When I first started working in China, my students laughed at my name. A day or two later, as I talked with my manager, I was told that my name had been a bit of a problem in the hiring process. “Our last teacher was called David,” he told me. “The Chinese didn’t want us to hire another one.”

I thought this more than a little strange. If my name had been “David Hitler” or “Kim Jong-David”, then it might have been a little more understandable… But even so, I couldn’t imagine why my name – surely one of the least imaginative a parent could bestow upon a child – had been jinxed by whoever came before me.

Then the stories came out, albeit slowly. My co-workers – a friendly and talkative bunch with whom I can discuss just about anything – were very reluctant to acknowledge the existence of “Crazy David”, as he was known.

I learned a few things about him that began to explain why he was so intensely disliked:

Du Point G

By Greg Olear

Travel

A week from today, I’m traveling to France to support the release of the French-language edition of Totally Killer (or, as it’s called en françaisTotally Killer).

In Paris, in addition to the usual dinners with booksellers and bookstore appearances, I’m being interviewed for France 24’s TV program « Le journal de la Culture », Radio RFI’s show « Littérature sans frontières », and Radio France Culture’s show « A plus d’un titre », where the other guest will be acclaimed French screenwriter and novelist Odile Barksi.

Then it’s off to Lyon, to the Quais du Polar Festival International (polar is how the French say noir, noir being, to them, plain old black), where I’ll sit on two panels with the likes of Sylvie Granotier, Marc Villard, Peter Robinson, Arne Dahl, Dominique Sylvain, and my fellow American Megan Abbott.  Oh, and I almost forgot: another TV interview, for Lyon 1ère.

All this, despite the fact that a) my Q rating can be roughly calculated by subtracting Barack Obama’s Q rating from Kim Kardashian’s Q rating, and b) my French, despite nine years of classes in junior school, high school, and college, can charitably be described as un peu. (There will be a lot of ça va-ing and pissing into violins).

I’m going into detail here not to brag (although it is pretty fucking cool, no?), or to hawk the livre (same imprint and same translator as Tom Robbins; yours for the low, low price of €22,90), but rather to explain how I came to visit Amazon.fr, and how this visit confirmed something I’ve long suspected—namely, that France is way cool. (Or, as they say in French, cool).

* * *

Totally Killer is one of those novels that straddle genres. In the U.S., it was decided to shelve the book in the Mystery section of Barnes & Noble, although the book is not a mystery, in the Agatha Christie sense of the word. Gallmeister, my French publisher, is marketing it as a noir thriller—a distinction bookstores make in France that they don’t tend to here.

For the French release, I was hoping for one of those classic noir covers featuring a pair of shapely gams. The main character in Totally Killer, after all, is a sexpot assassin, the 23-year-old Midwestern love child of Lady Brett Ashley and La Femme Nikita; why not stick her, or some close approximation, on the jacket in a short denim miniskirt?

Instead, Gallmeister went with that other noir staple, the gun. And when I say they went with it, they really went with it. The cover shows a handgun pointed directly at you. It’s kind of jarring, until you realize, as my wife pointed out, that it sort of looks like a parking meter. The cover is arresting, yes, but I was really jonesing for something sexier…until my visit to Amazon.fr, when it became clear that my publishers are all genius.

* * *

I visited the site (as we authors tend to obsessively do, Skinnerian rats that we are) to check my sales ranking. On release day, the book checked in at a healthy 5.089 (which is how they write 5,089 in French; the comma/period switcheroo is one of those cute Continental things they do, like put a slash through the 7 and eat snails). For a guy who never hit four digits on this side of the Amazonian pond, not too shabby.

Next to my own ranking, I was given the option to Voir les 100 premiers en Livres. So I voired. The number one book in France was a 30-page political pamphlet called Indignez-Vous!, by the former French resistance fighter and longtime advocate for human rights and peace, Stéphane Hessel. (The number one Amazon book in the U.S. that day? That would be Harry Potter: A Pop-Up Book: Based on the Film Phenomenon. This is why the terrorists hate us.)

Scrolling down the list of French bestsellers, I noticed a slender volume at No. 25 entitled Qui a peur du point G ? : Le plaisir féminin, une angoisse masculine. On the cover is an erotic yet tasteful black-and-white photograph of a naked woman, her pudenda partially obscured by the sort of shapely gams I wanted on my own jacket. Customers who bought that—and there were plenty—also purchased, the site informed me, a little tome entitled Le secret des femmes. Voyage au coeur du plaisir et de la jouissance. The naked woman in the erotic yet tasteful black-and-white photograph on the cover of that book has nothing obscuring her pudenda—and an impressive tuft of dark pubic hair.

As I browsed through the books, I realized why Gallmeister went with the violence over the sex. Unlike here, where we conceal our bodies but proudly flaunt our firearms, in France, every third book has a naked chick on the cover. So Totally Killer totally stands out!

Upon closer inspection, I noticed something else: Qui a peur du point G ? : Le plaisir féminin, une angoisse masculine is loosely translated (by me, and therefore possibly wrong) thus: Where is the G-spot? The woman’s pleasure, the man’s anxiety. Again, this book, by an OB-GYN named Odile Buisson, was ranked No. 25 overall on French Amazon, and it appears to be a guidebook for men on how to propel their women to more profound and satisfying orgasms!

Needless to say, this is not the stuff of a U.S. best-seller. If American males are moved to read a book at all—and they’re generally not, marketing studies have found; they’d rather watch golf, NASCAR, or Fox News on a 52-inch plasma TV—the cover photograph would not involve a sexy, nude female body, but rather a bloated, pink male head, usually one belonging to a Tea Party zealot who insists Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim.

Furthermore, the very notion that American men need some sort of sexual GPS system to satisfy their lovers is, ahem, un-American! (It reminds me of an old joke:  French guy, Italian guy, American guy having breakfast. French guy says, “Last night, I made love to my wife five times, and in the morning, she said I was the best lover on earth.” Italian guy says, “I made love to my wife nine times, and in the morning, she said there was no lover like me in all the land.” They ask the American guy how made times he made love to his wife last night. “Once,” says the American. They ask what she said in the morning. “Don’t stop,” says the American.)

The inconvenient truth is, we live in a country whose residents tend to scoff at the French because they’re too busy making love and drinking fine wine to focus on important things, like warfare and Charlie Sheen. But France has a lot to teach us. To wit: There’s nothing shameful about naked bodies. Labor unions are good. Everyone should take off the entire month of August. Oh, and I almost forgot: a travers son témoignage, le docteur Odile Buisson révèle ainsi certains mystères du point G, la fabuleuse anatomie du clitoris ou encore l’incroyable complexité de l’orgasme.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

I have many fine and important American friends. But I have two that I will call on in the end, who I’m fairly hopeful will survive me, to help me achieve my final request. I want my ashes spread on Mono Lake.

Why? Because I was born in California and I want to return there.

Because the Pacific Ocean is an ocean, and I’ve spent too much time abroad.

Because Mono Lake is the most beautiful, haunted place I know.

I’ve always felt that once over the mountains and into the high desert air, I was free of the city, free of the past. Although I spent a lot of time in the Sierras growing up, this was my domain. No family memory shrouded it.

There’s a smell in the air here, and a shimmer not merely of light, but of being, that defies all description. I’ve been in the Sahara and in the Gobi, and this is more intense to me.

The lake itself, with its towers of tufa and the volcanic craters around conjures visions of other planets. But to turn west is the thing.

This is the vision that broke the hearts and minds of many. If you know where to look for Tioga Pass, you may, just may, pick it out. But if you’d never scaled those heights and were already weary in soul, the sight of the Sierra spine rising in full monolithic monstrosity would do you.

Many of the Lahontan era natives, down to the Paiutes and tribal conservators of Yosemite never crossed these mountains. They stayed either side.

Mono Lake was known amongst the Native Americans of the Great Basin as a place of salt and resting seabirds. They intuited an ocean from the nature of the birds-even though they never saw it. A magnificent deduction.

It was and is also a place of flies-and one of the nicknames for the local tribe was “The Fly Eaters,” for their practice of using the salt from the water to dry meat.

Mono Lake is today in a state of severe environmental crisis. It could go the way of the Caspian Sea and other once vital bodies of water.

But just look how glorious she is. A place of mystery and hardship. A place where people died hoping. A place where some, like the rawhide and trail dust Kit Carson said, “We can do this.”

Kit Carson, for all his toughness was a very small man. How did he get over those big mountains? He wisely listened to Indians from the other side. People who were just as surprised as he was to turn back and look west.

To look east from Mono Lake is to view a lost world. To look west is to see what many thought they saw. When I’m done, burn my heart and spread it like salt in the wind across the water, and then I’ll be home.

When Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel, he was unconscious of the then undeveloped capabilities and uses of the word “Reform.”

-Roscoe Conkling (1829-1888), machine Republican in the Garfield-Arthur Era, one of the most prominent proponents and beneficiaries of the “spoils system,” or pork barreling, whereby successful political candidates reward cronies and associates with positions, contracts and a chance to “put their snout in the trough of public spending.” A sworn enemy of the Progressive Movement.

In Mexico City, something’s clotting in the streets—clotting with banners and drums and megaphones, people ripping the clothes from their own bodies, waving them overhead like pirate flags. This is angry unrest, scabs picked, coming to a boil, salt added, running over onto the sidewalks. We have caught up to the protest and it has gained in momentum. Hundreds of thousands are marching, the parade backed up for over a mile. Blood seems likely to spill.

The bedsheet banners, splattered with red and black paint letters and stenciled guns blotted with Xs tell part of the story. Peligroso! Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización! I lean toward Louisa, speak into her ear so she can hear me over the melee.

“Defend public education! No to militarization!” I translate.

She raises her eyebrows. This seems like something we can agree with.

While we were in Chicago, taking care of my sick mother, much happened in the Mexican educational system. The government, passed into law an edict demanding 10.6% of the teachers’ pension fund, raised from 3.5%. President Felipe Calderon apparently sealed this deal with Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), the National Education Workers Union, promising to use that money to increase retirement benefits and repair a broken health care system. Instead, the protesters allege the money went to pay off Mexico’s debts to the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund. In fact, according to a July 19, 2007 article in The Economist, Gordillo may have used some of these funds (perhaps as much as $70 million) for personal reasons, like, say, satisfying her desire for a $5 million mansion in San Diego, California.

Later, after we have safely returned to the Hotel Rioja for our very, very tardy checkout, which concierge Juan Pérez in his infinite graciousness will forgive, he will fill us in on these sociopolitical details, declaring how this pension fiasco is merely the newest offense perpetuated by the government against teachers. He will nod solemnly, almost spitting when uttering Gordillo’s name, clasping his hands in flat prayer when discussing his sister’s involvement in such protests. Luckily she has yet to be injured, or killed.

“Mi hermana es una maestra,” he will say. His sister is a teacher, so she knows, he knows…

When we will tell him we are headed to Oaxaca, he confirms some of what we already know. That the educational protesting and striking situation was much worse there—more violent. The “No to militarization!” portion of the bedsheets refer the fact that police officials in Oaxaca City opened fire on what began as non-violent protests of the local teachers’ union. Certain reports indicate that the police were also instructed (allegedly by Oaxaca’s governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz) to open fire on paramedics who attempted to remove or administer treatment to wounded protesters.

What began as a plea for a raise in funding for the rural schools of Oaxaca, and, as Juan Pérez speculates, a voice of dissent against the seeds of Mexico’s Alliance for Educational Quality (somewhat akin to the controversial U.S. No Child Left Behind Act, about which Gordillo, via a PR flunky, philosophized, “Education is an opportunity, not a right…”), became, after the police intervention, a demand for the ousting of Governor Ortiz.

Here, Juan Pérez will cough into his hand as if catching some terrible regret like a dove in his palm. Or terrible confusion. He will proceed to tell us of the escalation. How the dissent became blanket. How, after Ortiz laughed off the call for his resignation, various members of Oaxaca’s small towns and unions, families and small businesses coalesced and called themselves Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca. Juan Pérez will flash his fat fingers into the air twice—first all ten digits, then seven. This is his representation of June 17th, 2006, his thumbs sizzling in the polluted air like breakfast sausages simmered in smog. On this date, three days after the police intervention, the APPO set up camp in Oaxaca City’s Zócalo—fathers, mothers, children, grandsons, granddaughters, pubescent nephews, drunken uncles, estranged nieces, spinster aunts, the horrible lines for the public bathrooms, the little spoiling food and no sleep, the wrapping of howling babies in thin yellow blankets, the dust, the megaphones pounding, the closed stores—and called themselves the new government of Oaxaca. Civil revolution ensued, much of the city choked with barricades, some erected by the APPO, some by the police. Word got out, and other states and cities in Mexico began to express their empathy in protests such as this one in Mexico City. For the people here, this is not after-the-fact. The facts, as to the residents of everywhere, always continue, evolve, devolve. Here, history is present, and the present.

On July 2nd, Ruiz Ortiz’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional party was voted out of power for the first time in Oaxaca in over 70 years. In morbid celebration, the APPO prevented certain festivals from taking place, barring entrance to buildings with heaps of garbage and upended flaming buses. Graffiti declared intolerance for tourists, demanding they return home, packing their ugly capitalism into their already bloated suitcases. The souvenir as Molotov cocktail…

Fleeing Oaxaca, Ruiz Ortiz hid-out in Mexico City for a handful of months before fleeing once again. Though the battles with the state police continued, the APPO declared themselves in control and began to make new laws, commanding radio and television stations, which anti-APPO outfits, along with police in civilian clothes, would blitz deep into the night, spilling blood, smashing broadcast machinery. The casualties escalated, included Brad Will, a visiting journalist from New York, and Emilio Alonso Fabián a professor from Los Loxicha, gut-shot twice by plainclothes policemen.

The Mexican government claims that each was killed by the protestors and not the police, in spite of Will’s recovered photographs, taken moments before his death, depicting the protestors armed merely with rocks against the policemen’s guns. Later, Will’s recovered video footage, according to local news, revealed his killer—Pedro Carmona, member of Ortiz’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional party, mayor of the Oaxacan town Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and newly-crowned soldier in this urban paramilitary.

Boys and girls lay in the streets nursing broken arms, leaking skulls, bullet wounds in their thighs. Old Zapotec women prayed upward, blood pools browning on the stones where they once spread their blankets, sold their weavings to the occasional tourist, before being trampled. It took Will’s death for President Vincente Fox Quesada (who turned over the office to Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa on December 1st of that year) to dispatch the Federal Police to Oaxaca. Nearly 10,000 Federalies and military police forcibly dragged protesters from the Zócalo, backed-up by additional army troops. The still-functional APPO radio stations warned of the raids. As a result, helicopters clogged the sky over Oaxaca City, dropping tear gas grenades. Reports of military police kidnappings ensued. Rumors of body-snatching and cover-up cremations crackled over the pirated airwaves, inflaming the protests. The Catholic Church of Mexico came out in support of the Federal Police. Protestors, academics, and students took refuge Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, an “autonomous” university that barred police entry. Though the police surrounded the University, they were, in turn, surrounded by a larger group of protestors (who were alerted to the location via APPO broadcasts over the University radio station), and forced, if only for the moment, to retreat.

Here, in Mexico City, numerous bombings ensued, one of which destroyed the amphitheater that served as Partido Revolucionario Institucional headquarters, others blowing up portions of banks and restaurants. On my birthday, November 25, 2006, while Louisa and I listened through the bathroom door to my mother vomiting nothing but tapwater, a Saturday (my father still working, their three large dogs dozing in the sun, waning earlier and earlier…), a renewed attempt at a peaceful protest in Oaxaca’s Zócalo was thwarted when the police unleashed a sprinkler of tear gas, rubber bullets, water-cannons, and bulldozers, tear-gassing, rubber-bulleting, water-cannoning, bulldozing people. Protestors answered with rocks, bottles, water balloons, and pipe bombs. Cars and trucks were toppled and set ablaze, buildings were attacked and set on fire, frenzied crowds looted businesses and hotels. On this day, my birthday—my mother sick in the bathroom, Louisa and I rubbing each others necks at the kitchen table, my father stuck in rush hour traffic listening to sports radio, the sleeping dogs, my pregnant sister— the Federal Police succeeded in subduing the APPO, making arrests, forcing numerous leaders into hiding, castrating the Sagittarius, stapling the gargantuan sack to the city gates in governmental warning. The University radio station was once again returned the headmaster, and the conflict, for better or for worse, was once again shoved beneath the surface of everyday life, for the moment contained in its churning. The problem lidded. Unsolved.

Juan Pérez will shrug his shoulders, as Louisa and I flank him in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. He will say something I don’t quite understand about plight. But for now, watching this Mexico City protest escalate, our stomachs digesting the pumpkin flowers of breakfast, we don’t know all of this, haven’t yet spoken about it with Juan Pérez; we merely recall some vague news report about the Oaxacan unrest, stirring worry about our travels in my exhausted mother, ignorant beyond what we can read on bedsheets. “Defend public education! No to militarization!”

Up the street, a great cracking sound. The earth opening up, or a car being tipped over.

“Should we join them?” Louisa asks, “I mean, you’re a teacher…”

I love my wife. I look at my shoes. They are filthy, broken-laced, perfect for marching. As if empathy can reside in simple career choice and dress. Louisa is wearing her blue Israeli clogs. I meditate a few moments on her footwear—how clog-fighting was a traditional method for settling disputes in Europe, drawing such a mass of onlookers, that bets were laid; how they served as foot armor in mines and mills; how, in 18th century France, poor factory workers would protest corporate mistreatment by throwing their protective work gear—especially their clogs (sabot, in French)—into the assembly line engines, damaging the equipment and, via this protest, inventing the word sabotage. Inadvertently, she is well prepared for this. Inadvertently, we are ignorant fucking tourists. Idiots filled with food who, via footwear analysis and the intoxication of overseas, think they can empathize with some real kind of plight. Who the fuck do we think we are?

The thing is: we don’t. We don’t think we are. We don’t think we are anything. We are all dumb impulse and young traveling lover. We join arms. If we had talked to Juan Pérez in that doorway before this, learned of the nature of things, we probably would not have done this. But, you know, we may have anyway. Sometimes dumb impulse, especially when traveling, is a conscious choice. The sky is a drowning blue. The river of protestors continues. We lift our feet, hold, as if on the edge of a high-dive board, our breaths. We look for a way in, and leap. We splash into the center of elbows and noise, wild shards of banner, bare-chests, laser light, bottle, balloon, fists, spit, and the static of mad human chorus. We sink into this pool of cause, try to swallow any reservations about effect, however chlorinated, however Peligroso!

“Do you want to meet the Taliban?” the Afghan lad who ran the dingy chaikhana, teahouse, on the edge of Kabul’s chaotic Grand Bazaar asked me.

“Not really!” I replied thinking young Ali was joking.

“But if you want you can, one man I know is Taliban, if you like I can ask him to see you, it’s interesting for you, yes?”

A few days later Ali called me, “Mr Ian, my friend the Talib will come to my shop today, can you come here?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Before I left the guesthouse I was staying in I told someone where I was going and that I was about to meet a member of one of the world’s most infamous organizations, in case I didn’t return.

Before leaving home the New Zealand government’s travel advisory website had warned against setting foot anywhere near the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; EXTREME RISK, SUICIDE CAR BOMBINGS, KIDNAPPING OF FOREIGNERS, BANDITRY, LANDMINES, these were just a few of the treats in store for anyone fool enough to ignore the advice. But at the same time the Lonely Planet guide talked of places in Kabul where one could dine on fresh seafood flown in from Dubai, French restaurants with swimming pools and jazz evenings, the marvels of Bamiyan and the ruins of ancient Alexander’s Balkh.

Afghanistan had captured me in my teens, in the days when mujahadeen fighters trundled about the country in tractors as they took on the Soviet war machine and the conflict was staple news fodder. I’d had visions of fast stepping horses in the deserts, of turbaned men in flowing robes with sword and musket defending their parched lands and the honour of their veiled women, of stone Buddhas in a Muslim land, of camels, silk roads and caravanserais. I’d always wanted to come here but heart breaking civil war had made it impossible. Post September 11 Afghanistan was once more on the nightly news and as I watched I wondered what it was really like there, again I wanted to see for myself how it felt to walk on the streets of Kabul.

Arrival in mid-summer Kabul was an aggravated assault on the senses; omnipresent flies and all-pervading dust, heat to knock you off your feet, beggars, burqas, bellowing donkeys, sandbagged cafes, check-points and Kalashnikovs, flocks of urban sheep in the streets grazing on piles of garbage, helicopter gun ships hovered over the city in constant menace, psychopathic traffic. All this set against the backdrop of a culture 5000 years in the making, deep traditions of hospitality, salams, welcomes, handshakes and friendship, endless invitations to share tea from everyone I encountered.

English was widely spoken in Kabul, dozens of guesthouses waited for residents, restaurants with succulent meals of mutton and rice with raisins had empty tables, artisans and craftsmen with shops bursting with carpets, curios and antiques. Everyone sat idle wishing Afghanistan would return to its glory days on the overland hippy trail of the 60s and 70s when it rivalled Kathmandu as the place to go. But nightly news stories of wars on terror made almost everyone too afraid to come.

Back in Ali’s chaikhana the usual old men sat sharing their pots of tea. Ali greeted me and led me out the back of the shop through a concrete yard, past the reeking toilet pit and down a narrow passage way, ‘Should I be doing this?’ But before I could answer my own question Ali opened a door and ushered me inside.

“This is my friend.” Ali introduced me to a dark skinned middle aged man who sat on the floor with a boy of about five or six in his lap, though his name was never mentioned. The Talib stood up and greeted me with the salams, smiles, handshakes I would have received from any other hospitable Afghan while Ali disappeared to return a few minutes later with a pot of tea and a bowl of pistachios. The man wore the usual Afghan anytime pyjamas, shalwar kameez, his beard was neatly trimmed and there was no black turban.

“E bacha-e shoma ast?” I asked, is this your son?

“Ne, famel-e man dar Kandahar.” No, my family is from Kandahar, he told me. The fact that he was from the notorious southern city somewhat confirmed his credentials. His mobile phone rang and from the conversation I could guess he was talking to someone about moving something to somewhere.

“He has a shop.” Ali told me. I guessed that meant he was a smuggler.

“I worked at the airport as a security officer,” the Talib told me through Ali’s translation, “I can’t read so it wasn’t easy for me to find a job then.”

“But why did you want to join the Taliban?” I asked.

“The Taliban were the government then, I was just working for the government. Lots of men joined because they needed work and there was nothing else.”

“Do you still consider yourself to be Taliban?”

“Yes,” he shrugged, “I’m Taliban.”

“During the time of the Taliban,” he went on, “Afghanistan was peaceful, it was safe, there was no stealing, no criminals, you could leave your money on the street and it would still be there tomorrow.” He showed me where he kept his cash now, in a pocket tucked well away under his outer garments. “I used to keep my money here, like this!” And he slipped a few hundred afghanis into his top pocket half sticking out for the world to see.

No one I met denied that during the reign of the Taliban petty crime and disorder all but vanished. “I would send my son,” the Talib said, “to Kabul with thousands of dollars in his bag, completely safe, but now? I won’t even send him to the market to buy a melon!” I’d heard the same kind of story a dozen times, but it was the only positive thing anyone had to say about the Taliban.

“In the west,” I told him, “we had a view that the Taliban were very bad.”

“Of course,” he nodded, “there were some who were bad like in any government, but ninety-five percent were good, the leaders were all good men but they couldn’t know what every man was doing, does President Karzai know what all his men are doing?”

“But what about Afghan women, they weren’t allowed to go to work or to school?” I countered.

“That’s not true! They could go to the Islamic schools, the madrassas! And as long as they wore the burqa they could go to work, otherwise they should stay at home!”

“What about banning women from wearing white socks and nail polish?”

“Not true! Not true!”

The conversation went on like this. Every atrocity I’d heard of he denied had ever happened, every item of idiotic Islamic law imposed wasn’t true. According to the Talib men were allowed to shave and the reports of imprisonment for not having fist-long beards were just western propaganda. He insisted the Taliban leaders had a deep and excellent knowledge of the Koran, even the halftime executions at football matches at Ghazi Stadium were myth, “No! I never heard of that happening! Just sometimes the players in the teams fought against each other!”

We were soon both becoming frustrated as each of us expected the other to see things differently. I could also sense a rising tension in Ali’s voice as he translated. In the staunch ‘shame and honour’ culture of Afghanistan did he find my accusations an insult to a family friend?

“What about the three foreign aid workers, the three women who were shot dead in Lowgar,” my final assault recalling the recent murder of the three women, Canadian, British and American, who were pulled from their car not far from Kabul and shot dead along with their Afghan driver, “the Taliban claimed responsibility but how can they call themselves men, how can they call themselves warriors of Islam when they shoot dead unarmed women who cannot defend themselves, women who had come here to help the poor, how can they be so cowardly?”

“Those women were not killed by Taliban! They were killed by criminals who said they were Taliban! Anyone can dress like a Talib and say ‘I am a Talib’!” The boy in the man’s lap looked around at the three of us nervously at the raising of his voice. He stood up and slipped outside into the courtyard to play in the dust with a broken kite. “And anyway,” he went on to justify their murders, “those women were not wearing Islamic dress! This is an Islamic country!”

“I hardly think they were wearing miniskirts and bikini tops!” I said, thankfully perhaps Ali was unable to translate this, “And besides, is that reason enough to drag a woman from her car and shoot her dead?”

We sat in silence for several minutes and sipped the last of our now cold tea.

“Mr Ian,” Ali whispered, “if you don’t have any more questions I think we can go now?”

“Sure, perhaps this is enough.”

We all stood up and I shook hands with the Talib. His anger seemed to have vanished and he smiled. He didn’t strike me as being someone inherently bad, there was simply no way to reconcile our opposing views and each of us just had to accept that we had grown up in different worlds.

Back in the teahouse Ali stood with me in the doorway and added his point of view to the already existing complexities.

“Mr Ian, many of the Taliban were not bad people, the leaders even wanted a more free life for Afghan people.” He told me how the mullahs had wanted Afghanistan to have television, to have the internet, to have educated women and foreign investment. But the real power lay with the foot soldiers, illiterate villagers who had grown up in refugee camps, men who had never learnt to read their precious Koran and who had been brainwashed into the belief that an orthodox Islamic state was their God-given birthright. The mullahs knew that if they didn’t give the men what they wanted they themselves would be overthrown and lynched. Afghans have a history of turning against their masters.

Whatever the truth, from my conversations with the people I met in the three months I spent Afghanistan it appeared that the rule of the Taliban was not the time of eternal darkness those days had been portrayed as in the western media. It was more like a shade of grey, dark grey perhaps but not utterly black.

“Tashakor Ali-jan,” I thanked him and laughed, “it was an interesting conversation.”

“You are welcome Mr Ian,” and I turned to go, “oh Mr Ian, please don’t tell anyone who you met today and how you met him, okay?”

“Of course.”

“And perhaps don’t come here for a few days, I will call you when it’s better to come back, alright?”

“Whatever you say Ali-jan.” We shook hands. He never called again.


From a certain perspective the human body is little more than a conduit or a tube, taking in and emitting in roughly equal measure.

It’s an elemental conception of human life that sees two reasonably balanced, opposite streams alternately feeding the organism essentials and sluicing away waste. It’s a perspective common to Chinese medicine and Hinduism (among other systems of esoteric thought), which makes it of heightened significance to the Indian city of Mumbai.

In Mumbai, the dividing line between the flow of ingress and egress is often so fine that the distinction is blurred. To a large extent, and for a large section of the population there is very little distinction at all.

People everywhere seem to be ingesting what has previously been passed and excreting almost to feed rather than to vent. The attitude to water supply and sewage in Mumbai has been so compromised by the demands of overpopulation and the environmental rigours of breakneck growth that its no wonder typhoid is rife in the slums. In a very real, and frightening sense, there’s a kind of Faustian toxic alchemy at work, switching the poles of ‘in’ and ‘out’, mixing the waters, crossing the streams.

A wet, vegetable smell, redolent of human vomit and loam wafts into the office. Workers immediately reach for the take-away menus. “Mmmm… Shall we order lunch, guys?” A sewage pipe is simply being de-blocked outisde the building. Reports abound of food poisoning from street food in the days when the sewers are exposed.

The bathroom I use in the home I recently rented a room in in Mumbai is separated from the kitchen of the family of four by a chipboard partition that doesn’t quite reach the outer wall. When I am sitting on the toilet and the lady of the house is frying, there’s the continual possibility of a fine mist of burning fat droplets fountaining over the wall to enliven early morning ablutions.

With a bit of effort, we could shake hands during our respective processes like the first excited penetrators of the Berlin wall. I wonder how the aromas emanating from my bathroom don’t enter the flavour of the delicious food she makes. If I leave a cut raw onion in a fridge with a pot of opened yoghurt, I can’t really complain if the stuff turns out tasting more like raitha than Müller Lite, now can I?

Years ago, a very dear friend of mine came up with an ingenious method of balancing the flows. He called it the ‘Shit/Weight Plan’.

According to this system, weight can be easily controlled, gained or lost through the judicious application of weighing scales at the two ends of the process. His theory was that if one only consumed an equal poundage to that amount dropped off, a steady weight would be maintained. If one troughed more than one sloughed, weight would be put on; if one dumped more than one scrumped then weight would be shed.

The domestic setup that my landlady and I have is ripe for a field test of the Shit/Weight Plan. If she pushes them far enough to her right, Sibyl and I could cut out the middle man and share the kitchen scales, one pan each; shouting the differentials to each other through the partition as we go.

 

I love China, I really do. But I get the feeling that I might just die here. And I don’t mean, “I love it so much I’ll stay here until I’m so old I keel over.” No, I mean that in spite of China’s awesomeness, it’s basically a big death trap.

For the past two or three weeks I have been unable to stop coughing. I feel that my lungs are filled with junk. Maybe it’s the pollution. Hefei is phenomenally polluted. The only city I’ve visited that was worse was Beijing. Even Korea and Taiwan didn’t seem this bad. I read in a textbook (and I’ve no idea how accurate it was) that nearly 700,000 people a year die from pollution in China.

Much of the pollution comes from cars and buses, which seem to have absolutely no restrictions placed upon them. The buses are the worst. They pump out thick black plumes, and sometimes, if you’re inside the bus, there is a hole in the floor through which the smoke comes. I’ve seen people keel over and I’m never sure if they’re sleeping or dying from the toxins.

Jazz Hands

I worked on a cattle-breeding farm in central Virginia for one summer during college. My first week involved long hours of bush-hogging—hauling a sort of heavy-duty lawnmower though pastures of shoulder-high brown grass, so that the cows could access the sweeter green shoots beneath. The tractor was top of the line, with an air-conditioned cab and tape deck. I’d listen to audiobooks and entertain myself by beheading black snakes and watching their decapitated bodies spout blood and slither in circles through the rear-view mirror. In the mornings, I’d often rouse families of sleeping deer that had bedded down in the tall grass. Spotted does and spindly-legged fawns would bound towards the trees like Olympic hurdlers.

China isn’t really what I expected. It’s better, in many ways, and also worse. In other words, it’s unique. It’s its own strange place which really doesn’t match well with the western view. For example, where’s the communism? Aside from the portraits of Mao, I can’t see anything “Red.” All I see is McDonalds, KFC, Hilton hotels… Everyone is trying desperately to sell something, to make some money.

It’s dirtier than a porno theatre, too. The streets are quite literally coated in shit. Some places are too dirty for cockroaches, and others are too swamped by roaches for dirt to settle. Trash piles threaten not only an array of diseases, but the possibility of collapsing and crushing a passer-by. The skies are an orangey-yellow colour, thick with the exhaust fumes from millions of overcrowded buses and motorcycles driven by small children and even smaller old men and women.

It was about the time I began critiquing the fashion choices of our fellow passengers in the Long Beach Airport I realized I had reached my limit for what the brain could tolerate on “vacation.” Completely mean-spirited, I was watching the passers-by stuck in the same predicament as me, crammed like cattle waiting for their damned flight crew to arrive so their plane could take off, now three-and-a-half hours late. “That woman should never wear stretch pants,” I spewed in my head. “She looks like a naked mole rat rolled in purple icing.” I’d turn in another direction, only to face someone else worthy of my skewering. “Jesus Christ, dude. Have a little dignity. Leave the acid wash at home in the bins,” I’d scowl.

But this was just an indication of the fragility of my own mind since I am a great slob myself, rarely bothering to put my clothes together in any discernibly fashionable way. I am, in general, sympathetic to my fellow American slobs. Sometimes it can just be too much bother to put on clothes that look more interesting than thrift store cast-offs, when one knows that the outfit’s only future is one with spots of ketchup and paint splatters on it.

We had endured an amazing number of obstacles to what anyone might call “fun,” and we were now stuck in Long Beach, in one of the most dismal little airports I’ve ever seen, trying to get home. We had already spent the morning in Los Angeles fighting a cloudburst of epic proportions and forging through rivers of water making their way to  LA’s inadequate sewer system to get to the Museum of Natural History. We were soaked, grumpy and hungry when we got in the doors of the museum where we discovered there is no restaurant. We took one look at the T. Rex just past the door and turned around to ford L.A.’s new rivers again, looking for crappy food in a crummy part of town.

We returned to the museum, ever mindful of our flight a few hours hence. We carved a neat path through the exhibits and it was enjoyable enough, but we were happy to get our soggy asses to the airport, the first step in our trip back home. We arrived with a picture-perfect finish at the airport, just enough time to pick up a magazine and get on the plane.

This is a small airport. It was built in the 1950′s and perhaps updated most recently in the late 80′s or early 90′s. It has a grungy institutional lack of charm, made worse by its lack of amenities. So when we arrived, thrilled at our speedy dodging through L.A. rush hour traffic, we were dismayed that we would be spending a rather long stretch here. Ours was the only delayed flight in the whole damned airport.

When we checked a bag (a decision based solely upon our unwillingness to drag our bags, along with our son, through the airport for our long delay), my husband asked if there was anywhere to wait it out. “You could either go to your gate–which is basically a big room–or the restaurant.” That was it.

Restaurant it is! We parked ourselves in the booth and whiled away the time as best we could; eventually we could no longer tolerate the nice but useless waitress or drink more beer and get thrown out for public drunkenness or cited for child endangerment: our son was flopping into the aisle, and we needed to remove him before he tripped someone and sent food raining down on his head. So despite having several more hours to wait, we gave up our plush digs in the ugly paneled restaurant and opted to go to the big room.

Big room is right. At the entrance there was a “bar,” separated from the main room with a barrier rope; they apparently couldn’t be bothered with walls. Two of its four seats were occupied by bozos hitting on the female bartender. At the other corner of the room was a snack bar, similar to what one might find in the lobby of a hospital, with blue plush bears no-one wants and bags of popcorn and licorice, some aspirin and bottles of water. We found seats in the remarkably quiet room in front of the only other amenity, the magazine kiosk, manned by a pimply overweight young man who looked ready to kill himself. There were four gates and rows upon rows of Trailways-era institutional seating. That was it.

But at least it was empty, and our son could burn off a little extra energy by climbing the seats and running through the aisles. Which was fine, but only good for so long. So we gave him our phones to play with. That palled after a while, so we went to the bathroom. A brief distraction, but at least we got to see what the toilets looked like.

The only art in the whole airport was hung between the men’s and women’s restrooms, a fitting place. My husband encouraged me to look at it, and since I wasn’t encumbered by distractions, I walked up to it.

It struck my husband and I both with foreboding and curiosity about the artist’s intent. A rank, yellow sky hangs in the background, the Washington Monument shooting up violently behind a single skeletal tree, while two children flee in the foreground. Or is one fleeing the other in terror? Their backs are turned to the viewer, making the observer a party to the action, either pursuing, which is creepy, or being pursued, which is creepier. A girl is looking over her shoulder to see if the threat is gaining upon her. A plane shoots diagonally overhead, its vapor trail leaving the viewer wondering if it were the culprit in making the sky yellow, a villain leaving behind clouds of mustard gas or sulphurous evil intent.

It did not soothe the uneasy traveler into a sense of calm about their impending journey. And it didn’t matter that upon further examination I discovered the kids were not fleeing but ice-skating; it remained jarring merely by its composition. The artist pulled a fast one, even if they themselves didn’t know it. They had a lark at the expense of poor hapless purchasers of bland institutional art.

My husband took a photo he was so charmed.

Meanwhile, the room was filling up. The passengers were all similarly travel-frumpy, most recently having come from Disneyland and god knows what horrors there. Most of them were dressed in Classic American Tourist: pale shapeless blue jeans or Dockers for the gents, often with a cell phone clip on their belt. A well worn t-shirt from some other tourist destination they visited long ago, now soft and faded from washing, or a shirt with sequins, glitter or some unholy combination of the two. An impossible number of stretch pants under too-large t-shirts, a look I sported when I was 15 and promptly retired realizing that no-one wants to look at a sad-sack Olivia Newton-John facsimile. Sandals, though it was not warm. There were perms.

And there were more and more of them coming. Our son was being squeezed into smaller areas of territory, and like a cheetah losing habitat he was becoming more brave and more ornery: climbing up and over the bucket seats right next to whoever was there, placing an unwelcome foot dangerously close to a pissed commuter; sitting on the tables bolted between them and twitching and fidgeting, throwing elbows out too close to grumpy seatmates; distracting people from their only respite: reading People magazine or looking at their phones.

Our plane was now four hours late. The natives were getting restless. There was a sense of static electricity in the room as people swapped stories and bonded over their stranding; I overheard conversations full of intimate details of other failed vacations between complete strangers who had become their new best friends in the dreary Long Beach Airport. Parents were desperate to keep their children from exciting a riot, which in this fevered climate would not be too difficult.

Like streaming tides of wildebeests the stranded passengers began to crowd towards the gate. Had someone seen something? Did someone spot the crew? The collective had spoken, and all passengers uniformly wove their way to where our plane was supposed to have departed, so long ago. We too followed, a rash decision as we had staked out our territorial claim early on. To leave it was a hopeful, but ultimately senseless act of optimism.

The wildebeests had not seen the crew, nor gleaned some greater intelligence about our flights status; the airline, choosing wisely to placate the beasts with symbolic gifts had left out water and soda and some bags of fodder in the form of mini pretzels and cashews. The herd had gone to the wallow, and we, proper dupes that we are, had given up our prime section of grassland for an utterly craptastic booby prize.

I don’t know if we cheered when the crew arrived, or simply tasted blood in our mouths from the anxiety and waiting. I know that when we finally got on the plane our son was running on fumes and nervous excitement. We were relieved that the plane would lull him to sleep, the drone of the engines knocking him out like a sedative.

Alas, that is not our son. He’s a perpetual motion machine, always enraptured by anything new. So while our fellow wildebeests slept, we were stuck with a playful calf, jumping into the aisles and jostling the flight crew, playing peek-a-boo with the toddler seated behind him. He would have been cute had everyone around us not been trying to sleep.

Predictably, just as the plane was descending toward our blessed Portland home, our son passed out cold, the fatigue overcoming him in the last ten minutes in the air. Our journey not quite complete despite our tantalizing proximity to home, we now had to get our checked luggage and a dead weight through the airport past midnight, to curbside and a taxi.

We struggled in the aisle with our belongings, the other wildebeests laughing at our impossible task: our son was so asleep that we couldn’t pull his coat on, couldn’t move him, couldn’t figure out how to negotiate this last obstacle to free ourselves from the belly of the plane. With no small amount of help from the herd, we somehow stumbled free.

It is some sort of divine joke when you’ve reached this point and step off the plane into a completely deserted concourse only to discover that you are at the very furthest end of it. Unlike Long Beach Airport which is the size of a gymnasium and just as unattractive, this concourse was long. But if adversity is the mother of invention, I discovered my willingness to travel by wheelchair. With my son weighing a metric ton in my arms, and my husband burdened with carry-on, I sat down in the first airport wheelchair I saw, right at the end of the ramp leading off the plane.

Wildebeests laughed and applauded but then raced to the luggage carousel: whoever got their luggage first got the first taxi, too. Realizing the desperate race had begun in earnest, my husband, a wheeled bag in one hand and another across his shoulder, our son’s car seat wedged between his body and the handles of the wheelchair, began to push the wheelchair as fast as he could. I was buried in heavy child, trying to keep his limbs from getting caught in the wheels as he flopped around. My husband found it so ridiculous that despite carrying two bags, a car seat and 170 pounds of human cargo he took out his camera to document our final journey down the long hallway home.

 

We’re back now and we made it in one piece. Even though we did not beat the clock for our luggage, and no kindly soul offered us to cut in line for a taxi, despite it being 22 degrees and carrying a boy utterly insensate to the bitter elements, we were finally ushered into a cab where Rasputin himself was at the wheel. It was a fitting end.

Since then we’ve got scanners which nuke us, TSA rubdown services, and the still-hygienically dubious shoeless security check, not to mention all the other unpleasantries left over from both failed and successful terrorist attacks.

And we just booked our flight to Hawaii.

We ooze ourselves from restaurant to street, two thick-ass snakes of toothpaste from a fat-bottomed tube. Husband and wife, bound by fluoride and fullness. Residents hang on the street corners like ornaments, eating their late lunches from the stalls, kissing their girlfriends and boyfriends, playing with wind-up toys in the squares, dropping their ice cream cones to the city ants. It’s almost noon, almost time for us to check out, and we don’t want to abuse Juan Pérez’s kindness. We have a 9:00pm flight to Oaxaca City, our intended destination, but Mexico City, our mere layover is creeping into our blood like plaque, arresting us, seducing us.

We circle a maze of backstreets, hoping to find an alternative route back to the Rioja. We walk quickly, whizzing past the music stores blaring with recorded trumpets and snare drums, rail-thin clerks polishing the speaker-tops with blue rags. We try to make it back by check-out time. We really do. But we turn up a pedestrian alley, paved with ancient gray stone, and see a round old jelly doughnut of a woman, her entire torso hidden beneath the spill of her breasts, silver hair crested with a lace bobby-pinned doily, pressing fresh blue corn gorditas in the street.

She coughs like the proverbial mother hen laying the spiciest of eggs, and my fears are confirmed. I have, indeed, lost all restraint. I am pulled into her orbit, some feeble Millennium Falcon caught in the Death Star magnetism of her spanking the blue corn dough.

“Are you serious?” Louisa asks.

“How can I pass this up?” I say, digging a few sweaty peso coins from my pocket.

“This is all you.”

Soon, we’re in front of her, her face beaming as we take in her chalkboard easel menu. I recognize the names of all of the gordita filling options—carne asada, carnita, barbacoa, pollo, hongos, rajas—except one. The last one on the list, resting like the black sheep underdog of Mexican street food, hiding its deliciousness at the back of the line. Sesos de cerdo. So euphonious. What can this possibly be? The music store trumpets fire away behind us, underscoring the mystery. Sesos de cerdo. I imagine the words crooned by some dime-store romance novel Latin lover, blue corn tortillas stuffed with rose petals, pomegranate, Spanish fly… In these three words, the sky goes emerald green with aphrodisiac blister beetles. Surely this woman hides the ashes of the Marquis de Sade in her pendulous bra. Surely, I must order this final item.

“Hola,” I muster.

“Hoolaa,” she calls, rocking on the balls of bare feet, rectangular as mud bricks.

“Puedo tener una gordita con, uh, sesos de cerdo, por favor?”

And I love saying it, those three words leaking like oil from my mouth.

“Oohhh!” she clucks, “Te gusta los sesos?”

“Sí,” I say.

Of course. How, in the symphony of the word, can I not like sesos?

She curls her lips downward, impressed. This should be foreboding, I tell myself, but somehow, on this dusty stone, Louisa’s eyes narrowing to my left, purposefully deciding to check-out late due to this gordita audible, it’s not. The sky is exactly white, tough to stare into, and Louisa is pulling on my sleeve. I turn to her, follow her eyes to the squatting woman. We watch as she dips her hand into a filthy white bucket marked—in English of all things!—with the words, Pork Brains.

My once excited stomach now recoils into the recesses of my ribcage, all euphony now metamorphosing into some broken dish clatter, hellish and ear-curdling. These words have duped me. Deep into this woman’s cleavage, the ashen Marquis de Sade is surely having his last laugh. Retreating from the bucket, the woman’s fat bare hand bulges with wet, grayish chunks of porcine cerebellum. A few drops of brain juice drip from between her fingers to the stone, and even the ants run for cover. She tosses the gray matter onto her comal and they steam with foul stench, dusty, organic, almost deciduous.

Louisa is enjoying this immensely, my face as white as a sheet. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-brain, but the ingesting of pig brain, as street food, in Mexico, strikes me somewhat…well…hasty, a perfect recipe for a tough day tomorrow in Oaxaca. But I’ve ordered it, told this sweet doughball of a woman that I like it. And I must admit, I’m nervous, but curious.

Louisa mimics a gagging sound.

“Don’t do that,” I beg.

She lights her Winston and wanders up the street, stares into the window of a flower shop. In the distance, somewhere behind the ornate stone of these buildings, I can hear a group of people chanting, “Peligroso! Peligroso!” Dangerous! Dangerous!

Oh shit, what have I done? Haven’t I learned to listen to ghosts by now? With a long spatula caked with charcoal sludge, she scoops the pig brain into a lovely puffed vessel of blue corn and hands it me smiling. I pass her the five peso coin. For a few seconds, all I can do is stare at it, feel the ample weight of it in my hands. In my nose, death and ammonia, mold, blood, earth soured with standing water.

“Te comes,” she says, and my mother, still young and healthy, her arms locked with the boarder, and my giggling little sister, joins in: Eat it, eat it…

And so I do, open my mouth like a drawbridge, the rust of it creaking at the corners, and take my bite. Pig brain squirming in my mouth like a guppy, some intellectual ejaculate, the tofu of the head, I close my eyes and bite down, releasing the penetrating taste of coal-smoke and egg white. This is not good. This is tough. I grit my teeth and try to mask it as a smile. The old woman laughs and kisses her dirty fingers.

“Sesos,” she says.

Yes. Yes they are. Fucking sesos. Swallow and walk away, beaten, bullied, duped again by false euphony. I silently apologize to each pig I’ve ever eaten. Revenge, Sus scrofa, is yours. Good for you.

I catch up with Louisa who knows what my face is saying, and I hers: You asked for it. I run to the nearest trash can, entertaining a capacity crowd of horseflies, turn behind me to make sure the woman isn’t looking, and empty the gordita of its brains. The fresh blue corn shell, in spite of the rank juice that has soaked into it, is so impressive, that I force myself to finish it.

Departure

At half past five in the morning on a Wednesday Melbourne Airport is empty anyone but airline staff. The sun hasn’t yet risen, and the big bay gate windows face out into a vast darkness broken only by blinking red lights and the dim movement of the great shapes of planes.

Deserted airports are unsettling places. As many of the flights I’ve taken have been during peak traffic hours, I’m used to being surrounded by people; long lines of people, stretching away from the check-in desks manned by energetic, white-shirted staff with great skin, or waiting to be herded through the thin cream plastic gateways of metal detectors while security guards turn their heads away to joke with each other, but never with passengers, or standing bored at the boarding gate, the long blue-carpeted corridor and the sense of forward momentum that just being on a plane brings only a tantalising few steps away.

Sitting here all by myself is a little eerie.

I want to stay awake as long as I can, in order to reset to California time faster – if I can go to sleep eight hours into the flight from Brisbane, I’ll be well on the way to coaching my body over the line and past the worst of the jetlag on the other side of waking. But because I’m up so early, I’m already fatigued, and if I go to sleep too soon, I’ll end up setting myself back further. My plan is to sustain myself by drinking thin, complimentary airline coffee, the taste of which, inexplicably, I love anyway, and focusing on some writing I want to get done until it’s time to sleep.

The flight from Melbourne to Brisbane is OK, although Brisbane Airport is no place for a young man. Leathery middle-aged women with missing teeth and low-cut pink halter tops over their flat and freckled breasts and entire families resplendent in identical rat-tail mullets and Juicy Couture roam the halls, delighted with the presence of a solitary Krispy Kreme outlet staffed by a lone and defeated Indian man.

I make it through to my gate and find there’s no one here, either. Just a long concourse, clinical and neat in its white tiles and in its empty tables and chairs. It’s quiet; lifeless in a way that seems to have no expectation of ever being anything but.

Where is everyone today?

People arrive and sit in pairs and groups around the departure desk throughout the next hour. When boarding is announced and I take my seat on the plane to Los Angeles I wonder idly if there are going to be any young children sitting nearby. I’m situated two rows behind the main bulkhead, and as the plane starts to fill, my insides clench. Beside me is a family with an infant. To my right, a family with two toddlers. Ahead of me, two more families with young kids. As I watch, another two families, infants in tow, come down the aisle and take the rows across the aisle to my left.

‘Isn’t this nice!’ one mother exclaims to another. ‘All these families here! All the kids can play together!’

On cue, one of the younger babies starts to bawl, which sets off another on the other side of this grid of horror, this devil’s game of tic-tac-toe I have found myself imprisoned in.

‘Excuse me,’ I say to a stewardess as she walks past. ‘I see a seat up ahead is spare. Do you think I could…?’

Thank God, thank God, thank God I’m so good-looking, I think. She’s going to give me anything I want.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she says, smiling professionally. ‘That’s Premium Economy. I can’t let you sit there. But there are some seats spare down the back. After take-off, you could go and have a look to see if there are any still free? If someone else hasn’t beaten you to it?’

‘Thank you,’ I say, and sink back into my seat for take-off.

As soon as the fasten seatbelts light chimes off, I’m up and moving. Like a hungry ghost, I fly down the aisle.

And I see it.

It.

An oasis of solitude – empty seat surrounded by empty seat surrounded by empty seat; row after row of unreserved space. With one smooth motion, I strip my jacket from around my shoulders and launch it through the air. It soars in a graceful arc, its empty arms lifting like the eagle wings of sweet liberty herself, and lands perfectly in the middle seat of one of the empty rows, a message to the thieves and jackals who couldn’t think as fast as I: mine.

That night we hit the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced, and my three empty seats bring me no comfort. High above the Pacific, one of my three blankets tucked under my chin, and my three pillows gently cushioning my head against the shakes and buffets of the squalling wind beneath our wings, I close my eyes and think  Goddamnit. I’m never going to get to sleep on this flight.

I am right, and my next chance to close my eyes and rest comes at LAX. I catch a fifteen minute nap there, and thank God for the opportunity to sleep on the connecting flight to SFO, even if its only for an hour or so. After I’ve taken my seat, a pale and tousle-haired hipster kid slinks his way down the aisle. He is wearing jeans so tight I worry for his future children’s IQ, and a loose beige cardigan that matches his perfectly dishevelled, scruffy hair. He sits next to me, and before I take my nap I wonder what he would do if I warned him that sometimes I scream in my sleep.

But I do not, and I’m sure I will be sorry for this later.¹

*

Arrival

It’s Wednesday, still, more than twenty four hours later, and I wake from a deep and dreamless sleep as we’re touching down in San Francisco and catch a taxi from the airport to my hotel. The Huntington is a towering old building just below the top of Nob Hill on California Street that I can only afford because of the cut-rate prices on Priceline.com. My room number is 11-11, which I take as a good omen.

‘What brings you here?’ the desk clerk asks as I’m signing in.

‘Halloween, man,’ I say. It is the first of a hundred times this week I will say this.

‘You came just for Halloween?’ he asks. ‘Really?’

It is the first of a hundred times someone will ask this.

I shower and unpack before heading down the hill to buy toiletries and food and coffee. I’m here. I’ve done it. This is my time.

At last, I will have my Halloween.

*

Inside Baseball

It’s Thursday, and Meredith texts that she and her friends are going to watch Game 2 in a bar in Glen Park. On arrival, I am greeted by a sea of Giants fans in orange and black, and a buzz of friendly noise. I order a drink, Meredith introduces me, and I have to ask the group: ‘So how do you play this game?’

The rules are explained to me, and suddenly the bar erupts as we score against Texas.

‘OK!’ A, one of Meredith’s friends says. ‘Let’s drink a shot every time we score!’

In the eighth inning, Posey singles up the middle. Holland walks Schierholtz and Ross to load the bases, then walks Huff. Lowe walks Uribe, Rentería singles to left field, and Ross and Huff score. In the space of five minutes, the Giants score six runs, and we decide it may be in our best interests to abandon the drink-a-shot-whenever-we-score rule. Instead, we start drinking freely, and when the game ends with us victorious, we pour out into the night looking for another bar.

This is much better than any Australian sport.

*

Before Halloween

Just as I’d hoped, Halloween is everywhere and by serendipitous coincidence, with the city in the Series, the streets are decked out in orange and black.

Everywhere I look, there are carved pumpkins on porches,  or toy ghosts hanging in store windows, or cartoon witches soaring on broomsticks through supermarket shelves.

It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

My first real taste of the day comes as I’m getting a haircut at a salon a floor above street level. ‘Oh, quick!’ Joey the hairdresser says and puts down her scissors. ‘The kids from one of the schools nearby are trick-or-treating! You have to come see this, you’re going to love it!’

She drags me to the window and from our viewpoint about the street we can see the long lines of kids, held in formation by the watchful shapes of teachers, dotted at regular intervals along the column, dressed in costume. Sunlight glints off astronaut helmets, off fairy wings, off the blades of cutlasses worn through belts.

I hate all of the children. Their bright and shining faces remind me that this could have – should have – been mine, and it never was.

Also, one of them has a bitchin’ Lady Gaga outfit.

I could never pull that off, and I know it.

Saturday night is Meredith’s all-girl football team fundraiser. Ten bucks at the door buys unlimited PBR, and Sue’s packing a giant bowl of Jello shots. Me and Zhu and Emily, Kate and Tara and Lindsey, and Lyn and Erin and Casey shout at the TV as the Rangers take the lead in Game 3 and beat the Giants. We turn to the bottomless PBR to drown our sorrow. Someone puts twenty bucks in the jukebox. The fundraiser tails into an invitation to a house party in the Mission, and we drag ourselves away from Stray Bar in Bernal Heights and work our way there across 18th, across Dolores, by bicycle, by taxi, by car.

The house party is being held by someone named Tersch, a werewolf with a kitchen full of Brazilians. She paints my face in black and red and shows me where the drinks are.

Zhu and I make it our unspoken mission to have more fun than anyone else here. We drink the unfinished Jello shots, we shoot Tersch’s whiskey, and when someone starts passing around a bottle of Jager, we can’t seem to avoid it. Twenty minutes into the party, Zhu’s doing a handstand against the wall and I’m holding onto her boots while she drinks a cup of water upside down to cure her hiccups. A nerd and a Native American and Cupid look on and laugh as Zhu proclaims her temporary illness finally fixed.

Somehow, a half dozen of us end up sitting on the side of the street, under a blanket in the bed of Cupid’s truck, crowds of hundreds of migratory Halloweeners laughing and partying and shouting out around us. Someone steals Tara’s crutch while we’re not looking, and I run across the street to ask security at the nearby street party if they’ve seen it.

I see a girl sitting holding onto a crutch and I think Aha! I’ve got you now!

Then I see she’s wearing a giant moon boot.

‘Can I help you?’ she asks.

‘Oh.’ I say. ‘Well, see, someone stole my friend’s crutch, and I thought… ‘

She looks at me, and with the honesty of someone who’s been drinking for about six straight hours, I say ‘I figured maybe you’d be the kind of awful human being who would steal someone’s crutch, but now I see that you have that big boot on, so you probably need your crutch, but I kinda hoped that whoever stole the crutch maybe thought it was part of a costume, because who steals a crutch? So I came over to check, but it looks like you actually legitimately need your crutch, and you didn’t steal it from my friend. Oh. Both of your crutches, I see.’

‘Your poor friend!’ she says. ‘I wish I could give her one of my crutches.’

‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Anyway, I’m gonna go.’

*

Halloween

It’s Sunday, and I’m going to meet  friends in a bar in Bernal Heights to watch Game 4 and grab a few quiet drinks. I catch the 22 to the top of the hill, and when I get off, the sky is still that perfect hazy shade of powder blue and ice-cream white.

I have no way of knowing that Bernal Heights is where people take their children for trick-or-treating. It’s like the whole suburban neighbourhood turns into a small town for the night – I crest the hill to see an ocean of people with their children, everyone in costume, wishing each other the best and knocking on doors. Jack O’Lanterns sit outside houses and stores alike; ghosts and witches hang from streetlights, the doors of haunted houses are thrown open to reveal thick cobwebs and polished skulls and grinning demons.

This is so perfect I’m almost on the verge of tears. This is everything I ever wanted from my childhood, and it’s right here. This is exactly how I pictured Halloween as being when I was a kid. I move through the crowd, taking photos, talking and smiling and never wanting to be anywhere but here.

*

Fear the Beard

It’s Monday night and Meredith and I are in the Mission. We’re sitting and watching Game 5 with two friends of hers. Lincecum is pitching what may turn out to be the game of his life – firing off eight innings of death from the mound. I wonder if he’s related to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and why his face looks like it’s always going to crumple into tears.

The ninth rolls around with the score 3-1 to the Giants.  Wilson takes the mound. He strikes out Hamilton, Guerrero grounds out, and Cruz takes the plate.

We’re watching the game on a TV with a delay of maybe two seconds, so as we see Wilson wind up for his final pitch and a roar suddenly goes up over the Mission, we know we’ve won.

Meredith and I take to the streets to meet some people I know, and the city has become a madhouse. Everywhere, Giants fans are roaring, running through the streets, slamming their palms down onto the horns in their cars. There are cops and roadblocks in the Castro, while people shout and sing and throw rolls of toilet paper over the streetlights. No one is inside; it’s like we just won every war that’s ever been fought.

Later that night, as I’m walking down Market Street, I come to a pedestrian crossing in front of a line of cars that goes back three blocks.

Unable to help myself, I yell ‘Go Giants!’ and the intersection explodes with the sound of people calling back to me and honking their horns. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The next day I read that people were burning mattresses in the streets.

Those guys party much harder than I do.

*

Jornada del Muerto

It’s Tuesday, and we’re in a giant open warehouse with a skull-headed DJ playing beats. For five dollars, make-up artists will paint your face with spray guns, shading paints, brushes and pads and pencils. But there are too many people here, and the line is too long, and the parade starts at seven. Zoe takes me to the DIY table and makes me up with black eyes, a hollow nose, and lipless teeth. She makes up Lexy too, before we head off for the parade. The organiser with giant hoops in his ears is bitchy about giving me my money back.

‘Well, I guess you’ll have to get here earlier next year, won’t you?’ he says.

Well, I guess that would help if I lived here.

Five of us start off through the Mission, following the route of the parade for Dia de Los Muertos, but Zoe’s stylist, whose name I can’t remember, hangs back to meet some people. Lexy and I and the other girl, another forgotten name, lose Zoe, then find her, then I lose the group. We stay in phone contact as I wander through crowds of the dead. Hundreds, thousands. Skulls and candles and offerings are everywhere. A giant black coach emblazoned with calaveras moves slowly through the mass of people that packs the streets. People hoist paper skeletons high on poles. Dead women in white dresses and dead men in black suits move through the crowd to the beat of graveyard drums.

I find myself at the head of the parade; dancers in long headgear shake and writhe under long banners. Somehow, I’ve overshot the mark of meeting everyone. There’s an anonymity here, all of us dead together and reaching out to offer a spark of life and love to that other black world that crowds in around us tonight.

I can’t believe I’ve never been to Dia de Los Muertos before.

This is the best week ever.


 

*

San Francisco

It’s Wednesday, and I start to realise just how much I miss it here as I walk into Walgreen’s for the first time.

I miss the way the light breaks over the top of houses in Bernal Heights and Noe Valley.

I miss the way coffee shops with dark wooden interiors and twentysomethings with yoga mats using Apple computers sit alongside Starbucks full of professionals with that wholesome mid-Western American look.

I miss that cold clean breeze that moves through the streets when the end of the afternoon starts to deepen into the start of twilight, and I miss the inexorable chill that signals the sun is going down.

I miss standing on the porch in the Castro and seeing the city spread out in front of me at night.

While I’m here, I walk from Chinatown to City Lights bookstore. I catch the Muni as much as I’m able, from Powell to Church, to the Castro. I catch the BART out to the Mission. I walk through Nob Hill, through the Mission, through the Embarcadero. At long last, I catch a cable car. I sit in Barnes and Noble and drink caramel lattes, and I want to be back here.

We drink at the Lex, we drink at the Argus, we drink at Stray Bar. We get coffee at Philz, at La Taza, at Urban Bread.

I get lunch with Angela Tung, and a bird relieves itself in my hair.

I sit in Dolores Park with Meredith, and we talk about traveling and settling down.

I buy a Giants cap at the Westfield Mall, and, unwittingly, take off and throw away the hologram on the brim that will result in it being worth money some day. I don’t care; I’m never selling this thing.

I promise myself that I’m going to get back here. Some way or another.

 

*

Los Angeles

It’s Wednesday, and I arrive, exhausted, at the Grafton, on Sunset. I make a couple of calls, send a few texts, and open up my laptop  to discover that the loose casing (my fault) has finally cost me. A wire is visibly broken, and my computer won’t turn on. I sit down on the bed and wake up the next morning.

*

My American Year

It’s Thursday, and my friend Erinn comes into town from Ventura and spends the day ferrying me around. We go to Olvera Street and I buy a bunch of Dia de Los Muertos souvenirs for people. I pick up a 50-piece jigsaw puzzle for my mother, suddenly acutely aware that I have never once brought her back anything from overseas.

Better late than never, right?

We head out to the beach and I insist we find a place where I can buy a yearly planner for 2011. My reasoning is that if I buy it in America, it will be a sign to the universe that 2011, for me, will be a year spent in America.

I’m wearing my Giants cap, and we pass a woman wearing the same as we cross the streets.

‘Go Giants!’ I say, cheerfully. The woman stares at me blankly as we walk past.

‘Who were you talking to?’ Erinn asks. I shake my head and make a note not to show off any more.

Then as we’re in line at Barnes and Noble, where I’ve found a planner I like, I see a guy wearing a Giants cap two places ahead at the counter. He sees me looking at my hat as I see him looking at mine. He doesn’t say a word, just gives me a silent, satisfied nod of affirmation. Erinn laughs beside me.

‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘I saw.’

*

The Usual Suspects

It’s Thursday night and I can’t help it; if I think of Hollywood I think of Los Angeles, if I think of Los Angeles, I think of Lenore and Duke. If I think of Lenore or Duke, I think of Los Angeles, and I think of Hollywood. It’s just the way it goes.

Lenore and Duke pick me up from my hotel and we go to Delancey’s for dinner. I like that this is where we go when we’re together in Los Angeles, like it’s kind of where you go if you write for TNB. There’s an empty place at the table for four, and we allocate it to Zara, who calls a few moments into the meal. The food, as always, is good. Duke gets the chocolate cake for dessert, and I am jealous, as his choice is superior to mine.

It’s good to see them, and it’s strange to think I just got here and already I’ll be leaving tomorrow night. On the way back to the car we pass a cat who wants to play with us, and we decide that Zara’s place in the group can be taken by our new cat friend.

I secretly cannot wait to tell Zara she has been replaced by a cat.

*

Departures

It’s Friday, and I’m hanging out with my friend Linz. I’ve stolen Ben Loory’s delicatessen, Greenblatt’s. This is his place, as far as I’m concerned, but I want the hot pastrami dip sandwich. I must have it. I can have nothing else. The waitress is from San Diego and makes idle chatter as we wait about how good San Diego is, but has trouble pulling out specifics.

‘Hang on,’ I say. ‘We’re going to settle something.’

I call Joe Daly and ask him what the best place in San Diego is.

‘My house,’ he says, sounding surprised that such a question would even occur.

I promise Joe that Zara and I will make our next trip soon, and we will come to San Diego.

The day goes by too quickly, and soon I am back at LAX. I talk in my bad Spanish to the woman in front of me at the security checkpoint. She is from Colombia and going to Wisconsin, of all places. She is old, with bad teeth and a shy smile. We sit together after going through the metal detectors and put our shoes back on. Something falls from her bag, a piece of paper, and I hand it back to her.

‘Gracias, senor,’ she says.

‘De nada, senora,’ I say in reply. ‘Que tenga un bueno noche.’

‘Si,’ she says. ‘Y tu.’

I have no idea how to say, ‘I’ve had one of the best weeks of my life and I don’t want to go back to Australia yet,’ in Spanish. We haven’t covered that at El Patio Spanish Language School. So I smile and go to catch my flight, and in my head, I am laying plans for my return.

This week I have had my first baseball game, my first Halloween, my first Dia de Los Muertos. I have drunk my first Old-Fashioned, eaten my first tamale, done whatever it is you do with your first Jello shots. I have seen people I love and don’t see enough, people I don’t see nearly as much as I want to, because they’re so far away.

I could do this week every day of the year.

 

 

 

 





¹ – correct.


This piece originally appeared in Gastronomica, was reprinted in the Best Food Writing 2006 anthology (Avalon Publishing Group), and is excerpted from my book, BAROLO (University of Nebraska Press, 2010)

Fingernails stained purple, I walk the quiet, cobblestoned streets of Barolo, Italy. It is early evening. My day has been spent harvesting the Nebbiolo grape crop for Luciano and Luca Sandrone, brothers whose distinctive features – one’s red suspenders and the other’s bald head – will certainly plague my dreams. I’ve been working in the vineyard for a month as a way to stay in Italy, as a way to be less of a tourist. At the moment, I’m a little stunned by the day’s heat and hard physical labor. Stunned, relaxed, and suddenly very hungry.

I step toward the counter, the butcher hidden from view in the back room behind the meat case. I hear the sound of a handsaw. I look to the walls, mostly blank, save for a poster of a bikini-clad woman holding a porterhouse in the air. The poster is signed in silver ink by “Valentina,” and addressed to “Franco.” Next to Valentina, encased in a black frame, is a picture of Barolo’s castle with a man-shaped shadow clinging to its east wall. I step closer and see that the man, like a comic-book superhero, is adhered to the ancient orange stone at least fifty feet off the ground. The man is facing the camera, sun in his eyes. His head is enormous, too big for his body, as if he’s been pieced together by Barolo’s resident mad scientist. A thick black moustache, curving over the sides of his mouth, is spread nearly horizontal in the force of his grin. He’s dressed in rock-climbing gear, leg muscles bursting in effort, his hands gripping a strange and bulbous rope. I step even closer to the picture, my nose nearly pasted to the wall, my breath fogging the frame’s glass, and see that this man is rappelling down the façade of the Castello di Barolo on a fifty-foot string of salami.

Before I can laugh, before I can even exhale, I hear the sound of thick flesh behind me, spreading into a massive smile. I turn. It is, of course, the man in the picture, Franco the Butcher, his moustache crawling over his face like a caterpillar on steroids. He wears brown-framed glasses that stretch from his eyebrows to his upper lip, from his black sideburns to the bridge of his boxer’s nose. A billow of black hair shoots geyser-wise from his head, calling to the florescent lights. His hands, strong enough to lift me by the top of my head, are streaked with blood. And yet — I never thought I’d describe someone like this — Franco the Butcher is jolly.

“Ciao,” I say, “Franco?”

“Si, si, Franco,” he replies in a quiet, gentle voice, a voice as hairy as he is. He rubs his hands together as if compressing the air into a pancake.

“Queste carne,” I say, running my hand over the expanse of display case, “e bellisima.”

“Grazie,” Franco says, truly touched by the compliment to his meats.

I watch as he rounds the counter, kicking sawdust from his shoes, and joins the scales, knives, and cleavers on the back wall. I examine his wares, salamis of all kinds: white salamis, red ones, pink ones, purple; salamis that nearly stray to black; duck salami, donkey salami, Barolo salami, truffle; salami as long as my legs, salami as short as my thumb; and there, twisted into cylinders as thick as my forearm, salami di cinghiale. Wild boar. Wild boar salami. I repeat the word in my head like a cured and fatty mantra, “Salami, salami, salami, salami…” until I descend into a cow-pig meditation. I wonder which meat held him to the walls of Barolo’s castle. I wonder if he celebrated his climb by eating his equipment. I smile and he sees it, his hands now on his hips, his white apron smeared with blood and fat.

“Americano, no?” Franco slurs.

“Si, americano,” I say, “ma adesso, in questa macelleria, sono italiano.”

Franco laughs at my wish to be Italian, then sighs, turns abruptly left, waves to me and utters, “Viene, viene qua.”

He leads me away from the salami display, and I watch reluctantly over my shoulder as these lovely jeweled life-vests float further and further away. Franco stops in front of the fresh meats: tenderloin, strip, porterhouse, sausages, pork chop, whole chickens, whole ducks—feet intact and orange, webbed and clinical in the light; pigs’ feet, pigs’ ears, pigs’ blood, veal chops, veal scallops, headcheese, and sweetbreads. And tripe, beautiful white tripe spread wide in its container like a Chinese fan; trippa, resting in recline like the Aurora Borealis on its lunch break. Franco reaches for the tripe with an ungloved finger. It yields like a lover to his touch. The tripe, for lack of a better word, is kissable.

I feel my feet slowly spinning across that high-school dance floor, slowly building a tango confidence to ask the beckoning girl out for a cup of coffee.

“Ti piace trippa?” Franco asks.

I shrug. I’ve never had it before. But how can I not like tripe?

“Si,” I say.

“Ah,” Franco smiles, “serio.”

“Si,” I nod, “serio,” and I feel more substantial for saying so. I feel like I could knock down buildings with my bare hands. I feel like I could keep up with Franco the Butcher.

He lifts the tripe from its tray and, like delicate lingerie, it unravels in the air. I want to rub its texture between my fingers, I want to try it on for size. I imagine taking a few pieces home to Il Gioco dell’Oca’s kitchen, asking my friend Raffaella for preparation advice, and cooking a tripe dinner together: soup, casserole, napoleon, whichever. I watch as Franco cuts a small piece the size of a finger joint. He holds the white gem to the light like a coin.

“Ah, trippa,” he says, and hands me the piece.

Amazing, I think, Amazing that he sensed my desire to experience its texture.

The tripe coin is soft and perforated, rich and heady like a chunk of styrofoam soaked in black tea. I, like Franco, hold it to the light and can almost see through it. I think I’m seeing ghosts. I think I can see my family back in Chicago. They’re all sitting in rush-hour traffic, car radios blaring classic rock. I allow them all to return home safe, then lower the tripe to the counter to give it back to Franco.

“No, no,” he says, holding his bloody-but-innocent palms at me, “Prego.”

“Che?” I ask, not quite understanding.

“Si, si, prego,” he offers again.

I’m confused. I think he wants me to keep the tripe. I’m not sure what to do with such a small piece. I reach to put it into my pocket; possibly I’ll play with it like a rubber stress ball on the way back to Il Gioco.

“No, no,” Franco says, and I raise the tripe again from my pocket to the counter, “Prego.”

I look at him and shrug. I shake my head. Somewhere behind me, Valentina, in her golden bikini, is comfortably holding her porterhouse. Franco opens his mouth. For a second, I think he’s going to take a bite out of me. I lean back and he points to the tripe, then points to his mouth, and again says, “Prego.”

I get it now, but that doesn’t mean I believe it. He wants me to eat the tripe.

“Crudo?” I say.

“Si,” Franco says.

He wants me to eat the tripe raw.

What kind of culinary hazing is this? Why? Why? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the pig stomach, but the raw ingesting of such items sends my own organs into disarray; my once hungry stomach now closes in on itself like a fist. My mouth goes dry. I’m having trouble swallowing.

“Prego,” Franco says again, and I feel there’s no way around this.

My stomach recoils deeper into my ribs and I want to cry. I hold the tripe to the light again and it goes from beautiful to revolting in no time flat. Raw tripe, if about to be cooked, is one thing, but raw tripe that wants to stay raw is another.

I look at Franco. His eyes are wide, his cheeks are glowing red. Jolly never looked so evil. I stare at the tripe, wriggling in the toddler laughter of my little sister whenever I got into trouble with my parents. I look to Franco. I look for a way out. The fluorescents burn into me like a spotlight. The audience is waiting; there’s no turning back now. After all, I told Franco I was “serious.”

I close my eyes and bring my fingers to my mouth.

I smell it before it hits my tongue: dust, metal, morning saliva, bathroom tile, campfire. It squirms in my mouth like a goldfish fighting for its life, a mini skinned bronco bucking my teeth, surely stirring a cowboy-shaped splatter from my stomach.

Hold on, I think, as the taste of pure gut struggles to pass over my taste buds, Hold on. I don’t dare bite into it, don’t dare explode the taste of unmentionable pig over my tongue.

So I swallow it whole, think of oysters, hold my breath, and wait.

“Bravo,” Franco claps and laughs in descending octaves.

A sweat breaks from my forehead. I gag audibly, but keep it down.

Opening my mouth to exhale, I know I have passed a hideous test and am surprised to find that the taste, if not the memory, has already faded. I rode the bull and returned a little trampled, but ungored.

Franco pulls a necklace of wild boar salami from the wall and hands it to me as my reward, laughing all the way. I can’t believe I’m going to thank this man.

“Grazie,” I say.

All Franco does is laugh.

As I turn to leave the macelleria, paper bag shifting in my arms, Franco the Butcher raises a bloody, tight-fingered hand into the air and, smiling his biggest smile of the day, dangles another slice of tripe into the light.

“Domani,” he says, pointing to the horrendous thing.

I shake my head. I wave.

Tomorrow, I think, opening the door to the street, Tomorrow I’m not coming anywhere near this place.

As children, my sister and I would fight mercilessly for the dining room chair with the armrests. My parents had a mismatched set—2 chairs with them, two chairs without. One of the prized chairs went to my father, always. The other one remained up in the air. We had to devise our complaint plans carefully. If things escalated past a certain point of shrillness, or, heaven forbid, reached for tears, the up-for-grabs chair with the armrests would go to my mother.

“Settled!” she would yell, plopping herself down as my sister and I, defeated, scowled at each other and struggled throughout the meal with where to put our stupid little arms.

Here, in México Viejo, I feel like I’ve won for good, been granted the lifelong vindication with which I can now, via my penchant for self-satisfied teasing (a characteristic necessary to any successful older brother), torture, if only in some unspoken way, my sister back in Illinois. The armrests here are huge enough to house our old seven-year-old bodies comfortably, and I feel compelled to use the space, soak up the luxury, slide my arms from the inside edge to the outside and back again.

“Why are you doing that?” Louisa asks, “You look like some demented chicken.”

Through a screen of pickled nopal cactus salad with tomatillo, garlic, and cilantro, I muster my best, food-drunk, “Bok-bok-bokaaaaaahhhk!” to Louisa’s shaking head.

The cactus leaps in my mouth quite unlike any chicken-feed, food-drunk or otherwise, gives-in to my teeth like something vaguely marine, the soft interior organ-gum of some aphrodisiac crustacean, reached only through a sharp, poisonous shell. I soak the nopal salad’s skinny juice with the remains of the corn tortilla that once held my roasted chile rajas taco, crowned with paprika-crusted goat’s milk queso anejo and blackened mushrooms. The chilies and mushrooms held within them that clandestine cooking aqua vitae soaked up from the surface of the comal; the serum released from countless meats, oils, spices, vegetables who came to perfection on the hot griddle, leaving trickles of their best selves behind. With each bite, these juices stream into my mouth like some liquid encyclopedia of culinary history. Chapter One: Fuck, this is good. Chapter Two: Oooooohhhh…

Louisa and I work our way through, as if in competition, mounds of pickled pigs’ feet with onion, chile chilaca, and epazote; pink-rare tuna in tomato-jalapeño broth; miniature corn tortillas topped with red chile beans and cotija cheese… As we move from the bottom of the L-buffet to the table equivalent of the letter’s vertical pillar, we fill our plates further with chilaquiles en salsa verde, what the taco lady refers to as, the classic Mexican hangover breakfast—strips of fresh tortilla cooked in oil with tomato, onion, garlic, chiles and eggs. We heap the slow-roasted marrow-sticky blackness of barbacoa de borrego next to the chilaquiles—marinated pulled lamb shoulder packed with the vegetal density of its cooking accompaniments—carrot, celery, onion, poblano chile, garlic, tomato, cilantro—all enfolded into a banana leaf and cooked over low heat for ten hours.

Eating it, our lips bear a sheen that teeters on the verge of the sexually aroused and the sexually satisfied—right there in the middle, where all the good stuff is. I want to kiss marrow residue from my wife’s lips. Thank you, Mexico City! I stand, woozy, Louisa stares at me in disbelief.

“You can’t possibly be going back for more,” she says.

I respond in the only way I can, full to the point of stretch marks, intoxicated on chile spice and fruit vinegars, but determined to taste two more things, two more tacos: with a lisp.

“I can pothibly,” I muster, and make a beeline for the taco lady.

She must be about my mom’s age, but packed with a compact vitality. Everything about her is bright and small—her eyes like dimes, ears like dwarf Seckel pears, a nose I can swallow with nary a sip of water. She explains in a unicorn voice my options: lime-marinated chicken, carne asada… I choose this time one taco with chorizo and queso fresco, the other with flor de calabaza (pumpkin flower). As she prepares my tacos, a little cuerno pastry of a girl—she can’t be more than eight years old—approaches me from my blind side, taps me on the butt-cheek and sings, “I can speak a little English.”

My heart leaps. I look down and see her scalp first, her hair perfectly parted down the middle, held into place with yellow beaded tree-frog barrettes.

“I can speak a little Spanish,” I say, “Por ejemplo: pollo, carne asada, queso…”

She giggles, “You can only say food?”

I shrug and she asks where I am from.

“Los estados unidos,” I say, “La ciudad de Chicago.”

“I hear of Chicago,” she says, “It is very big?”

“No tan grande como aquí,” I say, indicating with my hands that Mexico City is bigger.

“Your Spanish is not very good,” she says, and takes her plate of tortillas and beans back to her table.

I can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed, and I turn back to the taco lady, who smiles at me, lips like a silkworm. She holds her hands toward me, fingers balancing the two finished plates. I take them from her, our hands brushing, and in our touch, something sparks; something in me, as if emulating her, reaches for smallness—not heart or appetite, but resolve, my already diminutive ability for restraint. I am a little afraid I will not stop eating.

As the chorizo’s allspice and apple vinegar run into my mouth, the corn tortilla heavy with its orange grease, Louisa holds my hand as if I am on a gurney, having a piece of me excised, sans anesthesia, with a scalpel.

“Whew…” I say, and finish the pumpkin flower, the delicate flavors of soil and sweet summer plant coating my tongue, stirring some childhood memory—the first taste of zucchini perhaps, or the happy winning of the armrest chair. I swallow and see long-dead constellations.

“You are done,” Louisa commands, a leaf of cilantro plastered to her front tooth.

I smile. I decide not to tell her.

“Yes,” I say, sputtering into my chalice of carrot juice.

We lean back in our chairs, arms reclining like spent suntanned lovers, watching the restaurant become more and more festive by the moment. Toward the rear of the place, a massive wedding table hugs the orange wall, and twenty people pound their fists on its surface, rattling the clay bowls of caldo de res beef stew and menudo tripe soup in red chile brew, as the bride, in her white gown and veil whips her napkin like the blades of a linen helicopter over her head, lifting the dress train to expose the full mahogany of her gartered thighs.