Not yet anteater boot-top-deep in suicide art and esophageal cathedral, the open rush of mole negro alley and chipped abalone shell catching the sun in its drying marine mitt, strange creams and Aztec knives—long-gone virginal—loved, hated, ignored, we ditch, thanks to Juan Pérez’s biscuit-faced generosity, our suitcases behind the Rioja’s front desk for the day—our flight to Oaxaca City only at 9:00pm tonight, and sup from Ciudad de México/Méjico/Distrito Federal, this triple-named beast of a metropolis, its belly heaving with street-scene and food and market and fake snow in 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and Juan Pérez’s patulous hugs (He actually runs his hands over the backs of our heads, kisses us on our cheeks, his lips warm and smooth, his face prickled with graying stubble, rife with effluvium—clove, citrus peel, musk, the back of a grandparent’s closet, the mothballs there and peeling floral shelfpaper, the spice of age and the uncontainable joy that can sometimes penetrate loneliness, calling to my own grandparents long-lost in their Long Island deathbed Yiddish mumblings and sweet neuroses bound to triple-checking the thermostat before bed, and Louisa’s, their quiet passings after being robbed in Johannesburg, handcuffed to their toilet), and stepping from the lobby, our ultra-temporary home, our one-night sanctuary and port in the educational protest deluge, we are naked and stuffed with beating hearts, two turkeys bloated with garlic and apple and breadcrumb and quick pace, heated demeanors, breasts drying out in this city-oven, juices running clear and exhilarated over the haldz and pupik of Avenida Cinco de Mayo and the corners we have yet to turn.

We blow kisses to the Virgen de Guadalupe calendar, the nightstands that once, if only for a storied night, held our books and our beer. The courtyard inhales, inflates its ribcage and we stare upward to its lack of ceiling, the sky washed-out, pale and filthy. We slip sheets of yellow paper beneath our suitcase handles with our Mexican names: Mateo y Luisa Franco. Wheel them behind the front desk. Juan Pérez implores us with a string of ten cuidados, clapping the air between his thick hands in applause or prayer, we can’t tell. We assure him we will be careful, our breaths sick with cheap toothpaste, his with cigar tobacco, leaf-acrid and heady, and step in toward those celestial embraces. He will not be here when we return, his shift over, his forty-minute drive to his ample wife and one daughter who still lives at home (of his remaining seven children, only two reside in Mexico City, and one of them in Chicago! which injects our goodbye with the additional five minute fever of memory and a list of stateside Mexican restaurants; Juan Pérez tells us he has never traveled north to visit. Muy caro,” he laments, rubbing his fingers together, empty of the many dólares he would have to spend to get there, my hometown, his son’s apartment, the last place my parents will likely live). We will retrieve our bags from that reincarnated eagle of a front desk clerk we saw briefly last night. In Juan Pérez’s adiós, the weight of the caretaker world.

We step, again, into the street, carrying with us our own decades in the service industry—my sixteen years in the restaurant trade, my start at age eleven, washing dishes in a fast food chicken shack on the outskirts of Chicago, moving through the worlds of server, busboy, wine grape picker and cantina floor mopper in Italy, line cook, garde manger, sous chef, sommelier, manager, catering business owner; Louisa’s journey including much of the same, though peppered with au pair in Israel, counselor to teenage drug addicts and prostitutes in South Africa (which temporarily earned her the status of nun), laundress in Key West (where she and I met in a Latin jazz bar called Virgilio’s, indelibly earning her the status of Fallen Sister Louie); our lives now in academia and massage therapy and, in Mexico, wherein we step toward the Zócalo, Juan Pérez’s graciousness still clinging to our necks like barbate scarves.

He makes us miss the service industry. We talk of this as we walk, our pace enflamed with our forthcoming evening plane ride, how the past has its sneaky ways to force us to desire it, return to it, even though we know disappointment imminently looms.

“Human nature,” Louisa says, as we pass an old woman playing the xylophone at the street curb, “we always want to be what we’re not, sweeten the things we used to do.”

“Or where we used to be,” I say.

Chicago asserts itself in the distance—some prohibitive force, forever muy caro.

When we emerge from skinny side-street into the behemoth Zócalo, we see at its center, on this 80-degree day, a snow machine spewing its cold manufactured flakes into the air. A team of smocked employees works with inadequate gloves to mound the snow into piles from which children, for a few pesos can pack snowballs for the throwing. The line to do this is obscene and snaking, two hours long at least, but oh, sweet novelty! This is the white sand beach to Siberia! All we can do is stop to watch a seven-year-old girl finally reach the line’s front, fork over her mother’s coins, and build a pathetic eight-inch snowman with the aid of a rigid burlap mold, under the supervision of a beautiful red-vested employee with matching red Santa Claus barrettes.

To her mother’s snapping camera, the girl beams as the barretted employee supplies her with a small pieces of cork and a reusable string of carrot, mounted on a long pin to stick into the molded snow-dwarf’s face, machine-pumped flakes waltzing around her head, collecting like diamonds in her black hair. Though this world is melting quickly, and she’s already being ushered out to allow for the next child, her face, as if trapped in a mold of its own, will not lose its smile. This is a past that may not require sweetening. Louisa and I take each other’s sweating hands. It’s been a strange winter.

Filling In

By Kristen Elde

Memoir

April 2007

“This isn’t spackle, it’s caulk,” he says, rolling his eyes as I hand over the plastic cylinder. But my oversight has brought him relief, clear in the quick release of his breath, the immediacy of his smile. It’s an error he might have predicted, which brings with it some comfort, and neither of us knows how long we have before these sorts of things stop registering.

As I meet his eyes, comfort is exceeded by disorientation. I can’t navigate my misstep. I don’t want it to mean anything, but I can’t help worrying that it’s somehow prophetic. I scan his face for explanation (I knew what I needed; what happened?) and think I read doubt. Quick, recover: “God, dumb. I’ll run back.”

Looking down at his hand: “No, it’s fine–toothpaste should work okay.”

Just over a month ago we’d reached our end, culmination of six years of relationship, a careful history resembling the layout of my new home, its length through the center, its bulk at each end. As of today, this is where I live: a subterranean, windowless unit with warped floors and a troubling echo.

Eventually, I am crouching at one end of the apartment, while he stands at the other.

He had offered to move, even insisting that I be the one to keep our address. Drowsy with grief and vulnerable to suggestion, I’d come close to taking him up on it. But in the end, the walls had driven me out, their glossy gray coat still wet with memories of naked limbs stretching, straining; trim brushes saturated and spilling over with excess pigment; drop cloths made sticky in our haste.

I’m organizing my books, an effort I’ve always found taxing. I’m annoyed, unable to establish a system within the constraints of my new bookcase. There are the obvious distinctions–poetry, fiction, nonfiction, instructional, etc.–but I know from experience that this isn’t enough. The dissimilarity in the books’ dimensions is a problem, because it means that the relief will be jagged, and that some of the volumes won’t fit vertically at all, that they will have to be stacked horizontally. I could always leave them out, but included in this group are several that I have yet to read, and I know that if I tuck them away somewhere, there’s a decent chance I’ll forget about them.

In the end, it’s fiction and poetry up top, nonfiction and graphic novels one down, Norwegian language books and those on writing technique and “selling yourself” on the bottom shelf. Also on the bottom, the dreaded stacks, which I’ll try to ignore just enough.

We are not talking, nor is there music playing. The only sound is the whirring overhead: one fan per end, per each of us. I am not feeling the old pressure to carry us, or to consent to be carried, but I don’t know how much of this has to do with the hallway that obscures him from me, my hang-up with the books, his makeshift spackling…

I don’t feel bad, having him help me out. He’s made it clear he wants to be involved, not because he feels he owes me anything, but because it’s his nature to step in, because he cares for me, because, maybe, he would like to see me a little bit stuck. “I want to be a part of your new place”: It’s the sort of thing you might expect someone in his position to say, and I like the sound of it. As if everything is going according to plan. Besides, part of me likes the idea of being a little bit stuck, and the idea of him wanting me to be.

We cross paths several times over the next couple of hours, though we remain for the most part absorbed in our respective tasks. I move between boxes, manning the placement of towels, clothes, utensils. He’s still going to town on the walls, filling holes large and small, some gaping with the loss of heavy screws, others as negligible as the thumb-tacked poster/calendar/to-do list that once hid them. Glancing over at him intermittently, I think of past starts, fresh addresses, and I retrace my footsteps, my family’s footsteps, opening, closing, opening doors that would reveal so much more a year out than they ever did when I lived behind them.

I reach for a hanger, sliding onto it a dress I’d bought the day before we split. It’s a frilly turquoise thing, and I feel embarrassed looking at it. But the fan above has become a lawnmower pushed along by a neighbor, the sensible hum of its motor reaching around the side of our house and into the backyard, where my brother and I are on our backs in the grass, pointing out mythical creatures as they shape-shift worlds above us.

It’s time to stop. We’re both exhausted, drooping beneath the day’s physical demands, as well as, in my case, an independence that only makes me uneasy, that I want to be able to sleep off. The plan (still with the plans) is for him to spend the night, the first night, here with me. I’d been the one to bring this up, getting it out of the way as soon as I had a move-in date. Once confirmed, I’d felt immediately better, confident we were going about things systematically. Plus, I’d wanted him to know what I would be like in bed from now on: the views I would have, where my feet would go, the last thing I’d see, on my back, looking up, before I dreamed. And then there was the long, horizontal hug to look forward to, our last before everything went vertical.

We give it a shot: parting the sheets, bending into each other, easily naked. But, sensitive to the storm of dust particles we’d kicked up earlier, he can’t get comfortable. An hour in, the sneezing still hasn’t lifted and he decides to sleep at home instead, saying he’ll return the following night for a make-up. Okay. I’m surprised at the ease I feel in putting this step off, a willingness to give up tonight for tomorrow. Dressed, he kisses me on the mouth and walks for a long time down the hallway, so long that I, approaching sleep with the ease of a newborn, just barely manage to hear the door close behind him.

The next morning, a Saturday, I am sitting on my new sofa, bare legs crossed, knees just clearing the edges of the center cushion. Without music or TV or a second voice to bring out my own, the whole scene feels suspiciously Zen, and while in theory I like this, in practice it’s, I decide, a total sham. I tell myself to get up and make some noise, dance around, cry, whatever. I settle on breakfast, and the sounds that come with preparing it.

Back on the couch, now with a nice loud bowl of granola, something on the opposing wall catches my attention. A dried glob of Peppermint Crest, with tiny raised points where fingertips, his, had failed to brush it smooth. How am I supposed to paint over this shit? I watch my irritation grow in proportion to the number of instances I see around me: dozens of little white crowns, jutting into the room’s center, imposing a topography I am not pleased with. I’m pissed, actually, and I can’t help but think of this as an act of sabotage.

Even so, an understood thing about maps is that they’re always changing, expected to go with the flow, to adapt in the aftermath of war, peace, discovery, plate tectonics. And so, razor blade in hand, I take to the walls, slicing into the hardened gum, chipping away at it as drifts of bleached slivers collect around the baseboard. Before long I’m in a groove, leveling toothpaste with real acuity, hills to plains, with none of the jagged cuts of an hour ago. I am completely sober, but I feel the way I do after a couple glasses of wine: permeable, willing, warm behind the eyes. I angle too sharply into the next crown, withdrawing my hand to reveal a good-sized recess, which I don’t fill, but leave behind as a reminder of what I have yet to chart.

An empty cargo boat is sitting in the Puget Sound with nothing to do.

I see as many as three of them at once sometimes from the window of my apartment.

Tonight, my girlfriend is going to cut my hair, which might be the reason the Northwest is in a recession.