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For my fellow misfits at The Nervous breakdown

 

To belong? What’s it mean? Is it creature of tense? Is it active or passive?
Is it cold set in bone, magma oozing to plate ocean floor, or explosive
Crackling reaction, plume clearing to flesh jacked into the massive?

My parents were wartime romance. “There was something in the air that night,
The stars were bright, Fernando…” For liberty indeed, and ten years prior, NOT
Fernando; to ditch the justice of the peace and priest’s decree of might makes names right;

They’d fought the Queen so that Gerald could be Uche, raised on Nigerian playgrounds
But when ancient wounds opened and national grass ran red, they fought for…Biafran greens.
Never thought that they could lose so they stitched their winnings into my ten birthweight pounds.

The moment he realised he was a hero was the exact moment when he knew he would never be a hero again. It was at that instant he knew that what was necessary was almost certainly that which was furthest outside the boundaries of possibility.

As a young man, Stephen had travelled the world, rapidly, and with abandon—fearlessly, some said. Idealist. Schtick. He was big on other people’s dreams. And fulfilling them: To expose them as nothing more then received aspirations – the third-hand smoke of a disinterested Empire: To spite them.

He’d followed the trail, strung farther and farther out across the third world like a garland of adolescent spittle gobs, hiding behind a Lonely Planet – glossy shield against the appetite of some diabolical gorgon.

A pair of low green hills were shaped like a pair of breasts in the Transylvanian mountains when he was 18. He remembered wondering to himself at the time what exactly the point of travelling could possibly be:

If you could go there, why the hell would you want to go anywhere else?

If truth be told, that ambition had never really left him.

Proust reckoned, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Pico Ayer has it that, “one really travels in one’s head”. Colonial Belgian explorer of Central Africa, Jérôme Becker identified the cause of his departure as, “nostalgia for the unknown.” Rimbaud was all about, “traffiking in the unknown”, in his aimless wanderings around same.

In a warped psalm ninety-one to the hard-on of Moses; in the mistaken belief someone wanted to share his sleeping bag for the red-granite sunrise, Stephen sprinted 2000 metres up Mount Sinai with the gold meridian of the sun at his heels.

He crucified himself on a swift and frantic Siamese emigration, like a trans-hemispheric Saint Valentine’s Day martyrer – marking the anniversary of a purple and orange Balinese high with cold memories of a hot rainstorm. He wound himself round the thread of a ballet-dancing Ariadne, tearing himself out of her eyes—Theseus abandoning himself on the beach instead of her. He eclipsed his existence for a glimpse into the diamond life of a Japanese actress with lips like the plumula of an orchid.

He wandered the art galleries, museums and religious monuments of the world, flattening the ostensibly wild, varied and fascinating continuum of his existence into a psychedelic gestalt of unending indulgent stimuli:

If there was ever an aesthete, it was Stephen Darlington.

Nursing Spanish hangovers, he lusted after the Reina Sofia with Picasso’s bent eyes. He saw the womb in Anish Kapoor. He paid for Ubud primitives over the mystery of the feminine. He broke his mind on Vietnam—hallucinating that he wasn’t even there, man. By New York, he couldn’t even look at the walls: Every minute he spent not desperately trying to inveigle himself into the lives of the genetically-stellar made him feel like he had wasted his entire life.

In flight, he escaped on the wings of opened books — delving into the recesses of esoteric knowledge; mining compensatory sapphires.

It didn’t matter that everyone else’s dreams were not his own, he followed them anyway. The long, slow pixel degradation of his unarticulated ambitions exposed the dark fissures in his life, like the black papyrus absences threatening to eclipse the hieratic on the Egyptian Book of Dreams:

British Museum recto 10683

“The dreamy blue of Italian skies, the dappled shade of summer woods, and the sparkle of waves in the sun, can have accorded but ill with that stern and sinister figure.”

-James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1890 – 1935

Freud believed that neuroticism is the inability to tolerate ambiguity; that contagious magic is a delusion of the neurotic – that things once in contact with each other do not continue to act on one another after physical contact has been severed.

Keats wrote that poetry is the ability to hold equal and opposite ideas in the mind at the same time—that an equal propensity for the greatest ecstasy and the greatest despair at one and the same moment is eminently necessary.

No wonder those men had a go at the face of the sphinx: The inscrutability of the silent and unknowable ancient enigma is impenetrable and absolute. But Oedipus beat the riddle with his head, didn’t he? He didn’t rely on torso alone.

“The mind is what one must consider, the mind. What is the use of physical beauty, when one does not have beauty in the mind?”

-Euripides, Oedipus, fr. 548

The night sky smells of rain, but there’s no rain, there is to be no rain tonight, and this makes me think of ghosts and their smells, ghosts and meteorology, which of course stirs me to think of lightning; how one’s hair must smell after being struck in someone else’s country, long after the street-food stalls have closed, and options are limited, and there’s too much sulfur in your blood. I’m hungry and irrational, and after we dump our suitcases in the room, Louisa takes my hand, leads me to the marble stairs and we go down, down, down to find food.

Blood sugar dropping like sycamore leaves in a hurricane, I begin babbling about lightning, smells of rain. Louisa has gotten used to this. Back in Chicago, with its chemotherapies and countless scans, with its bald-mother heads and deflated fathers, I was like this most of the time.

“You know, men are struck by lightning four times more often than women,” I say, our footsteps booming in the after-hours hotel, the old eagle reincarnate thumbing through a magazine behind the front desk. Even though he wears reading glasses, his nose is nearly pressed to the page. I resist the temptation to make some “eagle-eye, my ass” joke, and stick, perhaps irrationally, to lightning.

“Do men spend more time outdoors?” I ask, “holding lightning rod-like things, like golf clubs? Or is lightning drawn to testosterone?”

“Weather must be a woman,” Louisa confirms, and I know, I just know she resists her own temptation to say something about the penis as antenna.

“Well, I’m fucked,” I say.

Louisa pulls me past the old man at the front desk—she knows my compulsion to strike up a conversation, show off my shattered Spanish, will outweigh even my lust for food right now, to my blood sugar’s detriment. Soon, we’re on the street, surprisingly quiet for a metropolitan area of nearly 21 million people. It is, I suppose, a Tuesday night in December—Wednesday morning really. Graffiti slithers along the buildings’ bases, day-glo snakes rushing for their holes—eyeballs commingling with lowercase Gs, whose tails extend like tongues. Either this graffiti is unusually erotic, or my need for food is approaching desperate, critical. Only hospital designations will do…

We choose the first open restaurant we see, a small beacon of muted yellow light a couple blocks from the Rioja. It’s Potzolcalli, and we’re among the last two tables of their night. In their overblown laminated menus, and table tents advertising fluorescent drink specials, the place strikes me as the Friday’s of Mexico, a bit cookie cutter. I’m not surprised to later learn the place has 18 outlets throughout Mexico City, but am immediately sated not only by the proximity to food, the smell of roasting corn driving the phantom-rain back into the atmosphere’s afterlife, but by the decor, rife with big-eyed clay animals, half burnt candles dripping their red wax down the yellow walls, giant wooden chairs with armrests wide enough for our legs, carved Metapec life trees capturing, in pottery, the seductive árbol from which Adam and Eve biblically suckled.

In situations like this, I typically order what I don’t know, welcoming the surprise, even if it is less than tasty. This had led, of course, to many a food-borne illness. But perhaps the same chemical that makes me vulnerable to lightning can successfully fight gustatory bacteria, allowing me always to eat and eat and eat another day.

I order a mysterious elixir called Garañona, which, the skinny twenty-something waiter assures me, his cheekbones poking from his face like chicks too weak to break the membrane egg, contains about a dozen herbs and barks, lots of sugar, and serious aphrodisiac properties. He transfers this last description across language by pumping his fist horizontally through the air, surely coupling with the windblown dust mites.

“Oh, great,” Louisa protests, “That’s just what you need.”

Our eyes narrow with exhaustion and, in this light, we feel airborne ourselves, and microscopic, dizzy with the first eight years of our marriage, uncovering the world with each other, and in each other, excavating with our tiny brushes the small truths in small sanctuaries, wherein all we can do is consume together, two cannibals against the world, all food the border we must balance upon between civility and the civil right to voraciousness; to eat and to eat each other. Our eyes narrow, and I think we realize all this, wordlessly in travel-and-hunger dementia, love ardor, and that smell of roasting corn. This, even before we leash our bodies to the weather of tonight, the next eight years, and the Garañona, and cerveza Bohemia and strawberry milkshake and tacos with carne asada, tinga, pollo con mole poblano, cerdo con mole verde, chicharron, epazote and sweet pickled onion…

Hotel Bound

By Amanda Miller

Essay

My family loved road trips. Collective confinement we loved somewhat less. My brother and I fought like thugs, my father was seething before we reached the city limits, and my mother’s duties trebled during this so-called time off, as she became not just mother but navigator and referee. Her warnings that we’d better not make our father stop the car earned brief respite from the din of our tiny, angry voices. We knew we deserved a good murdering and believed that one day dad would pull onto the shoulder and deliver.

 

My name is Irene Zion and I have been writing for TNB for quite a while. I’ve been married to Victor for 76 years, or thereabouts. Victor practiced retinal surgery for decades and I taught junior high and high school, but mostly I raised the oodles of children in my house. Some of them were mine. Now we are retired and living on Miami Beach. We are blessed with good health and stamina. We are thankful for the discovery of powerful antacid medicines, so that we can continue to enjoy foods that would otherwise eat right through our stomach linings. I am still hoping for a cure for chicken neck, but all things considered, we are content and peaceful. Life is good.

Victor and I went on a long trip to Africa recently. Yeah, but that is way too long and complicated to get into here. Never mind. You should just be aware that we do a lot of weird traveling. Our aspiration is to go everywhere and see everything. We have plenty of time, since we aren’t planning to get any older.

We have at least five kids that I can remember off the bat. They are frequently characters in my stories, so you should know a bit about them. In age order there is Sara, who is an anesthesiologist. She is married to Tushar and has our phenomenal and only grandchildren, Stella and Oscar. Then there is Lonny, who is married to Sara. Tim is in the middle. Then comes Lenore, (you know her, right?) Last, I think, is Ben, who is married to Kate.

Sara, Tushar, Stella and Oscar moved from one state to another recently. Their new house came with an elevator and a fish tank. The elevator is exceptionally safe. You could walk up the stairs backwards and blindfolded, carrying a porcelain toilet, and get there far before the elevator does. The fish tank is teaching the children about death.

Lonny proposed to Sara at our annual Thanksgiving festival. Two years ago, Ben proposed to Kate at this same festival, thus setting in stone the tradition that when a child of ours gets engaged, it is at our house, during the Thanksgiving weekend, surrounded by family, friends, dogs and sushi. Strange things seem to happen at our Thanksgivings, ask around.

Sara and Lonny followed our sensible family custom and eloped. They are now a typical newly married couple, complete with a practical house and enormous debt. Sara obviously has magical powers, since she actually retained a teaching position in Los Angeles, which is nothing to sneeze at. Now we have two “Sara Zions,” the resulting confusion being perfectly Zionesque. There was an outside chance once for another “Kate Zion,” but she turned out to be a closeted creepy psycho-stalker, so we had to jettison her, but I would need permission in order to tell that story.

Timothy is now getting a Masters Degree in Accounting. This required him to buy and use a PC. He keeps his beloved Mac in working order and occasionally buys it a new Mac toy in order to assuage his conscience and mollify his Mac. Tim is allergic to cats and he can’t have a dog in his apartment, so I’m pretty sure the Mac is his only pet now. After spending close to nine years in Hawaii, Tim is having a difficult time leaving his flip-flops home and putting on warm shoes in the cold and snowy Chicago winter. I think that it would be a safe bet to make that, after he finishes his degree, he might very well relocate to a place that is flip-flop-friendly.

Lenore was in the original crop of TNBers; I assume you’ve read her stuff. She has only a matter of months remaining in her Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology. She, not unlike other Zion children, is collecting degrees. This one will be her fourth. She also has two in Creative Writing and another in Psychology. These degrees have so far landed her a short stint at Blockbusters. We, as a family, look extremely good on paper. Unfortunately, we do not excel in actually landing gainful employment.

Lenore is working on what we euphemistically call the “last draft” of her novel. She will be out in the job market again at the end of August, given that she has not already appeared on Oprah, before the show goes off the air.

Benjamin and Kate also live in Chicago. Benjamin will finish Law school at the end of the summer, after which he is determined to land the elusive position in Law. I am concerned that this search is unlikely to bear edible fruit, so he may soon be adding yet another degree to his résumé. We hope the next one will lead to a real job for which he might get actual cash money. Kate just began Medical School. She is usually holed up in their tiny extra room studying. She occasionally sleeps and eats.

Our four-year-old Golden, Brooklyn, tore her second ACL and had her second Tibial Patellar Leveling Osteotomy. We were relieved to hear that ACL tears can only happen on a dog’s rear knees. Since both of them have been repaired, we should be good to go now. She has a staggering amount of titanium connecting parts of her body together. She won’t be pulling any sleds in the Iditarod, but she gets around just fine for what she needs to do. In March she will have healed enough from her latest surgery to limp back to her therapy dog work. Kimchee, our two-year-old Golden, is almost finished her therapy dog training. She is a goofy and delightful dog, perfect for therapy work, if she will stop peeing and wagging her tail in it every time she meets someone new. So far as I know, being sprayed with dog pee is not considered therapeutic.

For reasons that are unclear to us, we have had five attempted koi suicides in our atrium fishpond this year. Alas, four of the suicides were successful. One fish was saved in the nick of time by quick action by Victor, who ran through the pond to retrieve the muddy fish off the dirt and hurriedly placed him back in his element. It has been some months, and this particular fish seems to have had a change of heart. We think he has chosen life. Bravo for him.

Victor still volunteers at Fairchild Tropical Gardens doing backbreaking work on palm trees in the beating sun with two of his highly educated friends who also nevertheless inexplicably do hard labor. He and his friends are all of a certain age. Virtually every week, one of them throws out his back or injures an eye.

We also found out that Victor is allergic to every variety of ant in Florida. Aside from making him itchy, he looks uncommonly nasty after these allergic reactions. Luckily for him, he couldn’t care less how he looks. He also doesn’t care how I look. This used to annoy the bejezus out of me, but the older I get; the more this quirk of his is working in my favor.

Victor also teaches basic math and reading skills at a men’s homeless shelter. If you know Victor, you may be surprised to hear that he has an unflinching faith in humanity and the right to a second chance. (I know! He seems so cynical, right?)

I continue to play with children confined to their beds at Miami Children’s Hospital. I also cart Brooklyn around so she can do her various therapy jobs, since, although she is uncommonly clever, she does not have the opposable thumbs needed to drive a car.

I continue to paint peculiar portraits in oil when I am able to dislodge Victor from my leg.

It pleases me to write stories on line at TNB, for which I am grateful to its creator, Brad Listi. I write non-fiction. In doing so, I try my best to embarrass as many family members as possible. From time to time, a serious story slips in to my site. That’s your one and only warning; Ben Loory, (also known as “son of Loory,”) was right. Virtual gold stars are sent out to everyone who comments. The repugnant and offensive comments are especially fun to read, so, please, have at it!

Now that we have officially been introduced, we wish each of you good health and contentment in your life.

And a dog.

We wish you each at least one dog to love you regardless of what life throws at you.


Photograph Legend:

Humans:

Back row, left to right: Tim, Sara, Lonny, Ben, Victor, and Tushar.

Middle row, left to right: Kate, Lenore, Irene and Sara.

Front row, left to right: Stella and Oscar

Dogs:

Back left: Kimchee

Front right: Brooklyn

Fish:

Survivors of the multiple piscatorial suicides are swimming Shiva and declined to be photographed at this time.

My memoir, BAROLO, about my illegal work in the Piemontese Italian food and wine industry was recently released.  Check it out!

BAROLO is now in stock and available here:

In 1947, author and certified intellectual Simone de Beauvoir left Paris to travel America for four months.She chronicled the experience in her long-unpublished book L’Amerique au jour de jour (America Day by Day, University of California Press) making both critical and gushing observations on American culture that are remarkable in the way they still apply, as though she either had uncanny foresight or else the country has, in fact, shifted very little since the first years after the Second World War.

She points out:“Tourism has a privileged character in America:it doesn’t cut you off from the country it’s revealing to you; on the contrary, it’s a way of entering it.”This she says leaving Las Vegas , the city that has become a truer portal into the American psyche every year since de Beauvoir first visited.Sadly, she never laid eyes on Paris Las Vegas, where she could have experienced the acute ironic thrill of sitting down at a caféin the shadow of the Eiffel Tower beside eight lanes of traffic and a row of swaying palm trees.

I stole an umbrella in San Francisco; I’m not proud of it. Maybe I didn’t steal it – maybe it had legitimately been abandoned and the theft was that rarest of things, a victimless crime. The umbrella itself was smallish and red and lying on top of a news-stand outside the Walgreen’s on the corner of Castro and 18th. It was raining, I didn’t have an umbrella of my own, and the dry circle at the front of the Walgreen’s was a lonely oasis on a sidewalk where flooding gutters and dripping roofs stretched away in all directions. Motive met opportunity met intent and while it was hardly the heist of the century, I was more than a little worried that someone was going to yell out after me ‘Hey! Hey asshole! Yeah, you! The Australian asshole!’

But they didn’t, and, guiltily dry in the pouring rain, I gripped my new umbrella tight and walked quickly away, and home.

My Facebook feed is currently filled with information on the weather in California. People in LA talk about monsoon-like winds and minor hurricanes roaming the town, moaning their way between apartment buildings. People in the greater SoCal area status update about wild nights and fierce days, about seeing trees blown over and powerlines disabled. And my friends in San Francisco mostly talk about the rain, the grey downpour that hasn’t stopped for days.

I arrived in San Francisco on November 29, 2008. It was my first time in America; my first time outside Australia. Before leaving Australia I’d sold everything I owned that could be sold – my CD collection, my DVDs, my car. This was to be my big move, my big Next Step on my life path – I had a hard-won two-year working visa, and I was emigrating to the US under the auspices of a company that had hired me as a contractor. The job I’d currently been contracted to do? Working on reviews of porn sites.

No, seriously.

The flight from Australia to the US is a long one. I’ve done it six times in fourteen months now, and my advice to those making the trip is to get a flight with Virgin Pacific or Air New Zealand if you can – there’s noticeably more legroom and the food is better. My flight to SF the first time around consisted of a brief stopover in Sydney, then a fourteen-hour trek over the Pacific – and after four hours in the air that inch of extra space makes a world of difference.

The line through immigration at SFO was no joke. Hundreds of people, bleary and tired, waited to get into America; a long, long line of people standing in a meandering snake of a queue, hemmed in by bright yellow guide ropes, moving forward in halting, seemingly endless steps. Children cried, young men and women laughed in private groups, parents sighed and adjusted the straps of carry-on baggage that dragged at their shoulders.

Given I was neither a tourist nor a returning citizen, I was in for a longer wait than anyone else coming off my flight, a specialty case in a category of one. By the time I was processed, I was the only person standing in that wide, open room, the long and empty walkway back to the international concourse stretching out behind me. I dealt with an older official; he looked to be of Japanese origin and he joked with me a little as he took my fingerprints and snapped my photo to compare with the information in my passport.

The enormity of what I was doing sank in as I cleared customs and walked out into the bright and air-conditioned expanse of San Francisco International. In this adventure into the great unknown, immigration was my last airlock before the vast and unfamiliar world of the USA, and as soon as I was through those doors, the realisation truly hit me for the first time. I had no Social Security Number, no bank account, no insurance. I had nowhere to live, no knowledge of where to go (or, maybe more importantly, where not to go), and I knew – as in, really, properly, knew – no one. Tom, a friend from high school was living in New York; that was it. And I had a Moleskine guide to San Francisco; a going-away present from my friend Tamara, who knew from experience just how valuable they could be.

I bought a bottle of water from the SFO Starbuck’s, mainly because I needed change. I remembered to tip the cashier (I’d seen it done on TV), but I had no idea how to calculate the correct amount. I ended up slipped him a couple of bucks and found a payphone to call Sara, who I’d met online and who had very kindly agreed to come and pick me up. I struggled with dialing the number, at first, forgetting I no longer had to dial 1 for the international prefix.

I don’t know how long Sara had been circling SFO but within minutes, as I waited outside in the chill San Franciscan sunshine, her car pulled up. I’d met Sara through Zoe Brock. She’d laughed at some of the pieces I used to post when I still ran a MySpace site, I’d been impressed with the quality of the photos she took, and so we became friends and communicated on a semi-regular basis. From Sacramento, she and her son were in town visiting her sister and her sister’s partner in SF, and that family were the kindest people a traveling Australian could ask for.

The afternoon was just getting underway, and after dropping my bags off at the house, Sara took me out to Haight-Ashbury for lunch, where the very first thing to strike me was that I was surrounded by American accents.

Oh, I thought. Yeah. That makes sense.

The Haight was alive with colour and movement; tattoo artists in black t-shirts and tattooed customers with huge plastic hoops in the lobes of their ears lounged out the front of tattoo parlours, earnestly discussing inks and piercings. Clothing stores and the smell of pot vied for the attention of passers-by, as did walls full of vivid graffiti and gracefully-shaped wooden houses unlike anything I’d seen back home. It was that afternoon and evening, I think, that I first started to realise how much I love Americans. After I’d stowed my bags and ordered another in a growing succession of Starbucks lattes, Sara and her family took me out to eat and see the city; as we waited for the Muni to come and take us into the city centre we grabbed a six-pack from a bottle shop across the street and stood at the stop, drinking in public.

Cool! I thought. Six hours in the country and I’m already committing a felony. This place is awesome.

A stoned-looking (and sounding) hipster girl with long brown hair spilling out from her woollen beanie broke from her path along the intersection crossing and wandered up to us as we waited on the Muni platform in the middle of the street. ‘Do you guys know the way to DP?’ she drawled. ‘Dolores Park?’

I shook my head. Man, did she have the wrong guy.

We went to the Ferry Building for a dinner of American cheeseburgers and walked the Financial District under the glow of Christmas lights that lit up row after tall row of skyscrapers. I saw the Bay Bridge and assumed it was the Golden Gate, only to find out there is more than one bridge in San Francisco. We went ice-skating on a rink set up for Christmas in the open air of the downtown square, and I impressed no one. Flailing on the ice like a drunk on rollerskates, clutching at the railings, being passed (and easily) by five year-olds, I offered the only excuse I had: ‘Come on! Like we have ice in Australia.’

At nine, as we waited to get the Muni back home, the jetlag hit me. In the space between one moment and the next, I lost the power of coherent speech. A weight like a sack of concrete dust settled inside my head, and my muscles turned leaden. Feeling tranquil and anaesthetised, I blearily looked at the Muni timetable. M? L? J? What the hell did these letters mean? Inbound, outbound, Powell Street, Church Street, Castro Street… I figured sooner or later I’d have to work out what this information meant, but the time was not now.

My new American friends put me up for the night, and, after expressing myself monosyllabically – the only way I could any longer communicate – all the way home, I gratefully collapsed into the bed that was given me. I woke at 3 am, wide awake and my body, still on Australian time, insisting it was morning.

The next day Sara took me to check out a place I’d found on Craigslist; a three-bedroom on the corner of 18th and Church. Sara’s sister’s partner pointed it out to me on the map.

‘Right on the border of the Mission and the Castro,’ he said. ‘If you end up living there, you’re going to have a truly San Franciscan experience.’

The landlord was a Chinese guy named Peter, who was having an open inspection while the existing occupants were out. He showed me through the house and asked me gently interrogative questions about my background.

‘There are usually three girls living here,’ he said. ‘One of them has just had to move back home, and if the other two girls get along with you, then, I guess having a guy live here would be OK.’

The house itself was older, but in good repair, a cream and white, classically-San Franciscan split-level. There were three floors, five residents, a terrifying and dark corridor to walk through to take the trash out, and Dolores Park was about ten steps away from my front door. As soon as I saw it, I wanted to live there.

I spent the next night in a hostel in Chinatown; the Pacific Tradewinds on Sacramento. It slept four to a room, each door bearing a cheerfully tired and nautically-themed plaque with a cute name like ‘Starboard Deck’. I met another Australian and we joined forces to go and find a supermarket; while there I made the decision I would temporarily un-quit smoking so I could try American cigarettes, I befriended my new room-mate, a blonde girl from Europe (I forget where, exactly) who was traveling the US and missing her boyfriend. We got breakfast at Union Square the next day and pointed at all the things we’d heard of but never seen – newspaper stands on the street, Gold’s Gym, Macy’s.  From what I’ve heard, I never could have gotten away with the way I acted in New York – stopping every two seconds to point and say ‘Oh, shit! I’ve seen that on TV!’

While my new friend was taking a bus tour of San Francisco, I was working out how to catch the J down to meet and be interviewed by my prospective new housemates when they got home from work, which left me the day to wander the city. By the time I caught the J out to the Castro, early evening was closing in. The sun had gone down as I walked down Market to 18th, and I was very aware that the night air in my new city was cold and clear. Everything – the street signs, the lit-up store displays, the accents and the people and the roads and the streets – was unfamiliar, and strange, and yet, as I sit here and write this, I miss it with a feeling that tugs at my chest.

Brittainy answered the door, a shy girl from Massachusetts who was getting ready to head to yoga. We talked awkwardly about Bikram in the kitchen while Laurel from Portland, who, I found out later, had power of decision over whether I would be living in the house or not, and was sick at the time, emerged from her bedroom to meet and vet me.

Laurel’s boyfriend Steve and his dog arrived, and, with nothing else to do, sat in on the meeting. Afterwards, Steve and I smoked in the backyard while the two other prospective new tenants came through and disbarred themselves in one way or another in the space of five minutes. Laurel and Steve and Peter excused themselves to take private counsel in the living room while I waited and smoked a little more, and then Steve came out to talk to me.

‘Let’s go get your stuff from the hostel,’ he said. ‘And have a shot of tequila to celebrate.’

After retrieving my laptop, my books, and the bag of clothes that was all I had with me, Laurel and Steve took me to In ‘N’ Out Burger in Daly City. Driving back, jetlagged, a little drunk, sitting in the back of Steve’s SUV and with the lights surrounding the freeway stretching out around us as we drove back home, I looked out the window and started to laugh. I’d traveled further than I’d ever traveled, found my way to a new city and a new home, and everything was in its right place.  I was in America, the home of the free, and the brave, and the American Dream. Anything could happen.

More than that, I wanted it to.

Since 2010 started, I’ve been missing America in general, and San Francisco in particular, like crazy, to the point where I can almost feel a pull, drawing me back. It’s a strange sensation, and unlike anything I’ve felt before – things like this time-lapse film, put together by a friend of a friend and something I stumbled across due to her Facebook updates, don’t help.

I was in a Memphis parking lot. It was early morning. Before sunrise. Mother’s Day. A dark skinned man with a powdery white beard hobbled towards me.

“You gotta smoke?”

“No.”

His head bobbed like an egg in boiling water as he scratched at his cheeks. “You want one.”

I declined.

“Suit yersef.”

A woman with the shortened shuffle of a wind up robot approached from the far side of the parking lot.

The man yelled in her direction, “Hey, Mary. What you fry’n up for Motha’s day?”

“Same thang I’m always fry’n up,” she shouted back through a cough.

I walked to the pay phone and slid in quarters. She answered.

“Hello?”

“Wendy?”

“Ryan?”

It had been a month since she left me in Indiana with no money, no car, no idea what to do with myself. I had slept behind truck stops in Arkansas, in the woods of Missouri, in Waffle House booths across Tennessee. All in an effort to arrive where her Mom had told me she would be… Memphis, on Mother’s Day.

Her mother was not biologically her mother, but a friend of her sisters who had adopted her when she was twelve. Her birth mother had passed when she was young, and was buried in Memphis.

And that was where I was.

I got on a bus in the morning’s version of dusk and headed up Poplar. She had said to get off two stops past the second McDonald’s. The first one came quick, but the second was far enough away to make me second guess whether I’d missed something.

Finally the second pair of golden arches which were meant as my  landmark appeared. I wondered if the somewhat epic subtext of the sign had anything to do with the appeal of the restaurant. I wondered if the sacred was aided in its march towards the profane by the daily vision of golden arches rendered as plastic fries. It occurred to me that McDonald’s was something like the costume jewelry of food, faux-regally filling the void of the delicious. Also, I wanted a Big Mac. It’s near impossible to be in the vicinity of the chemically created wafting aroma of Big Mac without triggering involuntary salivation. And, as they seem to line city streets like mile markers, we must salivate way more than we realize.

I got off two stops later, crossed the street and entered through the open wrought iron gates of the cemetery. Wendy had said she’d be in the Southwest corner. “By the big black angel,” she’d said.

And that was where she was.

She was smoking as I approached. Her eyes were watery, which made her smile seem a little inappropriate. I felt like I was being hugged to death by the thick morning air. I put a hand on her face, which felt wet and sticky, like a kid’s cheek covered in the invisible residue of mashed carrots. She threw her cigarette down, but the cool air still facilitated tangible exhalations.

Her laugh made the moment shiver slightly into the psychotic, but she returned things to order with a few solid words, “I’m glad you found me.”

I nodded and moved close to her.

She took off a glove and put a frigid hand under my sweater onto my bare belly. I took off a mitten and ran my fingers through her greasy hair.

In the lingering psychosis of her laugh we sought each other, first cautious, then manic. Soft touches disintegrated into grasping at flesh, distrusting the solid and aiming to touch whatever lay beneath it. The wool of sweaters was thrust upward, denim and the rough white cotton of long johns tugged down as anatomy found unlikely paths towards communion.

I swear I heard her mother’s voice, though I couldn’t tell you what it said. It was like a scream in the tenor of the careless wanderings that led us to this moment. It wasn’t a condemnation, but not exactly a celebration either. A howling ode to the bacchanalian undercurrents and a warning all at once.

She put a finger against my throat. I wondered for a moment if she was trying to choke me before realizing that she was checking my pulse.

I looked her in the eyes and she smiled lucidly.

I put my fingers against the beat of her pulse, too.

We both lay laughing under the wings of the big black angel.

“Now what?” I asked her.

“Now we get Miles,” she answered.

Miles was the dog she had grown up with in foster care. She had spoken of him often.

I hid behind the McDonald’s as she hopped a fence. I sat, back against a dumpster, still wishing I had a Big Mac. If there were any real sacred spaces left they would smell like McDonald’s. I imagined a priest swinging a burger box attached to the end of a long chain as he stepped slowly through the isles of a Walmart, chanting something about baby back ribs in a muffled hum.

After fifteen minutes, she appeared, holding what seemed to be the end of her belt attached to the collar of an overweight Beagle I could only assume to be Miles. We ran, thumbs extended along the side of the road, but to little avail.

Miles was breathing hard before we made it a mile. Ironic.

Finally, a mini-van pulled over. A woman, a large woman, dressed in what seemed to be a floral patterned table cloth, and seemingly missing only the rolls in her hair and the threateningly brandished rolling pin, leapt, surprisingly athletically, from the sliding side door and ran towards us shouting loudly, “That dawg has diabetas!!!”

I ascertained that this was not someone offering a ride.

“That dawg’ll die if he don’t take’m his meds.”

Wendy let go of the belt that was serving as a leash, hiked her pants up and continued to run down the highway.

I looked at the large angry woman, who was now grabbing Wendy’s belt and securing Mile’s safe return, and then at the girl running fast away from me down the side of a Memphis highway, and decided the best thing I could do would be to scream at a cloud.

I always left the keys in the ignition overnight.One dawn, I made a futile attempt of starting the engine gently, to allow the others to keep snoring in the back and in the cabin over my head.The coast and shimmy of our home would lull them long enough to let me feel like a chance clueless steward of daybreak assigned to this return side of the continental divide.I had a little moment.The wilderness had little me.

With light yet to burst over the distant ridge, white fog hung in the forest we were emerging from, like ghosts had passed out only an hour ago and half-dissolved among the pines.Whatever else had happened, the wilds had taken over during the night all around us.

It’s always nice to have visitors visiting when you’re living abroad. They bring reminders that no matter how much you miss the States, the States stay pretty much the same. This is like everywhere, though. Our first visitor, the daughter of our roommate Deanne’s hairdresser, had won a contest. She mailed in the back of some cat food and got a 7-day, 6-night setup around the Iberian Peninsula. Her father, Deanne told us, was a deeply religious and protective man and mandated that his daughter’s trip would only extend as far as Madrid, where she would stay with Deanne (and us) away from the vicissitudes of foreignness, an isolated beaker of propriety. Her name was Carla and she was anorexic, a gargantuan alcoholic and just shy of being an “imbecile,” defined like the antiquated English usage.

Carla arrived into Barajas airport in Madrid. The four of us, my roommates, James, myself, Deanne and Caron, bought her a drink at Barajas airport and left in a taxi, a real treat. Carla later assured us that she wouldn’t burden us with having to take her on as a house-guest for a week and was excited to be out on her own in “Mexico.” Yes, Mexico. She’d only stay a night. “Totally!” Spain beat Mexico. This once.

As a guest, we felt obliged to give Carla a night on the town. We’d been living cheaply, but all of us had credit cards, so we ventured out to a German bar called the “Rats Keller.” Every city has one of these, just like every city has an Irish bar called “The Blarney Stone.” I don’t know why we always went to the Rats Keller with our out-of-country guests. Oh, sure I do.

We’d inevitably order a three-liter concoction known as “Der Vulkan,” which consisted of a liter of vodka, a liter of rum, a liter of gin and a then some Jagermeister and orange juice. The straws they gave us were Crazy Straws and the drink had a bunch of umbrellas scattered about it, drowned or drowning in the alcoholic filth. It was a real horror of drink-making, but we always ordered it. The problem is, you just can’t drink that much without ensuring some form of disaster. Especially if you’re a 90-pound anorexic imbecile with a death wish.

Carla attacked Der Vulkan with Bibilical enthusiasm. By seizing all five straws and inhaling a solid third of the drink, my roommates and I looked around at each other, rolling our eyes, knowing, or thinking we knew, what would come next.

What came next was a true tour-de-force of blacked-out endurance. After finishing Der Vulkan (My roommates and I commandeered it and drank the beast in tag-teamed flurries), we had to put some food in this creature.  The rest of us sat at a tapas bar and ate chorizo and olives while Carla went around the bar, grabbing the penises of the bar’s patrons. This is no way to operate, so James and I tried to spirit her away from these men who, at a point, were convinced (perhaps rightly so) that this drooling trollop was a sure bet. It would also be ludicrous to deny that James and I both had selfish interests in mind. I think James would admit that.I miss him.

Something kicked in Carla, though, something that I can only describe as a sort of Las Vegas adrenaline that keeps you on your heater even after you’ve had seventeen scotches. And Carla went on a heater. Through a gauntlet of dance clubs, pubs, bars and bistros, Carla tore through the night like an ethylene comet. She spoke no Spanish, so her tirades against “Mexico” were even more offensive. There is nothing so excruciating, I imagine, than to be yelled at by an American ghoul in its native tongue. We broke up fights with hookers, withdrew her from a dumpster, ceased her insistence on removing her clothes in the Plaza Mayor and then retreated back to our apartment seven hours later, James and I, quite drunk ourselves, trying to reinvigorate Carla’s insistence on removing her clothes.

“You guys are pigs,” said Carla, as James and I both went in for a pre-coital neckrub (Carla had collapsed in front of our couch, sitting upright, held in this fashion only by virtue of the durability of our couch, and sundry theories postulateed by Sir Isaac). “Why don’t you let me see your pigs,” she blathered, somewhat seductively. James and I both looked at each other. Convinced this travesty of nature on loan from San Pedro, California was in the middle of a blackout, James asked me, in a normal voice, “Does she mean our penises, I wonder?”

“I was just thinking that,” I said. James took the reins. “Carla, when you say you want to see our pigs, is that a synonym for dick and balls or does that mean something else?”

“Synonome. Syndrome. Synful. Syn,” she hissed. “I want cock.” ‘I want cock’ is a sort of desperate thing to say. It works out okay in pornographic movies because the scenarios are always so outrageous to begin with. But, if you’re standing around your apartment with your best friend, your two female roommates watching the exchange take place and laughing, it’s a desperate line, not a sexy line. It’s amazing how an orgy is the end result of most male thinking when surrounded by drunk women, but what’s really amazing is that we’ll say things like ‘to say I want cock is desperate and pathetic.’ How not desperate and pathetic of us. Synecdoche not metonymy. A teacher taught me that. There is a difference. Wake up, Smith!

James, Deanne, Caron and I all had a prodigious laugh at Carla’s expense and moved her on top of the couch, where she could find some Sandman after a long day and night. Sometime before dawn, James and I both emerged (I slept in the girl’s bedroom, on the floor this night) and bumped into each other trying to coerce Carla into wakeful, naughty ill-advised sexuality. Drunk. We laughed at our mutual desperate night moves and finally retired to our sleep spaces, this time for good.

Morning. I am hit across the face with a mop. “Tyler, goddamnit what the FUCK have you done?” This scene is repeated next door, to James. Caron and Deanne wanted their bases covered. Caron hit me, Deanne hit James, and we both woke up supremely nuisanced and confused by the crowing. I hit James, because why not?

“There is SHIT everywhere!” the girls wheezed in unison.

“Like what kind of shit, Caron?”

“Like what kind of shit, Deanne?

“PEOPLE SHIT!”

James and I were then forced from our beds to examine people shit. Sure enough, there was people shit everywhere. Rather, person shit. At this point, it’s all Murders in the Poo Morgue speculation, as nobody can prove anything. However, rubbing feces on things, I imagine, is something you either do once—then stop drinking forever—or you do it with some regularity and thus have few friends. The shit is analyzed through perfunctory examination, through gags. It’s on the living room wall, the doorknob of James’s room, and the point of origin—the bathroom—as a grotesque triptych of fecal matter, vomit and other post-apocalyptic fluid. This is nobody’s filth we know. You live with some people long enough, you know things. Why the ladies hadn’t pinned the crime on Carla earlier, we felt was sexist.

“Oh, like only a guy would shit on a wall, Caron.”

“A woman wouldn’t do that kind of thing, you idiots. Even as we sleep, we have an internal governor that won’t allow baboon shit-throwing. Even crazy women, like really crazy, I’ll bet they don’t go throwing shit around.” This sounded convincing.  James piped up,

“It must have been Tyler.”

“Dickface! Look at that shit. Those are the bowel contents of a woman.”

“Where’s Carla,” asked Deanne through a wine-soaked handkerchief. All we had was wine. It’s all we ever had. So to combat the stench of last night’s disaster, we all took a cue from Deanne and drank a large swallow of Don Simon boxed wine, wet a rag or handkerchief with some more wine, then continued on our investigation.

“She’s not here,” said James. “By the way, weren’t we supposed to not let her get away? Deanne you promised her father, who seems kind of Croatian and deadly.”

“He is,” Deanne clarified. “We should find her, then make her clean up this shit.”

“Where should we look?”

“I don’t know. Let’s just get the hell out of here.”

Where, pumpkin? WHERE?

It was for moments like these that I have an undying nostalgia. When people disappear now, there is no adventure, only panic. When people disappear now, it either ends badly or ends boringly. But in Madrid, fortified by our fortified wine and a cool morning March air, we all trundled out of the apartment to try and track down our AWOL in a kind of renewed optimistic charge.

There is nothing more invigorating for the stultified, frictionally unemployed American abroad than a project. Hell, a mystery. Caron remembered that, had her father not demanded she be incarcerated in our apartment, the itinerary of the cat food grand prize called for a trip down to the south of Spain, in Granada. The four of us hopped on the subway toward the bus station whose routes ran to the south. We arrived at the ticket counter and asked the vendor if there had been any Americans that looked like they were in pretty bad shape who had earlier boarded the train to Granada.

“All the Americans look like they’re in bad shape.”

“Yeah, but this one was particularly bad. A woman, possibly covered in mierda,” James added.

“No, not today. I haven’t seen anyone like that today,” replied the ticket vendor, sucking impatiently from a black tobacco cigarette.

“Alright,” said Deanne. “What are we doing here?”

“Yeah, what are we doing here,” asked Caron.

“How mean is this barber, by the way?” asked James.

“That bad,” said Deanne.

“This wasn’t my idea,” I defensed. They say that the first 48 hours is the crucial time after a disappearance. After that, your odds of survival go down e to the x and so do those of your rescuers, assuming this Croatian barber is as murderous as he looms in our heads, our lives. It had been around ten hours since anyone laid eyes on our guest. We called the airport. No good there. Carla is still in the country, a good thing, we agree. But where?

“Deanne, if you were Carla where would you go?”

“How the hell would I know?”

“You’re both from San Pedro and you have Croatian ties.”

“Just because I’m part Croatian doesn’t mean I’m in the fucking mafia.” Deanne would always insist that we knew her family was only partly affiliated with organized crime.

“I’d probably go shopping,” Deanne said, finally. James, Caron and I all laughed at Deanne’s preposterous reply until it was clear that this is what, according to Deanne, someone from San Pedro would in fact do after smearing their own shit around a veritable stranger’s apartment: They would go shopping. Isn’t that beautiful, in its way?

We went to The Corte Ingles, where we would later buy a turkey, but now, we were looking for a diseased humanoid in cosmetics. We cased the entire mall searching for Carla, ogling the ranch dressing and basketballs inside this ersatz America. The English Court. They’re too embarrassed to plea in front of The Corte Estadounidense. We window shopped for an hour or two, eventually realizing that Carla would have to come to us. She’s had too long to move. There is nothing we can do. We will wait until twenty-four hours from now, then we will call Carla’s father. We’ve started to call him “The Bavarian Butcher,” even though none of us are certain where Bavaria is, only that it vaguely sounds like somewhere where Croatia could be. We stop in to The Quiet Man, the pub directly below our apartment and order four calimochos (Molarity=1.5 parts wine, i part Coca-Cola, one part cocaina from Jayne, our bartender. Jayne is from London. She moved to Madrid for a man ten years ago and “here I still fuckin’ am, pouring pints for these cunts and cunts like you Yanks and just can’t find my way out. If I find him, I’ll Micky Finn’em, freeze his dick, snap it off and fuck him to death with it. For starters.”

“Jayne, have you seen an American girl, possibly covered in shit, anywhere around the neighborhood?”

“No, ‘fraid not. Not lately.” This is one reason to love Jayne. She never asked “Why,” something I think is both tragic and great. With Jayne, things were just because. There is a shit-covered American walking around this neighborhood because…The man I followed to this cunty shithole left me because…The girl last week was hit by a car in front of here because…Life is because.

We smoked cigarettes (except for James, who would only endure tobacco when mixed with hashish, thus only smoking the equivalent of a pack a day) and tried to retrace the night’s steps.

“It makes no fucking sense to retrace the night, you assholes. We were all there until we all weren’t and then we went to sleep,” Caron pointed out. We know what happened. We just don’t know how happened. It sounded like something Jayne would say, which attracted me to Caron immensely. “Let’s just set up shop at the apartment. She’s probably been banging on the fucking door all day and we’ve been out trying to find her—things always happen like that.”

“She’s right,” said James. “It’s the jinx. We should wait upstairs for her.”

“If I did what she did I wouldn’t come back,” I offered.

“Sure you would, Tyler. But you’d deny it. You’d be terrible at denying it, but you’d be convinced you were selling the hell out of your performance, your amateur gig, that everybody would feel so bad for you, I, or someone else would manage to admit to ourselves—even though we were lying to ourselves and knew it—that we had done it and this would convince you that we were convinced you’d taken yourself off the hook—that’s why I knew it wasn’t you. If it were you, we’d be pointing the finger at Deanne. She’s a softy and doesn’t want to upset you,” said Caron.

“If you weren’t so careful not to overdo it, I’d say that was almost like an angry rant,” I said to Caron, in that way people begin to flirt. She looked at me.

“I am so not a fucking softy, Caron. My family’s in the fucking mafia. San Pedro, bitch.”

“Yeah, well let’s go back up and find your girl from the Pedro.”

“She’s not my girl,” snorted Deanne. We finished our drinks and James and I took the elevator while Caron and Deanne took the stairs. James and I arrived at the door to our apartment, hearing only screams, then Caron opening the door and pleading we make ourselves scarce for a few minutes.

“Is everything okay,” we asked.

“No,” said Caron. And closed the door.

“Is she in there?” I screamed through the door.

“Yes,” said Caron.

“Why can’t we come in? Is she nude?” asked James, continuing, “because if she’s nude this is bullshit. If there were a nude guy in there we’d let you come in.”

“She’s not nude,” said Caron. “She’s having a nervous breakdown.”

“Well let us in, damnit,” I replied, eager to see what a nervous breakdown looked like. Everybody always talks about them, but you only see the anesthetized aftermath. Like Brian Wilson. I don’t care about him on his medication—I want to see what happens when he snaps. I want to see Clara snap. I want to see Clara in a sandbox, tobillo up to cat fluid, cat solid. But Caron and Deanne decided to be selfish and watch the thing for themselves. I would have probably done the same, but I still felt ripped off.

“No. You guys go down to the Lab or something. The Lab was our bar. It’s full name was “El Laboratorio.” Come back in an hour or two.” The Lab was a heavy metal/transvestite bar around the corner from our apartment. That’s right, it was called El Laboratorio. It was one of the deadliest bars in Madrid, but we endeared ourselves to the management early on. Going to “The Lab” was always a good idea, nothing bad happened there. And that’s not something I’d say because I’m trying to be ironic. That’s something I’d say because it’s true—nothing bad happened at El Laboratorio. At least for me. James and I agreed to go down to the Lab, but we threatened violence if, in an hour or two, we weren’t let back in to our flat. Our flat. Our flat—reason enough to geograph—our flat. Who can say that?

“Go fuck yourselves,” said Caron. You could always tell when she was smiling—you just had to hear her.
The Lab was situated at the end of Calle Valverde, our street. Calle Valverde is only one block long, but it’s one hell of a block. Valverde juts off from Gran Via, that main artery, pulsing blood and life for one little block, then splash…into a vomit of heavy metal/transvestite gore at the entrance to El Laboratorio. You turn off of life and roar toward frozen death, turning off Gran Via, down Valverde, open the door to the Lab (if the rest of the Valverde gauntlet hasn’t got you yet). There’s Manuel, as he always is. Nothing bad ever happens in the Lab.

Manuel is Moroccan with some French in him, he says. This isn’t at all important because he’s consistently garbed in assless leather chaps, a Houston Astros 1980s throwback jersey and smoking a “baseball bat,” his name for the enormous hash joints he’d roll and smoke and roll and smoke.

“Fucking pooosies,” he’d snarl, in what I’d think he thought was a coy way. “You need anything, I get for you. Teresa, for the American Texans two whiskey dicks, pero echalas con fuerza, eh?” Teresa knew what we drank. DYC is a Spanish whiskey.

When you say “Whiskey DYC” it sounds like “Whiskey Dick,” which everybody thinks is funny. We certainly did. That’s why we explained what “whiskey dick” was to Manuel in the first place. This way, your sympathies won’t be compromised (or they will) and you can either dilute your feelings or let them howl until they hit a wall. But nobody’s dead, not dead yet.

We sat with our whisky dicks and laughed in an awkward way about the Carla situation.

“You tried to hook up with her and she makes mierda on the walls. Does that make you angry,” I asked.

“You tried to hook up with her, too!” James barked.

“I was only watching to make sure you stayed out of her pants, out of trouble.”

“They don’t play as much AC/DC in this bar as they used to,” James changed the subject.

“I could request some. I haven’t DJ’ed here in a while. Maybe they’d let me spin a few records.”

“They never let you DJ, Tyler. You just jump behind the turntable when the DJ goes to the bathroom,” corrected James.

“Really?”

“Really.” Conversation with James had recently taken on an odd, disjointed characteristic. He was having a tough time of it in Spain. First of all, he was 6’6” and Spain does not accommodate those kinds of dimensions. He suffered repeated blows to the skull from low-hanging signs, flags, bars, trees, monuments, and just about anything else along the way. Secondly, there’s always a woman. Oh, smash. That’s later.

“It’s probably been an hour,” I finally said.

“Yeah, let’s go up.”

We took the elevator up to our 2nd floor apartment and knocked. Caron and Deanne stood at the doorway, making a “shh” gesture with their fingers to their lips.

“C’mon,” Caron said. “She’s asleep. Let’s go down to the Lab.” This was always happening. Just when you think you’ve made it home, the tractor beam of El Laboratorio pulsed on and led you back for one more drink, one more episode.

“So what the hell happened,” I asked. The girls took long draws off their whiskey dicks and began. They told how Carla said she had “never had so much to drink, that this isn’t who she usually is.”

“That wasn’t me,” they would say, but it was. People behave the way they are. There are no missteps or out-of-character episodes; it is all tied together somehow. Why demure? Wail, if you will, with all ancestry in your corner, the primordial crack. What is this nonsense about “things I don’t normally do?” You did them last night. You may do them again today. Unload and submit.

“I hope not, “said James. “Did she admit to smearing shit all over our house?”

“No,” said Deanne, “but we’re sure it’s her. She smells like shit even though she was in the washer.”

“What do you mean—in the washer.”

“That’s where she spent most of today. She crammed herself into the washing machine, because she was scared.” Deanne went on to explain that, according to Carla, she’d woken up nude on the roof, covered in filth. “She was so confused and freaked out she decided to hide in our washing machine.”
The girls found Carla this way, wedged into our washing machine that barely fit three pairs of jeans. I can’t imagine what this species of cramped solitude must be like.

“So who cleans up the shit,” asked James.

“Deanne propped a mop up on her head and lay a bucket of soapy water down at the edge of the bed. That should give her a clue,” said Caron.

“I’m not going in there until she cleans it up,” said Deanne.

“Me neither. It smells like a zoo,” agreed Caron.

“Well, I’m fine here,” I said. James opted to go back to the apartment and sleep in his bed, no matter the stench. We never knew if Carla and James talked that evening, as Caron, Deanne and I sat in the darkened bladder of the Lab and drank another night away. Maybe he didn’t say anything.

The next morning, as we stumbled in to a pristine apartment, I noticed something: Carla began to eat. She sat quietly in the corner and ate. Plate after plate of spaghetti and tomate frito sauce. She looked invigorated, plausible. Besides, she had to eat. Or talk. She couldn’t talk. Because to talk would mean to explain and to explain would mean spiritual death. There are no explanations. There is no way you usually are. The rent is late. The war is never over by Christmas. Shit happens. Shit unhappens. Did something click? Did someone say something? Whatever it was, it cured her anorexia, at least for the time being.
Caron and Deanne woke up early and accompanied Carla to the airport the next day.

Carla went home to San Pedro, to her unreasonable barber father, and to her cat, who she was missing anyway.

Before I moved to Madrid, I engaged in a series of heated discussions about where I should work after failing miserably at a number of low-paying jobs (My father, a professor of Chinese History, even resorted to utilizing the ancient hexagrams of the I-Ching in an attempt to new-age me into employment), I ended up applying for work at Bookstop, a large bookstore, coffee shop and hipster hang-out in the Montrose area of Houston. I had to wear a nametag, a sure sign you are about to embark on a shitty occupation.

I was put under the tutelage of a 21-year-old assistant-manager named Travis. Travis was completely bald, bitter about it, and determined to make manager “before the summer was out.” A large portion of the managerial promotion process hinged on your ability to tutor the new kids, the cashiers, the foot soldiers—in other words, the kids who didn’t care—myself and a black kid from Atlanta named Greg. My first day at work proved a relatively accurate augur of what was to come. I dutifully showed up 15 minutes before Bookstop opened (it is crucial to make a good impression on your first day of work—then you can shit the proverbial bed and it takes longer for people to notice, as people tend to hold to first impressions as a condemned inmate at San Quentin might hold his/her breath once the cyanide gas starts filtering through the vents. There’s no such thing as hopelessness!). Greg had been given the same advice, as I encountered him smoking a blunt in the parking lot on my way to the store, a converted old movie theater.

“Hey, man,” Greg chortled through thick smoke.

“Hi,” I said.

“You have a name tag—are you working here, too?”

“Yeah, it’s my first day,” I said.

“Me, too. You want to hit this bitch?”

“I shouldn’t. It’s our first day. Okay.”

“My nigga!” he said, as I took a substantial drag off of the blunt. I felt pretty proud to be called a nigga and thought about how desperately white people long to be liked by black people. It’s almost an epidemic. Anyone who says differently is lying, or mostly lying. Even white supremacists. Have you heard any white supremacist rappers? I have. The content is nauseating, but their flow is undoubtedly referential, probably to Boogie Down Productions if not Public Enemy. They just flipped the script.

Greg and I were ushered around the store by Travis. He explained something about ISBN numbers and their utility, then droned on about his self-published sci-fi novel that, once he became manager, he could insinuate into the aisles of Bookstop.

“Your book have robots in it, Travis,” asked Greg, laconically, stonedly.

“There are androids, yes,” Travis responded proudly.

“Robots can eat a dick,” offered Greg, foolishly.

“I wouldn’t expect either of you two to even remotely begin to understand the complex time/space signatures in my book and I’ll have you know, Greg, Tyler, that I can make your life extremely difficult here if you aren’t cooperative.”

“That’s bullshit, bitch,” said Greg, accurately. Greg nor I had any allegiance to the Bookstop and were both fairly intent on getting fired or quitting as soon as we had put in the requisite time to convince the parents-that-be we were responsible. Travis often tried to make our lives miserable, but it’s hard to find us when I’ve locked myself in the service elevator with a margarita and a crossword puzzle book and Greg is in his car, balling the coffee shop barrista.

James had been a friend of mine since high school and a frequent visitor to Bookstop. His stepmom had just opened an upscale jewelry and accoutrement salon down the street from the bookstore, and in her store was a margarita machine for the upscale browser (I always thought this was a good idea; I’ll buy almost anything when I’m drunk). James would help out around his stepmom’s store for a bit, then shuttle a thermos full of margarita over to me at Bookstop. We’d chat a bit, decide on evening plans, then he’d retreat back to the store as I would grab a stack of Tom Robbins and adjourn to my perch in the freight elevator. The arrangement usually worked fine, as both Greg and I would cover for each other.

Inevitably, Greg was caught balling the barrista and fired, something that put a damper on my afternoons with crossword puzzles and a half-gallon of frozen margaritas. And while with Greg’s departure the efficiency of the Bookstop machine received an unprecedented spike in productivity, my patience for the working life—at least the working at Bookstop life—ebbed dramatically.

When he wasn’t helping out at his stepmom’s store, James had the luxury of doing nothing. Well, not nothing, exactly. He was a BBQing machine. Every day by his parent’s pool, he’d throw heaps of flesh on the grill and he and a menagerie of other summer loafers would drink beer, play guitars, eat heartily and laze around the pool until everyone passed out or didn’t. It was a kind of life I’ve always aspired to, and felt I was missing a wonderful opportunity to idle around in the prime of my youth, like somebody out of Fitzgerald or at least somebody not wandering drunk around a bookstore all day.

I began, as has been the case with most if not all of my ill-fated employment endeavors to fall ill, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays—prime BBQing time.

“Uh, hi Travis. It’s Tyler. Look, I don’t know what I have. I’ve been throwing up all morning and I’ve got a fever and my head hurts and there’s a chance I may have spinal meningitis and so I’m going to stay home today.”

“Spinal meningitis? Are you going to the doctor?”

“No, I think I’m just going to try to ride it out.”

“That’s a terrible idea. You sound fine.”

“Are you saying I’m not sick?”

“Maybe. Are you not?”

“Of course I am.”

“Tyler, do you like your job?”

“Yes. I mean why? Is that some kind of threat?”

“It’s not a threat.”

“Good Christ, Travis, I feel like you’re giving me a hard time. How many times have I called in sick? It’s not like it happens all the time.”

“You’ve called in sick four times in the last two weeks. You get sick on weekends, it seems to me.”

“Well, damnit Travis. I can’t work in an environment where there’s this kind of lack of trust. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“I’m not. So are you quitting?” I thought for a moment how I would storm back into work, not giving Travis the pleasure of being done with me. I would make it to assistant manager by the end of the summer and then overtake the bald, wretched, wanton Travis as manager, overseeing his daily routine and making his life a living hell for the rest of his days at the Bookstop.

“Yeah, I think I’m quitting,” I said, knowing the aforementioned scenario was untenable and devoid of BBQ and good times. I hung up the phone, euphoric, then headed over to James’ house. Of course, I foresaw trouble in paradise, as my parents would be completely averse to the trajectory I’d chosen for myself this summer.

So, I woke up every morning at 7:30, put on my work clothes: tie, nametag, khakis and Oxford button-down and left for work. However, in this instance, work was located five blocks away at James house, where upon arrival, I’d go back to sleep on his family’s sofa until around 1:00 or 2:00, when the BBQ preparations would begin. This arrangement proved infinitely more suitable and I decided that if times ever got really tough, I could make a living by a pool, eating BBQ. I wasn’t sure from where my income would stem, but the dream must come first. The reality will inevitably fall into place, somehow.

I enjoyed travel, as anybody who never travels says they enjoy travel, but the idea of going abroad again never really drifted through my transom. The summer coming to a close, Bookstop out of the picture and a couple of parents eager to see their son do something, I found myself at an Irish pub, Kennealy’s, with James.

James and I have, since early in our friendship, been convinced that we should be famous actors. Not just actors—famous actors. Every week, James and I would sit in the brackish pub, he drinking Guinness, I drinking whiskey, and discuss how colossally talented, funny, good looking and charming we were and how it was a real shame we hadn’t yet been discovered by Hollywood. We were somewhat in awe of the fact that some director/producer had yet to approach us, telling us how talented, funny, good looking and charming we both were and wouldn’t we like to star opposite Charlize Theron in the next summer blockbuster?

“I think we should probably move to LA,” I said.

“That’s a cliché. Houston is as good a place as any for us. Patience, Tyler.”

“It’s not happening for us here, dude.”

“It just takes patience. Look, did you know Matthew McConaughey met Linklater in a bar and next thing you know—BANG—he’s in Dazed and Confused.”

“Did you know Brad Pitt used to dress up like a chicken and sit in the middle of the street—Hollywood Boulevard, I think. He got discovered that way. Same with Liz Taylor,” I added.

“She dressed up like a chicken?” James asked.

“No, well, I don’t think so—maybe they found her at a mall.”

“I’m better looking than Liam Neeson,” I ventured.

“People say I look like Sean Penn.”

“You do, a little,” I lied. “You’re like Sean Penn if you were a forward for the Celtics.”

“Is it because I have a big nose?”

“Not just that. You have screen presence,” I offered, with no basis in reality.

“Thanks, man. You mean that?”

“I totally mean that.”

“Maybe we should take acting classes.”

“That’s bullshit. I think you either have it or you don’t. Brother we have it.”

“I know we do, but we need a foot in the door.” James could be so negative sometimes.

“You can only be so talented. Then you need luck,” I said, optimistically.

“Are we just unlucky?”

“Yeah, I mean I guess so, so far.”

“Did you apply for grad schools again?”

“No,” I lied again, having been rejected by everywhere. “Let’s go abroad.”

“Fuck off! Are you serious?”

“Yeah, to Madrid. I know the city.” I spent a year abroad as an undergraduate in Madrid. The junior year thing. I didn’t know the city—that too was a lie. Once I ate a meter of albondigas sandwiches at the Subway by Retiro Park, though. Albondigas means “meatballs” in Spanish. It was, and is, my favorite Spanish word. “Plus, Almodovar is there. We should go. You know I met him once”

“Is he Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown?”

“Yep. He hit on me in a club.”

“How do you say ‘boner’ in Spanish,” James asked.

“Vergadura.”

“You gave Almodovar a vergadura.”

“Maybe.”

“What’s bienvenidos? I saw that on a welcome mat. Does that mean ‘welcome?’”

“That’s also boner.”

“I’m bullish on this idea, T. What about Bookstop?”

Dr. C, the owner of Bookstop, called me and asked me to come in. Travis hadn’t told him I’d quit. I felt bad. I didn’t want to have to deal with Dr. C. I liked Dr. C, and I felt terribly guilty for not tendering my resignation to his face. And fuck you, Travis. Happy fuckday to you. I hate awkward situations, especially when they involve speaking with people I’ve let down. I thought drugs would make it easier. After age 22 or so, it’s embarrassing to admit doing acid. But, I admit.

After staring at an issue of the inexplicably pink Financial Times for what seemed a minor eternity, Dr. C. ushered me into his office. Now, I’ve never “seen” anything on drugs, like some people have claimed. I’ve never seen the Led Zeppelin blimp carrying a banner that read, “Hasta La Victoria Siempre” or a swimming pool full of Draculas or the face of Heinrich Himmler in a pepperoni pizza. But Dr. C was undulating, changing form, then his features would scramble back into place. It was as if he were an image conjured up like a human Etch-a-Sketch, then shaken, then drawn anew. It didn’t help that Dr. C. had a missing eye and would occasionally, like on this occasion, refuse to wear his eye-patch. I liked him for this “fuck you” to all the staring half-wits, the insensitive cavepeople who would incessantly gaze into his oozing socket. But now, no good. Once you’ve made up your mind not to look at something, you’re tanked. And I admit.

I’m no good with “psychedelic” drugs like mushrooms and acid and that kind of stuff. I hate when people I’m around are on them and I hate to be on them. I’ve always thought of myself as someone hanging from a pretty thin thread, and all this psychedelia bilge tugs at that thread like an angry cat. I also find myself on the tail end of these “trips” sitting on a toilet somewhere trying to crap out my soul. But for some reason I have taken a lot of them. And I took a lot of them before I walked into Dr. C’s office wearing a “cape” fashioned out of a large trash bag, then started blabbering and eventually weeping about United Fruit, neocolonialism and all the trouble that “my opportunist cocksucker ancestors” had inflicted on Latin America.

“Tyler, United Fruit went out of business in the 1970s.”

“But think of all the damage they did, Dr. C, man. Think of Rigoberta Menchu!”

“That wasn’t United Fruit. I think that was a civil war in Guatemala. And what is that thing you’re wearing? Is that a trash bag?”

“It’s more of a cloak, actually. Look, I know you’re probably thinking you want to peel the skin off my face because you went through it all there in Guatemala, you know.”

“What are you talking about, Tyler? Are you okay? You look sweaty. Did you want to come in here just to talk about United Fruit. If you did, that’s fine, it’s just…”

“Oh, man. You’re from Mexico, aren’t you? Jesus Christ! I just want to say that I’m sorry. I don’t think that, you know, Guatemala and Mexico is the same thing. Cultural identity is so very, very important, especially in a growing global community. I know there are a lot of people here who think that way…I like the word “globe,” you know the way it sounds when it comes out of your mouth and then goes into the air. Do you know the song “Dark Globe,” by Syd Barett?”

“Syd who? Tyler, are you doing okay?”

“Not so great, Dr. C,” I managed to drool out, conscious that I was now on drugs, aware that I was on drugs and aware that people usually get paranoid when they’re aware they’re on drugs and that this feeling will never ever ever go away and I’m insane forever.

“What’s the problem,” he asked in his avuncular way. I had always liked Dr. C and I wanted to choose my words carefully, not insult him, not insult the institution of Bookstop.

“I’m in a pretty fucked-up dance here, Dr. C as in cottage cheese. That’s two c’s, isn’t it?

“Excuse me?” Dr. C asked, naturally.

“I meant what?”

“What?”

“Tyler, are you okay?”

“I need to get out of here.”

“Out of my office?”

“Out of everything. I want to withdraw.”

“Well, Tyler, I’m sorry to hear that. What’s the problem?”

“I just don’t fit in here?”

“Here at Bookstop?”

“Yeah, I guess. And my own skin. It feels tight.”

“Is that a metaphor?” he asked. Dr. C. loved metaphors. He had a PhD in English and used to teach at an impressive university. But, he found that he liked books more than he liked people, so he bought a bookstore. Made sense to me.

“I’m afraid not.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that, Tyler. You know you can always come back.”

“Thank you, Dr. C.”

“Tyler, take care of yourself.”

“I’ll try.”

I left work and headed back to my apartment where I had every intention of lying in a ball, drinking whiskey and listening to George Jones. I opened the door to 211 and was greeted by my roommate Tod, some of his friends, Lance Berkman, all-star first baseman for the Houston Astros, and his roommate Dave, who was standing in his underwear strumming a bass plugged into an unplugged amplifier. We all lived in the same apartment complex.

“Whoa. Dave. Nice bass guitar.“

It’s not a bass guitar—it’s a space guitar.” Dave gave me the drugs, earlier.

“Nice.”

“So nice,” Dave said, strumming his incomprehensible melody.

Dave and Lance made an interesting pair. Lance, for all I know, never did drugs (although not afraid to partake of my whiskey from time to time), was a good Christian boy and could hit a baseball farther than anyone I’ve ever seen, or at least anyone who I’ve ever been in a room on acid with. Dave, on the other hand, was enamored with Frank Zappa and any psychedelic concoction he could get his hands on. But they were often together and were, from all I could tell, extraordinarily good friends. Lance was sitting on our sofa, dipping Copenhagen and Dave stopped playing the space guitar for a moment and asked, “What’s up, man?”

“I’m dropping out.”

“Me too, dude!”

“No, I mean I’m dropping out of America.”

“Nice.”

“Why?” asked Lance Berkman.

“My skin is tight. Does it feel better to hit a home run right-handed or left-handed?”

“Right handed. Look, I’ve got to get going, y’all,” Lance said a little urgently. “Tyler, we’ll see you around, right?”

“Yeah, you’ll se me around.” Lance left the room, Tod and his guys had set up shop in the common room, reading the sheet music to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Dave remained strumming his space guitar, alone in his own mostly nude world. I grabbed the bottle of whiskey, went to my room, curled up in a ball and listened to George Jones for the next four hours until I was finally overcome with sleep.

I’ve been to Japan a few times and have always enjoyed my time there. The people are friendly, the streets are clean, and everything is so different to what I’ve seen in Scotland or Korea.

On my first trip to Japan I went on my own, speaking not a word of Japanese and knowing nothing about Fukuoka – the city in which I would spend the following few days. That’s the way I like to travel. I like the adventure of rolling into a strange city and putting my faith in luck and chance that things will turn out alright.

I soared from Busan to Fukuoka on a high speed ferry, landing in the strange little city in the evening. When I stepped into the immigration hall I was met with a giant line of arriving passengers – all of them were Asian.

I thought nothing of that little racial quirk, given that I’d spent the previous seven months in Korea, surrounded by Korean people, rarely seeing anyone who wasn’t Korean. But there were hundreds of us in a room, lining up to go through immigration, and every single person except me was waved through.

We’d been out of the country for five years and now there was grocery shopping to be done.We planned on eating out of a poorly-bolted kitchen area in a rented campervan for the next three months and needed to shove off with the whole thing stocked.I’d been anticipating these travels ever since abandoning my home turf.But at the return, I found myself itching to roam the aisles of an American suburban supermarket.It was the first of several minor homecomings.I suggested we get up at 2 AM for a glimpse of the illuminated Open 24 hours sign with a cashier still sitting beside a register waiting for commerce to continue, just to prove that such visions existed.

Mamarazza!

By Jeremy Resnick

Memoir

My mother has a photography addiction. She just has to take pictures of her family, or, if we’re unavailable, other people’s families. It’s been going on all our lives. She says she takes so many pictures of us because she loves us so much that she just has to capture any moment in which we’re all together, and she takes pictures of other people’s families because they’re always happy when they get them from her afterward. But I think it’s more of a compulsion. Whenever her mind is allowed to rest, whenever she doesn’t have something pressing to do, she thinks, I must take a picture! I must capture this, whatever it is!

For almost thirty years, every December she managed to get my sisters, brother, and me to sit and stand and crouch and kneel in a hundred combinations, grinning like idiots while she clicked her way through dozens of shots. Then she’d agonize over them for a week before selecting the best one for the holiday card.

When we were little, it was cute.

But later, like for instance when puberty was totally fucking with my complexion and my features and I had braces and was asked to wear my sister as a backpack, it wasn’t so cute.

Over time, these yearly photo shoots engendered some hostility among the children. We would groan and protest, but she always wore us down, and we’d end up throwing our arms around each other (or hopping on each others’ backs, I guess) and smiling.

“Come on, a real smile, Jeremy!”

“How can I smile for real when I don’t feel like smiling? Any smile I give you is going to be fake.”

“Well, fake it better! One, two, three! One… two…”

“Mom — we don’t need the count.”

My mom’s 25-year streak of posed holiday photos was broken when my brother Michael and I were living in New York and were thus unavailable for the holiday photo session. She was forced to choose from vacation photos, and the process was so much less painful that we decided this was how we’d do it from now on. This also forced her to learn how to use Photoshop, to, I think, great effect:

 

*

In the summer of 2004, my mom and dad took all of us to Europe. My mom had recently gotten her first digital camera, and it was too much for her to handle. Without having to reload film, with the ability to take so many pictures so quickly, she lost all self-control. Every moment seemed ripe to her for a possible holiday card picture.

In Brussels she got us everywhere: waiting at the baggage claim, sitting in the taxi, lying on the hotel beds, eating, standing on cobblestones in front of old buildings, sprawled on the steps of old buildings, staring at paintings inside old buildings, posing tiredly (and to the annoyance of onlookers at left) in a beer garden.

“Michael, don’t make a face. And open your eyes. Both of them!”

“I have a lazy eyelid. And I’m sensitive about it, so thanks a lot for pointing it out.”

In Bruges she took pictures of us chewing waffles, glaring at her in front of the Belfort, walking away from her in front of some cathedral. (”We’re Jews, mom,” Rebecca said. “We don’t give a shit about churches.”) The pictures are a time-lapse study in the disintegration of patience.

Back then my mom still clung to these outdated ideas in her head of how we should look, and she hadn’t yet found a way to reconcile that with the sad fact of our actual appearance. On the platform waiting for the train to Amsterdam, she whipped out the camera. “Rebecca, take off your glasses. I want to see your face.”

“My glasses are part of my face. Deal with it.”

“Jennifer, why don’t you ever wear your hair down? Let it down. Michael, look at me.”

Michael looked at her for a second, and looked away before she was ready.

“Oh, come on!”

She took the picture anyway. She couldn’t resist.

At this point Jennifer was the only one who seemed to have any good will left. But she’d always been the sweetest of all of us. And the most willing to humor my mom:

 

Our first morning in Amsterdam, my mom took pictures of us outside of Anne Frank’s house. Fortunately it was so crowded inside that she didn’t try to get us to pose in front of the false bookcase or act like we were sneaking around the attic.

She took pictures of us at the Jewish Historical Museum, on canal bridges, at Rembrandt’s house, in front of the museum of film and television. By the afternoon, we kids were burnt out, and our highs from a quick coffeeshop visit had faded into dull headaches.

My mom and dad wanted to go on a canal-boat tour. It sounded nice to me. The guidebook said you hadn’t really seen Amsterdam until you’d seen it from the water. My sisters complained, but they didn’t know how to get back to the hotel their ow

n. Damrak, where you could catch the boats, didn’t look that far on the map, and we were too many for a taxi, so we walked as the sun came out from behind the clouds. We walked and walked.

By the Amstel River, my mom, who’d started to lag behind a little, shouted, “Wait, guys. I want to take a picture. Come on, get together.”

There were some scruffy backpackers sitting on a bench right behind my mother, and I didn’t feel like putting on a show for them. I tried to keep walking, but my mother just shouted louder, “Come on! Jeremy, where are you going? Come back!”

I made the mistake of looking over my shoulder. She was waving frantically at me. I despised her for a few seconds, and then I despised myself, for causing exactly the scene I didn’t want to cause. I walked back.

We stood near each other, but that wasn’t good enough. “Take your sunglasses off.” The sun was directly in our eyes, and there was grumbling, but we complied, squinting. “Come on, open your eyes!”

Now Michael started to walk away. Jennifer grabbed him by the shirt. He called her a bitch for stretching out his shirt. She told him he was an asshole. We stood together, but my mom couldn’t get the camera to work. The people on the bench stared at us like maybe we were street performers. We were so loud and petty and American, surely one of us was going to end up in the canal and then my brother was going to take off his hat and pass it around for donations.

Sweaty and exhausted, we finally made it to the canal-boat ticket window just as a boat was leaving. We had to wait in the sun for a half-hour, and a line of about a hundred people formed behind us. I was behind my brother and my dad, so I didn’t see what happened next.

According to Rebecca, one of the boat guys had finally lifted the rope to let people board, and she began walking forward behind my mom. Rebecca didn’t see the official photographer perched next to the gangway, and so when my mom stopped suddenly, saying, “Oh — a picture! Come on, let’s take a picture!” Rebecca accidentally bumped into her.

“I mean, who needs a fucking professional boarding shot for an hour boat ride?” she said later. “Does this moment need to be recorded?”

So she just sort of bumped my mom. And my mom, overheated, her legs shaky from hours of walking, stumbled. One of her legs slipped into the gap between the boat and the dock, and she went down. Then the boat swung closer to the dock, acting like a vice on her thigh. She screamed.

My dad and brother rushed forward to pull her up. The photographer and a deck hand pushed against the boat with their feet. They got her back onto the dock, where she sat, shaking and rubbing her leg. All of the people lined up to get on the boat had pushed forward and gathered around us so that they could get a look at the spectacle.

“What happened?” my dad asked.

My mom pointed up at Rebecca, “She pushed me!”

Rebecca shifted on the fly from concern to indignation. “I did not! You tripped! She tripped!”

“No!” My mom shouted as my dad helped her to her feet. She tested her leg and winced. “You pushed me! I just wanted to stop and take a picture and you pushed me!”

“Mom!” Jennifer hissed. “Why would she push you? She loves you. It was an accident.”

“No,” my mom insisted. “No. No. No.” She’d peered into the abyss, and it had terrified her.

“I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose,” my dad said. “Can you walk?”

I was still speechless, but I thought, Nobody died. Let’s get the hell out of here. Grab a couple taxis, go straight to the airport and get on the first plane. We can send for our luggage.

But no. My mom had paid for a boat ride and she had waited in line for a boat ride, and she was going on a goddamned boat ride. And now that she had suffered a near-death experience for it, there was no way we could abandon her. She hobbled onto the boat with my dad, and did they go to the back of the boat, or at least the middle, to hide among the crowd?

No. They took seats in the second row, because they have no shame. My sisters led the way to seats six rows behind them. I followed my siblings, hoping that maybe if we didn’t all sit together, people wouldn’t recognize us as That Family.

That hope was crushed by mom’s shouting over people’s heads at Rebecca, “I can’t believe you pushed me! And no one even asked me if I’m OK.”

That wasn’t totally true, but she’d forfeited a lot of sympathy. You just don’t accuse a family member of assault in public.

Rebecca’s face was ashen. “I didn’t push her,” she said. “Maybe I bumped her a little, but it was an accident.”

“Of course it was,” Jennifer said.

The other tourists stared at my mom and dad, and then at us, as they walked down the aisle. Then, as if trotted out by God expressly for our benefit, a group of blind teenagers boarded the boat. They smiled faintly as they took small, shuffling steps behind their guides.

I envied those blind kids. They never knew when people were staring at them, had no idea I was staring at them.

It turned out that the blind kids didn’t see much less on that boat than we did. The windows were so foggy and water-spotted that the gabled houses were just blurry shapes looming over us. A crackly recorded voice described what we were seeing in five languages. One might have been English, but the speakers were so poor I couldn’t tell. Meanwhile, the blind kids sat serene as Buddhist monks, their guileless faces turned up toward the sun, their badly cut hair blowing in the cool breeze that came off the water.

When we returned to the dock, my mom hobbled off the boat with my dad. By the time the rest of us made it onto the sidewalk, she was waiting, camera in hand.

“Well, that sucked,” she grinned and pulled her camera up to her face. “Come on, you guys. Get together!”