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Mexico is pretty much the only thing I think about these days.In my last novel, Point Dume, I had a character named Felix Duarte who came across the border to grow marijuana in the hills of Malibu for a Mexican drug cartel.Felix did not live to see the end of that book and frankly his death broke my heart.It also broke the heart of his girlfriend Violeta, his mother, sisters and brothers, and all of his friends.They never found out about the fire that killed him.He was used and discarded by an organization that does not value human life.His loved ones didn’t even know where Felix was when he died.He left home one morning and disappeared from their lives forever.The story of Felix’s life and death is a very common one.Mexico is in a state of complete chaos and the reality of day-to-day life for the average person is hard to comprehend.

Alex

By Lauren Hoffman

Essay

Twenty-four hours ago, a police officer in Seattle shot and killed a man who was holding or brandishing or whittling with a three-inch knife and didn’t drop it when told. It’s clear that the story is only going to become more and more tragic as its details continue to come to light, but I can’t bring myself to try to understand what exactly happened yet. I’m not finished feeling relieved about what didn’t. The man with the knife wasn’t Alex.


Violence was always the way we remembered each other.

My father was the sting from a belt-buckle, a sting that feels thick and sharp at the same time. He went with me through my day. In school, I used to press my thumbs along the bruises underneath my clothes. I couldn’t forget the pain, so I made it my vicious little thrill.

Evenings after the evenings he’d come home to find that I’d spilled the milk or laughed too loud or looked at my mother the wrong way he was always sorry. He brought me paper to draw on and the pencils “that skinny kid at the art store said were the best kind”. He brought me books from the adult section of the library because I was too smart for “kiddie shit.” He brought me ice cream and he let me eat it in bed.

Though I was already the biggest girl in my class, I felt small beside the leonine heft of his body. I was always as safe as his regard for me at any given moment. I know this now. As a child, all I felt was the strength in his hands. His blunt fingers settled hesitantly along the back of my head, unsure how to move through a child’s hair.

Sometimes he read to me, his cigarette-leathered voice leading the boy Arthur to the sword in the stone. Sometimes, he insisted I read to him. The musk of his tobacco, dry cherry and damp wood, filled the bedroom. He murmured his approval when I read the hard words correctly.

When my ice cream melted on the sheets, I’d brace myself for the sharp exhale that preceded a slap—he had to supply the very air his hand would cut through—but he just sighed.

Still, annoyance flickered through his affection like a serpent through the grass. His hand fell to the small of my back; he pressed his knuckles through my nightgown. Not hard, but hard enough.

Victor is all excited. He finds a deal on the net for an Air Canada trip to Toronto for only $68! He buys our tickets and we’re all set to go June 24th and come home on June 28th. We have never been to Toronto before.

He finds a great deal on a motel. We don’t waste money on hotels; you just sleep there, after all.

So we’ve got a king-sized bed, non-smoking, in the Super 8 above the Chinese Cultural Center in Chinatown.

On the airplane, the flight attendant asks me where we’re going. I say we’re going to Toronto, thinking it’s obvious, since that’s where the plane is going. She says, “You mean you’re not traveling through Toronto, you are going to stay there? Now?”

“Sure,” I say, “why not?”

“Well, the G-20 is there at the same time, and those meetings are known for outsiders causing violence,” she says.

“Seriously?” I say.

“Oh, yeah,” she says, shaking her head.

Well, I think, we’ll be in Chinatown; we’ll be out of the trouble.

When we get off the plane the airport is like the Tower of Babel.

 

So many people in all kinds of strange clothes speaking so many different languages, all of us walking back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, the snaking line that lasts forever to Passport Control.

(When we get to Passport Control, the officials are all wearing Kevlar.)

Then we go to pick up our bags. We have the only suitcases which are not fully sealed in pink saran wrap. We are not pushing carts full of taped over boxes and bags. We’re just rolling two small suitcases.

(The baggage handlers are wearing Kevlar.)

Then we enter the mayhem of an octopus-like line which feeds many lines into one long line to Customs.

(All the customs agents are wearing Kevlar.)

Taxis are not yellow in Toronto! We finally line up for a taxi and got a taxi driver who didn’t speak English, just like home. Toronto doesn’t look any different from a biggish city in the States, except there are Moose everywhere.

 

(The taxi driver was not wearing Kevlar.)

When we get to the Super 8, we find out that we have to wear special yellow bands around our wrists to prove we are bona fide tourists.

 

The museums and many tourist sites are closed, as well as the whole lake area of the city, for the sake of the muckety mucks.

Well, not a problem, I think, we can just walk the city and see what it looks like and see what is open. There are lots of interesting people around and about like Mr. Peru:

 

 

The next day we

Walk.

All.

Day.

This is what Victor likes to do on vacation.

(The meter maids are wearing Kevlar.)

We stop for a latte and the Frenchy French guy asks us if we heard all the commotion. There was a bomb scare on the corner. There wasn’t a bomb, so we didn’t hear anything.

Everywhere we walk there are people gathering and police gathering, with piles of apples, for energy.

 

 

A police car is on fire down the street. We go the other way. Many policemen are on foot, running up the block. We hurry across the street.

Some group — an offshoot of the peaceful financial Luddites — has a name with “Black” in it. They are not peaceful. They all have backpacks and blend in with the crowd and then apparently change into black. When they wear the black clothes, they put on their balaklavas and start swinging heavy objects at the glass windows. Starbucks, banks, record stores, Foot Locker, random small businesses, are all getting trashed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

We go back to the hotel. On the news there is yet another police car on fire. The police do not have permission to do anything. They just keep backing up. These are the most polite policemen on the planet. Canadian policemen don’t want to bother anyone, even evildoers. Police on foot, police on bicycles, police on motorcycles, Police in vans rented from Budget, police in school busses, in Greyhound buses and, my personal favorite: The MOUNTIES!

 

 

(All the police wore Kevlar, but the horses didn’t appear to be wearing any.)

Firetrucks are wailing down the streets, one after another. Ambulances are wailing down the streets too. People stop us and say, “These are not people from Toronto, or even Canada, doing this, you know.”

They seem embarrassed. Canadians are really nice.

Take a look at this store and tell me they are not the cutest!

 

 

 

There is a commotion up ahead.  Paramedics are taking a stretcher out of an ambulance. A huge, Canada-size white guy is comatose on the sidewalk. His legs are in shorts and the skin you can see is covered with weeping sores.

“Anyone know this man here?” says the ambulance lady.

All the vagrants walk away as though they never saw him before.

“You just left him here like this?” she says.  She is disgusted with people. She’s obviously seen too much of this sort of thing.  Even in Canada, it happens.

On the third day it’s pouring buckets out, but off we go on our 8 to 10 mile forced march. Luckily it stops raining for a while and is just spitting until later in the afternoon.

In case my kids are worried because they happen to see the news, I email them.

This is my email:

 

Dear Kids,

We’re fine.

Been quite a day.

Tell you about it when we get home.

Love, MOM

 

This is what Sara writes back:

 

Oooh! Drama! Can’t wait to hear about it. I hope you were charged with civil disobedience along with the anarchists! It’s about time the authorities were alerted to the societal hazard that you two represent. I’m just saying.

–smz

 

This is what Victor emails to all the kids:

 

Subject: Mom’s day of rage

Sara, et. al.

Mom was not charged with civil disobedience but….

Here’s what happened:

We were walking down College Street where some of the largest gatherings were taking place. There was a large crowd of young folks full of energy (no black clad thugs, just kids with honest, if misguided, ideas.) Before I knew what was happening, Mom had ripped off her shirt, fashioned her bra into an ersatz headband and was running down the street yelling “Freedom now” harkening back to the protests of yore. Well, with all the violence, the police were not amused. She was charged with “public indecency” rather than civil disobedience, taken into custody for several hours and the released after being fingerprinted, photographed and made to pay a substantial fine. I believe she was released because the authorities felt that seeing herself on the local evening news was punishment enough. At least she stuck to her principles and feels she “has made a real difference.”

An interesting vacation.

Dad

 

The next day, round about LA waking up time, we get a call on our cell phone from Lenore.

We told the kids to email us if they needed us, and only to call in an emergency because it is 71 cents a minute to call Canada from the States. We think something is wrong with Lenore.

 

“I got your email,” Lenore says, quiet and serious.  “Does mom have a record now?”

Lenore, my sophisticated child, (with a doctorate,) is completely taken in by Victor’s joke.

Please take a moment to read Victor’s email again.

My daughter believed this of me.

This is me:

 

 

Do I look like an anarchist to you?

I have nothing more to say.




I spent the first part of the cross-town ride enjoying the legs of the pretty girl in the denim skirt down at the far end of the car. I’m a leg man and they were a fabulous pair, nicely toned and tanned. A guy could rest his hand on one those legs and feel everything was right with the world.

She was completely engrossed in a book and didn’t notice me at all. I figured her for a student, twenty-two or twenty-three, tops, which meant if I was going to strike up a conversation with her, I had to do so before we rolled into the SDSU station and she disembarked.

The truth is, though, that while my body might have been into making a move, my heart and mind weren’t. I was freshly single after a relationship that had chewed up and spat out most of my twenties, and still in that phase of rebound where I fall madly in love for ten minutes with any attractive female who crosses my path. This is an emotional bear trap, one I’ve gotten snared in before, and I knew by now to avoid it.

Still, I probably should have gone to talk to her. Having been out of the singles game for so long my flirtation skills had likely atrophied sharply, and a little practice wouldn’t have hurt. But it was enough to see that something like that existed in the world, and to be able to enjoy it from a distance.

A rush hour crowd waited at the next stop, the glut of bodies filling the car obscuring my view of the girl and her nice legs. With a bit of reluctance I turned back to my own book.

After a few minutes I began to notice the woman who’d taken the seat opposite the aisle from me. There was nothing particularly remarkable about her, just your average American housewife type, but somehow she reminded me of a terrified woodland animal desperately trying to avoid being noticed. Where other passengers flipped the pages in their books or poked at their electronic gizmos she sat as still as possible, her gaze lowered to the floor. When she raised her face enough to give me a good look at it, I saw why.

Her face was a quilt of multi-colored bruises, the worst of them concentrated around the left side. The white of her right eye was stained red in places where the blood vessels had ruptured, and her lips were too unevenly swollen to close completely; through the space between them I glimpsed the surgical wiring holding her jaw together.

I’ve been a student of violence long enough to recognize the effects when I see them, and what I could see was that someone had given her one horrific beating, and very recently. Someone—a husband, maybe, or a boyfriend—who’d felt enough hate towards her to take away her ability to speak.

Her eyes flicked up for a second and met mine, a thin meniscus of tears coating them. I wish I knew what she saw—or thought she saw–in my face in the few seconds before she looked away again. Did she feel self-conscious or ashamed, knowing I’d recognized her injuries for what they were?

I tried to allow her what measure of privacy I could, but it was difficult not to look. I couldn’t escape the fact that everyone else in our immediate vicinity seemed to be concentrating as hard on not noticing her as she was on not being seen.  A minor injustice compared to what she had been through, but nevertheless one she shouldn’t have to bear.

I wanted to reach across the aisle, squeeze her hand, and say something nice, to offer some response other than the surrounding apathy, but the words died stillborn on my tongue. Finally I just offered her the handkerchief I keep for cleaning my glasses, feeling like a half-assed caricature of chivalry as I did so. She glanced at it as though I were trying to hand her a live rattlesnake, and shuffled sideways in her seat, away from me.

“It’s clean,” I said. For a moment it looked as though she might take it, but then the train rumbled in to the SDSU stop and she was out the doors before they’d even finished opening. Gone like she’d never even been there.

The train rolled on towards the last few stops before the end of the line, and as it did I felt unsettled by what I’d seen and done. She hadn’t asked for me to draw public attention to whatever private pain she endured; I’d created a narrative around a stranger’s life and written myself in as a character, and in doing so failed to help at all. I might’ve even made it worse.

I tried to read a few pages in my book but quit when I realized I had no idea what they said. I looked towards the far end of the car, hoping the girl with the nice legs might still be there. I wanted the sight of some pretty young skin to distract me from my own sense of futility. To my surprise, she still was.

There was a boy with her now, a skinny kid with a sandy blonde buzz cut who must’ve gotten on at the university stop. They held each other with absolute joy, like those couples you see at airports who’ve been apart for months, even though it’d probably only been hours since they’d walked the campus hand-in-hand. They shared kisses and whispered to each other, unconcerned with any eyes that might be watching.

By herself, she’d been pretty; together they were radiant. It was a celebration to see them. And really, what else could one do but admire them from afar, and hope the tiny sphere of their love kept the bad things of the world at bay, if just for a little while?

I. 1987

I’m eight years old and everything is different.

We live in a new house, one we moved into after my mom finished divorcing my dad and she and her boyfriend G. sold our old one. This one has an extra bedroom where G.’s daughter can stay with us on his visitation days. My little sister and I have to go to a new school and make new friends.

The reasons for the move are never explained to us. My mother simply lets G. slip into the void left by our father and place his firm disciplinarian hand on the tiller of our lives. All the rules we now follow are his.

Nothing I do seems quite good enough for him, though he never actually says so. The disappointment and disgust are veiled in perpetual comments and criticisms. There is always a shake of the head or a disdainful grunt whenever he sees me in the yard with my toy dinosaurs instead of skinning my knees in a game of street football with the older boys up the block. The way, I am endlessly told, that he did at my age.

One late Saturday evening when he and I are home alone I take a couple of my favorite dinosaurs out in a far corner of the back yard to play. The damp soil clings to my shoes and when I come inside to watch TV I track some on the couch without noticing.

When G. sees it he shouts my name and lunges at me. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t touch me, but his arms corral me in on either side and his face is less than an inch from mine. Once at dinner he let me sip from his beer, and now his breath smells the way it tasted. I retreat as far back into the cushions as I can.

“What is this?” he barks, pointing at a spot on the couch where my shoes have been. “You got mud on the couch.” I steal a glance, and just see some loose dirt, which could be brushed off with a swipe of the hand and not even leave a stain. “What the hell is wrong with you, boy? Don’t you think? Or are you just a dumb animal?”

He demands an answer and I don’t know what the right one is, so I just say, “I’m sorry.” When I do G. cuffs me across the face with his open hand. The shock of the blow winds me up into a ball of raw fear, too terrified of further punishment to even think.

He stares at me for a long minute. “Clean it up,” he growls, then returns to whatever he was doing elsewhere in the house, leaving me alone again. I sweep the dirt up into my hand and throw it out in the back yard. Then I go huddle in the corner of my room farthest from the door with my favorite paleontology book. The words slip around the page a little bit when I try to read them.

Because I believe G. parents with my mother’s full consent, I don’t ever mention it to anyone.

Not long after G. and my mother get us kids out of bed early one morning and have us dress in our good clothes. We go down to a botanical garden, where a Justice of the Peace marries them. G. is now my stepfather, his daughter my new slightly-older stepsister.

Afterwards we take a family trip to Disneyland. At one point my mother takes me aside and informs me that it would really make G. happy if I started calling him Dad.

II. 1989

I’m nine years old, almost ten. A dental abnormality requiring surgery has been discovered in my upper jaw, and I’m wearing a set of uncomfortable braces intended to space my teeth out enough so they can operate. I’ve become that kid who never really smiles when adults are around and who prefers to play by himself behind a closed bedroom door.

It’s early spring and we’re moving again, this time into a house we’ve bought in the eastern part of town. The entire upper floor is a single master bedroom with a walk-in closet and bathroom.

We have a sort of picnic celebration in the new empty house the day before move-in, sitting around eating pizza cross-legged on blankets and inflatable mattresses. My aunt and uncle are there with my little cousin, who is almost two. He’s recently started walking, and toddles around aimlessly with a big smile like it’s the best thing in the world.

After lunch we kids are sent up to the master bedroom to play with the few toys we brought with us while the adults drink beer and talk amongst themselves. The girls entertain themselves by improvising dances to the pop music station playing on my stepsister’s little radio and by doing somersaults and other acrobatics. My stepsister, who is taking gymnastics, demonstrates her handstands.

On impulse I tickle her during one of them. She collapses in giggles just as my cousin toddles past, pancaking him to the carpet. He starts bawling, and my aunt, like any first-time mother, comes running at this sound, whisking him downstairs. My sisters follow, telling the adults about what I did.

I wait until all the crying and fussing from the living room quiets down before slowly approaching the stairs.

G. is waiting for me halfway up, in a wide stance so I can’t rush past, his arms outstretched to either wall. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asks, quietly. His voice reminds me of unsheathed knives, flat and cold and hard and ready to hurt something.

I know enough about alcohol at this point to know that G. is drunk, even though he never stumbles or slurs like the drunks on TV. I’ve seen him drink an entire pitcher of beer by himself without effect.

He takes me into the walk-in closet, and here he rips into me, about how I’m just a horrid, loathsome kid, rotten through and through, for daring to do something like that to a little boy. He prods me into the far corner with his finger, advancing as I retreat until I’m backed up against a wall that still smells of fresh paint.

This time I don’t even finish saying “I’m sorry” before he thumps me across the face so hard my head bounces off the wall and I slump to the floor. Because I am prone to nosebleeds I know the taste of my own blood as it seeps from my sinuses into the back of my mouth. I sniffle, trying to keep it in, because I’m sure he’ll kill me if I bleed on the new carpet.

He thinks I’m starting to cry. “Fucking baby,” he spits at me before he goes downstairs, leaving me in the back of the closest.

After I’m sure he’s gone I go into the bathroom to clean myself up. My already-tender gums are bleeding too, little red rivers seeping between the braces. Because there are no towels I have to dry my hands and face on my shirt.

I go back into the closet and stay there until someone calls up that it is time to go. No one really speaks to me. I’m sure they’ve all been talking about what a bad kid I am.

III. 1991

I am eleven years old, and on perfect trajectory towards becoming a teenage malcontent. My family considers me humorless, mostly because I don’t laugh at G.’s incessant teasing. I almost never speak around adults.

Standardized aptitude testing has revealed a higher than average intelligence in me, and I am shuffled into advanced education classes at different schools every year. No one ever explains what this means to me, or asks if it’s what I want.

I have no social life to speak of. Because I change schools so frequently I no longer really bother with making friends, as I know I’ll lose them once the academic year is over. When I am bullied at school I simply take it without fighting back, as I am conditioned to believe I deserve it.

At home I spend much of my free time in my room reading science fiction novels and comic books or building models, mostly sailing ships and spacecraft. My interest in prehistoric life has taken a backseat to space travel and adventure stories, and I spend my allowance money on the supplies to build these tiny vectors of escape.

G. is showing more and more gray in his hair, and has taken to working out more frequently. He swims laps in our pool most mornings and runs a few miles around the local park in the evenings. He’s mounted a basketball hoop over the shed at the far end of the yard, and sometimes drags me out there to shoot hoops with him.

One afternoon he comes into my room without knocking, as usual. His basketball has gone flat and he’s looking for the handheld bicycle pump I won at a school raffle. It came with a needle attachment for inflating athletic equipment, but the one time I tried to use it the needle detached inside the ball and I needed pliers to get it out again.

I explain this when I hand it over, but G. brushes my warning away. This is common; even though I am frequently told how smart I actually am nothing I say is treated with any merit.

I return to sanding down the mainmast of the two-cannon pirate sloop I’m working on. I barely have it fitted to the deck when I hear G. roar my name from outside. He storms back into my room, clutching the ball in his hands. Just as I predicted a half-centimeter of the needle is poking out from the rubber seal.

G. shakes the ball around like he wants to throw it at something, angrily sputtering about how he thought I meant something other than what I said. “I told you so!” I blurt without thinking. It’s the first time I have ever back-talked to an adult.

The ball launches out of his hands like a cannonball and hits me square in the face, immediately sending a gush of blood out of my nose. Either the ball or my flailing arm sends my model crashing to the floor.

I clutch my hands to my face and double over on my desk, expecting a rain of similar blows to crash down on my back and sides. The warm blood pools between my palms and my face.

When I open my eyes G. is gone, having taken the ball with him. Out my window I can see him in the backyard, sitting on the diving board and taking long pulls out of a bottle of beer. His face is unreadable.

I know that I did absolutely nothing wrong and yet was punished anyway. As the blood drips out onto the plastic drop cloth on my desk I begin to understand for the first time that I do not deserve the treatment I am receiving. And that I should not have to take it.

The next spring I tell my mother I want to start taking karate lessons.

Hostage

By Peter Schwartz

Memoir


Wednesday, October 14th, 2009. I’m in my room on Albert Street in Augusta Maine, being held hostage. A woman almost a decade my junior has just told me she was raped last night, but for some reason she is directing all her rage at me. I’m trying to be supportive but she’s hitting me with everything she has, making fun of my anthropophobia and bi-polarity. It’s actually not the words that hurt so badly, it’s the fact that she would go after me like this. If she knew more about me, she’d have even better ammunition.

I’m asking if she wants to call the police but I know she doesn’t want to go through the degrading process of a trial so now I’m asking if she knows where this fucker lives. She likes that. I fantasize with her about finding his house, cutting his lights and phone, running in there, hurting him like he hurt her. But that part doesn’t last long. Now I’m getting questioned why I would make such an offer when I clearly hate her guts. She hates me so much right now she can’t even imagine I don’t feel the same way about her. I’m a safe target and I get the sense she has been waiting for this moment for years. I’m a monster, and nothing I say is going to change that. She tells me in a slightly different voice that if I hang up she will most likely kill herself.

I don’t understand rape, I really don’t. The whole turn-on with sex for me is that someone actually wants me. Simply taking that from someone is the most un-sexy thing I can imagine. I do understand the desire for vengeance though. My father used to beat the shit out of me over twenty years ago and I still occasionally fantasize about flying to his apartment in New York City and getting justice. Now she’s mocking my poetry and fiction, saying I think I’m so spiritual but I’m bullshitting myself, I’m just scared. I want to call her a fat, disgusting, piece of shit but I know those are the last words she needs to hear right now.

I’m think I’m him now. She’s making fun of the fact that I couldn’t get it up once. I’m not a real man and probably want to fuck my mother. I can’t take this. I cannot sit here and take this. I want to fight back but society’s rules are pretty clear here: victims have carte blanche to say whatever the hell they want. I’m a leech, a user, a liar, and a cheater. I contribute nothing to society. Okay, I’m there. I can’t believe I’m about to do what I’m about to do. Deeply nauseous, I instinctively glance at my toilet. I’ll most likely throw up later.

Even though according to her I have her life in my hands because I’m her only real friend, I’m telling her she can do whatever she wants. Another person entirely, I’m hanging up, imagining her hearing the sound of that dial tone, how that must be the loneliest sound in the universe. How alone she must feel. I fucking hate myself; I’ve proved her point; I really am that monster. But I’m also finally free of her wrath. I take a deep breath and try to remember who I was an hour ago.

 

 

 

Six Chambers

By Matthew Baldwin

Essay

On a late spring day in 2001 my sister’s drug-dealing ex-boyfriend crashed the pool party she was throwing at our house in the suburbs and shot two people on our front porch. He used a small, snub-nosed revolver from a distance of less than ten feet, firing off all six rounds. Five of them hit their mark.

This isn’t my story. I wasn’t even there; I was in the final year of my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Riverside, living in my own apartment and diligently working on my senior thesis. I’ve struggled to tell it before, as fiction, in poetry, by inserting myself into the narrative as a character, but it felt disingenuous then, and it feels disingenuous now. I don’t even know most of the people involved, and what details I have stem from one or two eyewitness accounts and a brief glimpse at the police report. And yet, even though I wasn’t present for these events, I cannot deny they’ve had an effect on me.

I will try to tell it as best I can.

*****

What I know is this: Daniel and my sister had been broken up for a few weeks, and he was having so much trouble letting go she was forced to get a restraining order. He turned up at the house drunk, and very likely tweaking on crystal meth as well. Accounts conflict as to whether the gun was hidden in the waistband of his jeans or the back pocket, but whatever his intentions were when he let himself into the empty house, he came packing. He wandered through to the backyard, where twenty or so of my sister’s friends had been drinking cheap beer and doing cannonballs off our diving board for a few hours, and immediately got into a shouting match with my sister. I don’t know what was said exactly, but I do know that when Daniel refused to leave several of the guys at the party took it upon themselves to escort him back out front, using their presence as a crowd to shepherd him. At first it worked; he went willingly, if begrudgingly.

No one thought to call the police.

When they made it to the front yard things changed. Maybe someone said something to provoke him, maybe some faulty synapse in his little tweaker brain misfired, but whatever the reason Daniel went on the offensive, drawing the gun and threatening the crowd with it, even though he had a clear path of escape to his truck.

Alcohol and adrenaline combined create a potent brew for stupidity, and after a second or so of shocked paralysis, one of the partygoers decided to do an extremely brave and absolutely foolish thing: he launched himself forward in an attempt at a flying tackle, but being drunk, only managed to stumble and get Daniel around the ankles.

Daniel shot him four times at point-blank range, opening up angry red blossoms in his chest, stomach, pelvis and thigh. He then fired the last two rounds into the crowd, apparently at random. One shot struck someone in the forehead, but the thick bone deflected the bullet sideways instead of allowing it to pass through. It opened up the skin of his right temple like a seam, right down to the skull. He was concussed and bleeding badly, but alive. Before anyone could do anything else, the now-unarmed Daniel fled in his truck.

My sister’s girlfriends kept her hidden in the house while this went down, and I think it was one of them who finally decided that calling for emergency services might be a good idea.

The aftermath was—perhaps unavoidably—anticlimactic. Both victims survived their injuries, though the first one spent the better part of the week in the ICU. When the police searched Daniel’s apartment, they found no sign of his drug activities aside from a misdemeanor amount of marijuana (he likely went straight there after the shooting and cleaned everything out; I would’ve). After two days as a wanted man Daniel surrendered to the police, and because he’s half Mexican and a fluent Spanish speaker, he was considered a high flight risk and denied bail by the court. It was months before the case went to trial, and when it did Daniel got off with a slap on the wrist; since he plead guilty to a charge of attempted manslaughter, had been a model inmate in the county lockup, and hadn’t actually killed anyone, the judge sentenced him to a couple of year’s probation, with credit for time already served. He walked, though the restraining order remained in effect.

The blood of the two shooting victims left stains on the pavement of our porch and front walkway.

We never figured out where that sixth bullet went.

*****

I look at these words here, that I’ve written and rewritten, and I don’t know what to make of them. I do not know how to respond to the knowledge that this happened, that this violence brought itself to our very doorstep to further mar the home where I spent the majority of my childhood, even though by that point I was already gone, having deliberately distanced myself from the unhappiness that already resided there.

What they don’t tell you about a gunshot is that the impact doesn’t just strike in the here and now, it ripples backwards in time to damage the past. A bullet wounds not only flesh, but memory as well.

None of us live there anymore. Once her divorce from my stepfather was final my mother sold the house, and she and my sister found new places to live. I finished my degree in Riverside and moved to New Orleans for graduate school. But the karate studio I teach at now is in the same neighborhood, and from time to time I pass by the house. When I do this is always the first thing I think of.

It’s the damndest thing. As I say, I wasn’t there, and yet the mind is a tricky machine; it combines this information with the knowledge I already possess to create the synthesis of a memory, one that I can turn and walk through, moment by moment, room by room. I know the exact path Daniel walked from our front door to the back. Though I didn’t know any of my sister’s friends at the time (she and I have always sailed different social seas), I knew the kind of people she hung out with, and my imagination fills in the details: their baggy shorts and sideways ball caps, cans of Bud Lite and crumpled packets of Marlboros. I know the crack of the shots and the smell of cordite; I’ve seen gunshot wounds up close and personal, and will never again require my imagination to recreate them.

By happenstance, I was in town that weekend, taking a brief respite from the rigors of my thesis by attending a friend’s barbeque. I first learned about the shooting when the ten o’clock news ran a report on it. The reporter stood just down the street from our house, but out of the corner of the frame you could see the yellow police tape marking off our lawn. I remember feeling a riot of emotions when I saw that: fear, anger, worry, and even guilt that I hadn’t been there to do something about it.

But not surprise.

I think I’d been expecting something like this to happen for a long time.

I met Daniel once or twice, and wasn’t impressed. When we were in high school my sister’s taste in boyfriends always ran towards bad boys, the kinds of knuckle-dragging aggro meatheads who spent their spare time either in detention or on the lookout for things to stuff firecrackers into and watch explode, and Daniel was no exception. It was only a matter of time before one of these troglodytes engaged in some spectacular criminal violence.

No one knew about the drug dealing, though; my sister took pains to hide that from us, even after they’d broken up. She also hid his fondness for firearms. I’ve thought about that gun a lot during my attempts to write this. I cannot imagine what Daniel was planning on doing with it. It would be too easy to write it off as junky behavior, but I think that’s a fallacy. High or not, he had the foresight to load it, bring it, and to conceal it when he came inside. Was he intending to force my sister to take him back at gunpoint? Did he anticipate a shootout with some of the other people at the party? My sister had told him about my martial arts training–was one of those rounds meant for me, in case I was there and caused him trouble?

I don’t know. I doubt I ever will.

One thing I can say, though, is that this episode forever ended any infatuation I had with firearms. I’m not looking to overturn the Second Amendment or outlaw the NRA, but I sure as shit don’t want a gun anywhere near me. I refuse to allow them into my home, and any invitation to go down to a gun range and fire off a few rounds is met with a firm “no, thanks.” And I reject, whole cloth, the entire notion that they are in some way “for defense.” The act of penetrating a human body with explosively-propelled bits of metal is designed to be fatal, and there is nothing defensive about that. As far as I am concerned, a gun is the unearned power to take the life of another human being, available for purchase far, far too cheaply.

We’ve reached the end here, and I still don’t know what to make of this. I don’t know how to articulate the emotions this stirs up. I’m angry, and I want to be angry, I believe this anger is deserved, but I do not know where to direct it. My sister, for all her lapses in judgment, did everything in her power to push Daniel out of her life, and it isn’t her fault he clawed his way back in. Daniel has long since disappeared; if there’s any justice in the world he was picked up for another violation and is now doing time. I suppose this could be thought of as a warning, about how we sometimes invite those people most dangerous to us into the innermost areas of our lives, even though–because–we know they might very well cause us harm. We’re moths in a world of candle flames.

But that doesn’t really help. I’m still angry. Angry because, eight years on, those bloodstains are still there, enduring all of the effects of time and weather, of bleach and scrub brush.

And in my mind, they always will be.

You have just left work for the night, backpack slung over your shoulder as you make your way back to the car. It is 4:30 a.m. and still dark, the early spring air already laced with the coming summer’s humidity, and as you walk a fresh patina of sweat fills the void between your T-shirt and your back. Although the nightclub you work at is closer to the Canal St. side of the French Quarter, you habitually park on the far side off of Esplanade Ave., congratulating yourself on once again outfoxing not only the overpriced parking lots but the draconian New Orleans meter maids.

Four nights a week you make the half-mile or so trek each way down Decatur St. You find the stroll allows your mind time to unwind from the stress of work, and if it needs assistance, well, there are plenty of good bars along the way. The boisterous tourist crowds have largely vanished by this hour, and the few individuals you encounter are service industry employees like yourself, off the clock and looking for a little fun. You’ve got an early afternoon meeting with one of your professors, though, and a few blocks past Jackson Square you turn onto a darker cross-street, hoping for a short cut.

As you come round the corner a knife dances out of the dark, headed for your face.

At this point in your life you’ve been studying martial arts for just over a decade, and it is this and only this that prevents the knife from embedding itself in your cheek. Out of reflex you sidestep and the blade stabs the air where you just were. Only as it passes do you recognize it for what it is: a mid-sized hunting knife, single-edged.

Because of the darkness and the adrenaline invading your system like the Visigoths entering Rome, you get only an impression of your attacker out of the corner of your eye. The image is one of a scarecrow, dark-skinned, dirty clothes barely clinging to his scrawny tweaker frame.

He withdraws the knife and strikes again, this time slashing the edge outwards in an arc. In the movies this is always accompanied by a whistling sound effect, but in real life it is quieter than a whisper. You dodge again, backwards this time, nearly stumbling at the edge of the curb.

You spent some time on Maui when you were sixteen, learning Filipino knife-fighting techniques from an older Hawai’ian gentleman, methods to intercept and disarm, to cut your attacker’s throat or slash the femoral artery with his own weapon, but those blades were only hard rubber, the instructor only simulating fatal strikes and cuts. This is a total stranger trying to knife you to death on a dark street, unprovoked. His strikes are clumsy, but what he lacks in training he makes up for in aggression.

If he really knew how to fight, you’d be dead already.

You have a knife of your own, a two-inch lockback with a serrated edge folded away in the front pocket of your jeans. If you could get it out it would even the odds significantly. If only there was time, and you weren’t at this point operating entirely on adrenaline and muscle memory.

He lunges in and stabs again, this time aiming for your torso, and this is when your body slips into the defense. You get the footwork right, stepping off to his outside, raising your right arm to block the blow and entrap his knife hand even as your left comes around to strike the humerus.

This is not a fantasy fight, or a video game, or the carefully choreographed ballet of an action film; this is spontaneous, brutal violence in the real world, and nothing goes perfectly. Your block is textbook, but as you lock his wrist up you feel something slip against the meat of your forearm and a trail of warmth sliding towards your elbow.

His wrist feels almost like a chicken bone in your grip.

Your aim is a bit off on the counterstrike as well. Meaning to hit the pressure point just above the elbow, you bring your left arm down in a hammer strike dead on the center of the bone, and there is a sickening crack, more felt than heard, as it shatters. Your grip on his wrist must be stronger than it seems, because at the moment of impact it breaks as well. You hear, but do not see, the knife clattering to the pavement.

Your attacker screams, a cry of pain almost childlike in intensity. It’s loud enough to be heard for blocks. Clutching his ruined arm, he bolts away in the general direction of Bourbon St., deeper into the Quarter.

The entire encounter has taken maybe a handful of seconds.

You stand on the street corner, watching the space where he vanished, forcing yourself to take slow, measured breaths. Your chest feels as though a young Ginger Baker is using your heart for a drum solo, and you need it to stop, it has to stop, it’s actually starting to hurt.

Your hands, to your mild surprise, aren’t shaking.

While bending down to retrieve the bag you don’t remember dropping, you retch up the minimal contents of your stomach in a nasty green sluice. It is only now you realize you are bleeding, crimson drops mingling with the other bodily fluids at your feet. The cut on your arm appears shallow, but there is a slick of blood running from your elbow to your fingertips.

Fumbling with your cell phone to call the police, you notice it has been less than five minutes since you last checked the time. You rush through your report to the dispatcher, your mouth trying to move as fast as your heart. She tells you to wait, a unit will be coming as soon as one is available. When she asks if you need medical attention you tell her no.

While waiting for the police to arrive you step into the bar on the opposite corner, a place you frequent enough to be on a first name basis with most of the staff. The bartender gives you a beer without being asked. When you try to give him some money he tells you to go fuck yourself, then hands you a clean bar towel with ice for your wound. You drink the beer so fast you hardly taste  it. After two more your heart finally begins to slow down.

It takes the cops half an hour to arrive. They are both overweight and ruddy-faced, and behave as though it’s an inconvenience to be dealing with you. One takes your statement while the other collects the knife in a plastic evidence bag. When you describe your attacker the one with the bag snorts. “Fucking junkies,” he says. They have you sign your statement, tell you that they’ll keep an eye on the hospitals in case someone with a broken arm comes in, that they’ll contact you if there are any further developments. You never hear of any.

You make it back to your car without further incident, sticking to the well-lit streets. On the drive home you realize you have just survived your third–and most violent–mugging since moving to New Orleans. You wonder what that means.

In your apartment you sit in the shower until the hot water runs out. The retreating adrenaline has left your body feeling sacked and pillaged. You clean and dress your wound with the first aid kit you keep under the sink. The cut is shallow, and you close it with adhesive butterflies and a large bandage. It will heal into a thin but noticeable scar.

Your hands will remember the echo of human bone snapping like a twig between them for years to come.

One summer when I was in my mid-twenties, I visited my friend Jeff in New Mexico. We were going to do some hiking, but all the trails were closed due to extreme fire hazard, so we spent my visit on his couch, playing the video game Grand Theft Auto. Two grown men with master’s degrees, we couldn’t tear ourselves away, so addictive was the action, the anarchy. In what other world could you hijack a city bus and drive it the wrong way through a one-way tunnel, or trick a cop into getting out of his car so you could steal it and be the subject of a high-speed chase?

Three days of this had a noticeable effect. When we drove into town to get dinner, we passed a Porsche, and I thought, “Ooh! Let’s take that one!”

It was a brief impulse, but obviously some neural connections had been formed. I don’t know anything about neural science, but I picture nanoscopic tentacles reaching from one part of the brain to other, from want to take, from aggression to joy, from mayhem to happiness, each bridge strengthened by each robbery, each mauled pedestrian, each electrical pulse.

The Tibetan Buddhism scholar Bob Thurman once suggested that all that consumption of violence, even in the form of entertainment, has a profoundly negative effect on our perception of the world. Media critic George Gerbner came to a similar conclusion in the 1980s. He found that people who watched a lot of TV had wildly inflated notions about the frequency of crime in their cities and the likelihood of personally encountering violence. They were also more likely to think women should stay in the kitchen, and black people and white people shouldn’t mix.

In my youth I watched what in retrospect is way, way too much cable TV, most of it violent. I loved the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Beverly Hills Cop, and Die Hard trilogies, the first two Rambos and Terminators, the two 48 Hours movies, Commando, Bloodsport, American Ninja, Delta Force, even the Timothy Dalton Bond movies. I got a Nintendo when it first came out, and I spent months shooting pixilated ducks out of a pixilated sky with my plugged-in gun two inches from the screen. Maybe that was why, when my friend Bobby came over with his brand-new pellet gun, we immediately went outside and shot a pigeon. Actually, he shot the pigeon. I watched, and even though I’d told him to do it, when I saw the puff of feathers and the bird disappear over the wall, I turned on him: “What’d you do?!”

And there was my lily-white, 60% Jewish tennis camp the summer before seventh grade, when I first heard Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It. What Eazy duz exactly, or did, was rap about armed robbery, “bitches galore,” killing “muthafuckas,” and “sippin’ eight balls.” I had no idea what most of it meant, but it blew my mind. When someone else had the Eazy tape, I listened to Eddie Murphy. He said “fuck” every third word, told stories of his mother throwing shoes at him and getting in fistfights, and he described in great detail what it’d be like to be raped by a “faggot” Mr. T.

Despite all of that, I don’t think of myself as a violent person. My life has been ridiculously peaceful by modern American standards, which puts it in the 99th percentile for most peaceful of all human history. And my instincts tell me it was ridiculous for people to blame Columbine on Marilyn Manson and for Dr. Phil to blame Virginia Tech on video games.

But I also can’t forget that fleeting moment in New Mexico when I wanted to car-jack someone. Or that time, at sleep-away camp, when I threw a kid to the ground and did my best Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka impression, which involved jumping as high as I could into the air and then landing on him with both my knees. His offense? He’d squirted me with a water gun, after I’d told him not to.

There was also the time in eighth-grade P.E. when we were on the field playing Bloodball, a combination of soccer, football and team handball. The coach allowed us to play “aggressive tag,” but not tackle. This kid Andy needlessly knocked my best friend Dougie to the ground. Dougie was very small, and I vowed revenge. While the ball was on the other side and Andy was trotting down the field minding his own business, I came up behind him, got next to him, stuck my leg out and gave him a shove. He slammed facedown, harder than I’d wanted him to, on a rock-hard patch of dirt, and I felt the same mixture of nausea and regret I felt after landing on the kid at camp. Andy looked up at me with shocked eyes, his freckled cheeks burning, and I said, “Maybe now you’ll pick on someone your own size!” like I was some divinely certified karmic repairman. Of course, as the words came out of my mouth, it occurred to me that I was much bigger than him.

Who did I think I was? The Lone Ranger? Zorro? The Fonz? Where did these impulses come from? I don’t know, but the rest of my teenage years were without incident. That might have had something to do with the fact that the other kids were catching up to me in size, and many of them lifted weights and studied martial arts. Also, I played football, and maybe the organized violence satisfied any desire I had to hurt people.

In college I didn’t play any sports, but the significant increase in my drug and alcohol intake left me docile as a lamb. Also, instead of watching movies full of explosions and blood spatter, I read Erasmus, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Whitman. Eazy-E had long ago been replaced by the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and John Prine.

But sometimes the violence finds you. One night in my senior year I happened to arrive at the front door of my house just as some hooligans from the “hockey house” were hassling my friend Robert, a smallish guy who wore loafers and rolled his own smokes. One of the hockey guys pushed him into some bushes, and the next thing I knew, I’d stepped in front of Robert, and the guy grabbed me, and then he and I were tumbling over some bicycles and thrashing around on the grass. Due to a broken thumb (intramural flag football injury), my right hand was in a cast that stopped just before my elbow. Due to the fact that it was dark outside, I was drunk. When I got to my feet, I just saw shapes. I aimed for the closest one and flung myself at it. He ended up being one of the guy’s friends, and he went down easily enough, but then the guy, or a third guy, was punching me in the back of the head. Then people were pulling us all away from each other, when, just to put an exclamation point on it, I wriggled out of someone’s grip and threw a lumbering right hook with the club that was my cast. It connected with a dull smacking sound against the cheek of — no, not of the guy who’d started it all — but one of the guys who were holding him back. Now this guy wanted to fight. I apologized, and he made gorilla-like noises while he let his friends talk him out of it.

That was the only time I ever hit someone in the face, and it put to rest any notions I harbored about being able to handle myself in a fight. It seems fitting that I fought idiotically, starting a second fight while losing the one already in progress, then using what in court could be considered a deadly weapon, and missing with that weapon the person I was aiming for.

Since then, it’s been smooth sailing, with nothing more confrontational than a “Get the fuck away from me!” to a Manhattan con artist or Amsterdam junkie. Despite that Grand Theft Auto moment, and the occasional, brief revisit of my fantasy of leading a band of guerrilla fighters in a heroic and hopeless revolt against invading Russians (thank you, Red Dawn), I don’t try to solve my problems with violence. Maybe I’ve grown up. Maybe it’s the yoga and vegetarianism. Or not owning a TV and not playing video games.

Even now though, I wonder if the negative energy that streamed into my eyes and ears for so many years is still affecting me. I have no desire to hurt anyone or anything, but maybe in a much subtler way I’m giving it all back. “There is no free lunch,” as my high school physics teacher always said. Actions yield reactions. I release the violence I’ve absorbed, not in a killing spree, but over a lifetime, in bits and pieces, arguing with lovers or relatives or customer service representatives, acting cruelly toward smaller or weaker people, cutting people off on the highway, cursing the people who cut me off….

The mythologist Joseph Campbell argued that human beings need to move beyond the notion of tribe — local, racial, religious, socio-economic — and think in terms of the tribe of humanity. Technology has shrunk the planet, provided us with the means to confront the truth that people in the next town, or the next country, or an ocean away, are just as human as we are. We’re making progress on some fronts. I suppose we should be proud of our civilization because we’re playing violent video games instead of going down to the coliseum to see the virgins take on the lions. (Lions: 11,202; Virgins: 0.) Maybe we’ll get our act together in time to avoid burning out in the great climate change, nuclear holocaust, or water and food shortages that await us.

But I doubt it. Our violent instincts are stubborn. They’ve even been naturally selected for, in that if you whacked the other caveman first with your club, he couldn’t whack you. We probably won’t learn to work together, and we’ll continue to bicker with each other even as we destroy our planet.

And every now and then someone will come along, like Jesus, like Martin Luther King, Jr., like John Lennon, and he’ll say, “Hey, we should all be nice to each other.”

And we’ll know what to do with him.

When I was five or six years old my mother allowed me to adopt a kitten. For months I had been kicking up a juvenile stink, shedding precocious tears and wailing mournfully while beating my head against the floor and lamenting my lack of a pet to play with. I had fallen in love with a neighbor’s cat and was devastated when I couldn’t keep it as my own. I think it was quite late in the evening when my mother finally relented. My tantrums finally became too much to bear and we set off on a kitten procuring adventure. It didn’t take long. A quick browse through the paper, a short drive, a litter and Bingo! I was a young mother.

She was a soft little thing, tabby and sweet, and when I held her against my cheek I could hear her tiny heart beating out a swift tempo. Her minuscule claws tickled my skin like feathers. She was perfect. I loved her. I loved her with such force and desperation that I was overcome with a strange new sensation. I wanted to squeeze her until her head popped off.

And that was a pretty weird feeling to try and come to terms with at such a young age.


I’ve been having a lot of discussions about these feelings lately, and it turns out I’m not the only person who suffers this kind of reaction in the face of extreme cuteness or intense love. Friends, family, adults, children… all have fallen victim to the strangest of compulsions—to hurt the thing they love.

Last year I took my girlfriend and her two-year old daughter, Chili, to visit five-year old Sophie. Sophie, an earnest young thing with a fire-cracker personality (destined to to turn her parents gray before she reaches adolescence), was enamored with Chili. They played together quite peacefully until, after a couple of hours, Sophie turned to me with a half-crazed expression and fearsomely gritted teeth. “What’s wrong Soph?” I inquired of my little friend. Her manic expression didn’t lesson, she appeared to be in the throes of some deep and confusing inner turmoil. Her little fists were cuffed, her knuckles white, and, from between gritted, gnashing teeth, came the following words “She’s just so cute. I want to hurt her.”

I understood completely. Chili’s mother did not.

As a child I felt this way towards fluffy little things with tails but these days I feel it most towards my boyfriend. Sometimes I just want to devour him. It’s a freaky feeling but I know I’m not alone. I’m sure we can all remember being manhandled during childhood by an exuberant grandparent. I’m sure many of us can tell tales of painful cheek-pinching and lung-collapsing embraces from older relatives who wanted, quite literally, to love us to death.

But what is this thing? And why do we not have a name for it?

In the last week or so I’ve searched high and low for a name for this syndrome and, despite learning that the word passion stems from the Latin verb patior, meaning to suffer or endure, the closest I have come to an answer is what is described in this blog as Nervio, a nuanced meaning of the Spanish word for nerves.

While the Philippines has the word Gi-gil, which roughly translates as a type of “affectionate frenzy”, there doesn’t appear to be an English word for the desire to maim or squash the thing you love the most, and indeed there are many people who have never felt the desire at all. A few nights ago I tried to explain all this madness to my mother only to have her insist I go and see a psychiatrist. I feel very misunderstood.

The very point of Nervio is that no action is taken. It’s a weird and fleeting desire that passes without incident. Perhaps the two things that most separate Nervio sufferers from common psychopaths are:

A.) common sense and
B.) a conscience.

For example, you’ll no doubt be happy to read that my kitten became a cat who, years later, died of old age and that sweet Chili is now three years old and as fit as a fiddle.

Me, on the other hand…well, I might be in trouble.

Several nights ago, while snuggled in bed with my beautiful boyfriend, he grimaced at me with clenched teeth and narrowed eyes. “I’m having that thing!” he said. “Nervio!”

Excited, I inquired how the syndrome was manifesting.

“Aargh!” he replied, “I want to turn you to goo! I want to turn you into jam and rub you all over me!”

I leave you now with the following scene from Punch Drunk Love—an example of Nervio at it’s most potent and (cough, cough) romantic.

PUNCH DRUNK LOVE

Do you know the true definition for this syndrome? Do you feel like sharing some personal experiences of it? If so please tell us about it in the comment boards below and/or on www.nervio.us, a site that has been set up for exactly that purpose. I’ve also entered the definitions of Nervio and Nervious into the annuls of Urban Dictionary and would like to send my gratitude out to Keren and Roger for pointing me in the direction of Roberto and Lizette Greco—who started it all off in the first place.

Have a beautiful day.