put my hand on his head. He shuddered away, as if unknown to my touch. For a moment, anger aroused in me, but I suppressed it. Sitting on the couch and staring at the chaos was a much better idea, I thought. Looking pitifully at Jakie, who in his curled-up position seemed sick, I puffed the cigarette smoke. Then I got up, sauntered across the house, and looked at my reflection in the mirror over the sink while washing my hands and face and thought of having a coffee while watching the TV. It was a stupid idea, I realized. My eyes fell upon the only photograph of my mother hanging on the wall above the couch. The dust made it look old and unclear. Then, I resolved to have a good sleep.
Standing in the doorway, I looked at the quietness of the room; at the slow movement of the clock; at the light pink stillness of the bedsheet and then finally outside the window at the dying myrtle tree. I sat down on the bed heavily. The surface felt warm, as the sun had been there all the time I was out of the house, but I knew how cold it was below that. I caressed the bedsheet and I closed my eyes. That’s how the process of forgetting takes off.
Jakie came into the room himself, walking limply, considering my face for a moment as if I was an intruder. His questioning eyes were somehow penetrating mine. Then he rubbed his left ear on my knee as if he finally recognized me. “Oh, poor Jakie!” I patted him and let go of myself; my torso fell onto the bed.
Jakie came up on the bed, sniffed my nose and mouth, and sat down, carefully placing his muzzle on my chest. I let my fingers run through the fur below his ears, where he liked it the most. He moved closer, cuddling. The warmth came between us. I shut my eyes tight, then opened them and stared at the white ceiling and the fan until it all blurred and hot fluid came down my cheeks. “It’s fucking too much,” I said, “We have to get out of this, Jakie. It’s fucking too much.”