Monrovia

Walking through Sinkor in twilight, I hesitate to say it is a Magic Hour, but the throbbing fade of dusk takes some of the edge off, the cracks in the tarmac are not as desperate.  The palm trees become silhouettes, and people start to blend in with the facades of the houses, protected by shadow.  You can see the sweat drying on the brow of the boy with the wheelbarrow full of coconuts.  Circles of conversation on the corners become more muted, people look at the ground instead of at each other; eyes become eyelids when you look at them, like people in a jazz mural.  I can hear the keys on my belt clinking just underneath the roar of traffic from the distant boulevard.

Water is off again, but there is no dark stain on the bedsheet that matches my body, so I know that I have showered at least in the past few days.  Feet turned to hamburger by insect bites, forearms scored and pitted by the sun, but I know that most of the time I can cleanse the pollution in the evening.

Invisible enemies and friends you can’t touch, the darkness sometimes feels persistent.

My mind sort of twists when I speak Liberian English, I can feel my brain sort of tilting sideways (that’s what it sounds like, American English at a 45 degree angle).  I think I am getting it to where I can be understood, but speaking it requires my linguistic capacity to lean against the wind a bit.

This nurse…seeing her in the ocean is like watching leaves floating on the wind.  I want to dive into the thick wet ruby curtain of her hair and only come up when I need air.  In the kitchen, feeling the crackling static electricity of her skin close to mine, daring myself to lean in and touch my lips to her neck and shoulders.  She smells like soapberries and her hair is scented with apple blossoms, like the sharp spring air in a lakeside orchard.  She invades the senses, both tangibly and by the deep nature of her soul, to the point where I forget what to say next when I lightly put my hands on her hips.  In the dance of her movements I see indigo and violet, I imagine chiaroscuro nights in Meknes, reflections in the basmalesque fountains of Damascus, moss-covered cliffs under plump gray clouds in Svalbard, translucent sunlight crossed with the tree roots.  The soft pink lines of her lips, the gentle pomegranate-shape of her hips, her shoulders that have strained to sustain life and bring healing.  The way she laughs like a jungle waterfall.

The way she laughs like a jungle waterfall, and brushes an unruly strand of strawberry hair from her cheek while she bakes.  She talks as she stirs the batter, and then looks up at me with those big green eyes, like limpid emerald pools.   Her shoulder brushes against mine, I can feel my heartbeat jump.  I imagine walking with her at twilight somewhere near Grand Marais, barefoot in warm earth, among gnarled trees and circling nighthawks.  In the fading orange haze, her eyes are luminous and bright, her freckles barely visible on her decorous nose.  She rests her fingertips on my chest, I touch my fingers to her chin and gently tilt it up until her lips meet mine under the rosebud tree.  Her eyelashes brush against mine, and the stars begin to emerge over our heads.

So, anyway, that kind of completes what I wrote the other night.  It is Christmas Eve, and I can hear the traffic from the boulevard keeping time with the loud music.  One of our suppliers sent us a Christmas basket that included a bottle of Johnny Walker Red and Gordon’s Gin, which I intend to send to Fish Town so they can celebrate New Year’s Eve in style.

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Gravakhan & the Hole in the World

Gravakhan was walking through the sorghum fields when he came across a giant pond, deep and blue.  It seemed so deep that it appeared as though it were a hole in the world.  As he stood and pondered this giant pool, a large, whiskered catfish appears from the depths and swam to the edge where Gravakhan stood contemplating.

She said, “Would you like to swim to the other side of the world?  It lies at the bottom of this pool.”

Gravakhan pondered this for a minute, but before he could reach a decision on his own, the catfish jumped up and swallowed him.  The catfish then started to dive into the pool until the surface was just a speck.  Gravakhan found the catfish’s stomach a bit cramped, but he fit in there nonetheless.

In these times, it was not uncommon for talking catfish to transport people around in their bellies.  Such circumstances are rarely found today.

Gravakhan crossed his legs and began to hum, wondering what might be found at the other end of the Hole in the World.  Would it be animals with six legs and four eyes?  Would there be people who had faces in their torsos?  Would there be trees that grew jewels and rocks that produced juicy pink fruit?

 From the catfish’s translucent belly, he could observe luminescent creatures of the deep darting back and forth, avoiding bubbles from the catfish’s wake.  He pondered the life of creatures that existed in darkness and must expend so much energy to illuminate the world around them.  He felt a certain gratitude for his life on the surface, where the sun and moon brought light to his day and night without asking for anything in return.  He asked forgiveness from the Gods for the times he cursed the darkness.

 Gravakhan meditated on this for a while, when suddenly all the creatures around him disappeared with a gurgle and a flash.  The water was completely dark, and he noticed that the catfish had stopped swimming as well.  Gravakhan listened intently for a moment, and was about to open his mouth to ask the catfish what had happened when unexpectedly a bright white light shone in front of them, surrounded by what appeared to be glowing filaments.  Gravakhan squinted, and realized the shining object was a face, with rather smooth, yet distinct, features.  The glowing filaments were tentacles, each lined with wriggling suckers.  Gravakhan could not observe the catfish’s face from his vantage point, but since he now dwelled in its guts, he could sense a mixture of fascination and fear from his piscine host, such being an advantage of dwelling inside another living being.

The dark eyes on the shining face shrank to narrow slivers, and Gravakhan heard a low rumble followed by a basso-profundo voice that asked a single question:

Who passes here in my realm?

The deep voice was more felt than heard.  The catfish jerked backwards a bit, the fear and curiosity now mixed with surprise.  Her whiskers twitched a bit as it responded:

I am a catfish, bringing the Great Warrior Gravakhan through the Hole in the World so that he may command his army of chariots and paladins.

Gravakhan was a bit surprised to hear this, as he was not by any stretch of the imagination a warrior.

Friends to Lovers to Friends (Omnibus)

Friends to Lovers to Friends

The children of the sand struggle against the swirling wind.  I watch with shuttered eyes and labored breath, the dust and chilled morning shadows thickening around my scarred ankles.  Incense, memories of incense in a distant basmalesque boudoir.  The children pull shawls closer to their hunger-ravaged shoulders and stumble on towards the dim Saharan sunrise.  Sahara gold against a pink wall in stifling afternoon heat, tangled pale limbs at midday.  The truck driver leans over and mumbles something into my ear, his thick Bambaara accent making it near impossible to understand.  I nod my head and scratch at the bandage behind my ear.  The children of the sand lift their eyes to the lines of the horizon, where the road disappears under centuries of sediment.  I take comfort in finding my final resting place in this remote edge of the world, heading deeper into the desert.  My fingers scratch against the truck bed, trying instinctively to make some last mark before I expire.  The children of the sand look past my death throes, they laugh as the shawls and burlap fall from their shoulders as they run laughing into the crystal silence of the dunes.  Nothing hurts more than watching this vision dim, believing it to be true, believing in anything at all.  I nod to the truck driver for one last stale Gauloise.  He flashes a milky-white grin and passes the rest of the crinkled pack.  Hands are raised in farewells, including mine.  The diesel engine snorts, the truck bed rattles, and once again we are underway.


Bujumbura 0200

The breeze feels excellent against my bare torso, and for a moment I forget the fevered, throbbing pain in my left arm.  The night air is hazy and sluggish at 2am, and the lights on the hills appear as mere suggestions through the murk.  The most noise comes from a bar I can barely see, maybe a 10 minute journey on foot from the hotel.  Laughter, frantic bass beats, amenamena hey hey, this time for Africa.  A dog trots down the street like a shadow, his pawpads making a percussive click on the asphalt.  Nothing else is moving besides the dog and the wind.  The wind gathers me, blankets me, covers me.  It whispers in my ear, speaking a continuous stream of language that has no spaces, no silence, no pause.  The wind cradles me; it reaches under my ribcage and brushes against my heart.


The time when the sun made our faces golden

Bring me a string of oranges, he says with a wrinkle of his brow, a hairy arm hanging out of the window of the truck.  Domingo skips over a pile of rocks at the side of the road and pulls a string of mandarins out from under a dirty straw mat.  He hands the string up to the man in the truck, and flashes his jagged teeth.  The man in the truck grunts and hands down a crumpled note.  Domingo takes the money, stuffs it in his pocket, and taps the hollow metal of the truck as it rumbles away.


Greece (Zoe)

Agamemnon and Parnassus, these rocks and weeds where deities lie. Caught like a drop of sweat from Hera’s brow, female vengeance and masculine sloth showing no tarnish with age. Driven to madness like Medea, slipping like the tunic from Poppaea’s golden shoulder, dreams of sable and crimson.  Life itself escapes my lips, and I forever haunt those worn goat paths of Santorini, fallen from the rage of my previous epoch. The olive tumbles from my lips, and I awake from sleep.


Robert Dole eats mashed potatoes and gravy

Robert Dole sat next to his wife in a diner in Ohio. A plate of mashed potatoes and gravy was on a table before him. As he reached for a spoon and looked into all the news cameras pointed at him, his mind was suddenly taken to another plane of consciousness. He heard the voices of all other beings that had come before him; he saw visions of every moment that ever existed. He could feel a multitude of colorful universes sliding and twisting in an infinite number of realities. Robert Dole lifted his hands and touched the shimmering fabric of space, spanned his arms from one end of the scarlet cosmos to the other. He shrunk his view to the dim ghosts and subatomic particle-shadows mutely ticking and flashing from one dimension to the next. Time had stopped; his mind beheld shamans and prophets, crystals and aeries, all those who had bridged the metaphysical chasms between time and space. Robert Dole spoke in tongues ancient and unknown, let symbols and script flow from his fingers as he joined those who had dared looked inside their spirits and into the alien universe within. The next instant, when Robert Dole put his spoon into the plate of mashed potatoes and gravy, his consciousness snapped back into the present. The news cameras continued to record. His wife held her face in a frozen smile. He lifted the spoon to his lips.


In the cloudy days that followed the blizzard

In the cloudy days that followed the blizzard, the inhabitants of the tiny town of Albertshire began to see strange apparitions in the forest that banked the western part of town. In between the trees, rendered black and thin by the weeks of snow, there would appear shadows of fearsome shapes and proportions. Blood-chilling cries would pierce the gloom of the late afternoon, and at night there would be a moaning emanating from the heart of the forest that shivered the soul. At first, the reticent citizens of Albertshire let these events hang silently in their atmosphere, barring their mention from all but the most secret conversations. However, this all changed the foggy morning of February 4th, when the town awoke to find…


Gehenna

Late in the night, a strange bird flew onto our roof and started sobbing. At the bird’s eerie call, I could hear Isidord in the next room getting up to fetch the machete, bringing it next to his bed. At that moment a woman appeared in my room, towering over me in terrifying silence. She was dressed in black, with black wings. Her face, however, was completely white, like that of a frozen corpse.


When it’s gone, it’s gone

I kept reaching out at the sky, trying to grab the rose pink curtain falling upon the spears of the twilight-blackened pines. Something told me to take out my camera; I had to capture this image, preserve it and revisit it forever. Unfortunately, my camera had not drunk a bottle of cold wine in the last hour, so it could not capture the dizzying beauty I saw before me. It was moving, it was alive, it was crashing into the silvery waters and dying. It was something that has been repeated on every sunset since creation, yet I found this particular evening to be the one that inspired the ecstasy and melancholy that shall last me until my final breath. The photo I took sits in my collection, a dark and blurred suggestion of a dream.


The Pet Shibboleths of the Opponents of Reform

The last time I talked with Emily was the summer she spent at a farm up north.  It was late in the afternoon, and I was outside a video store in Bloomington when she called me.

These Ojibway women have asked me to go into their sweat hut with them, she said, and I’m not really sure what to tell them.

You should do it, I said, this is a unique opportunity to experience their culture, even if it is in the nude.

Ok, she said.

That was the last time I ever talked with Emily.


Thy Blood Becomes Poison

It was incredibly cold when I awoke.  The splinters of weak light around the door told me it was probably somewhere around 4 in the morning, and all the demons of the night were gone.  Another night of survival, another day of frantically trying to work my way out of this mess.  The subtle demons were becoming less subtle with every passing night, and there were more them; their confidence and audacity were growing along with their numbers.  It used to be only about 3 or 4 in a night, but now there would be as many as 16, creeping in behind the dead trees, hiding in impenetrable shadows, screaming in unison.  Last week an incredibly large loup-garou tried to take down the door; from the scratches it left, its claws must had been 3 inches long and its height well above 6 feet.  Only good sorcery and a sharp machete are keeping them away now, and those are defenses that can be easily breached, if they are given enough time.  Remember, it is also good sorcery that is keeping me in, keeping me from escaping, keeping me from seeing the paths and trails that would lead me to freedom.  There is a weakness in my knees whenever I try to take the path to the main road.  There is a panic, a gripping paranoia whenever I try to scale the steep hill that leads to the coast.  Sometimes I wonder if I really am still in this world, or maybe I’m trapped in some sort of outside of reality.  This would explain the presence of these fantastical demons, although I was already familiar with them before I was trapped here; they are indigenous to the landscape, known by native and émigré alike.  The liquor only makes it worse, it only invites them into your mind.  Oh, but it is so cold this morning, I need it, and besides the sun is almost up…


Distance, Cuisine

Halfway back from Hinche, I found myself in a grass fire consuming the hillsides around the road.  A pastor passed in his pickup, stopped a few yards in front of me, and asked if I needed a ride to Pignon.  His tone suggested that I looked very lost, but I waved him on.  My left wrist was still throbbing from the fall I had taken earlier that morning, but it was beneath my dignity to accept a ride.  The demonfire kept licking up and down the hills, emitting steady puffs of dirty smoke.  At least it wasn’t burning tires and angry faces.  I bowed my head, gingerly mounted my bicycle, and pushed ahead.  Ahead, clean air.  Ahead, twilight and peace.  It is still much too far away.  Zazi wo, zazi kay mwen.  M’ap rele lwa yo.

We were standing in about waist-deep water, among the nets and mud.  Lamine reached down and pulled a fish out of the net, and it was as if he drew a lightning bolt from the deep.  The fish was long, thin, and had smooth scales that flashed in diamond brilliance.  Camus never had to catch a fish, I thought to myself as I tried to catch my breath.


Stranger in Strange Lands

Paris
When I visited Paris, I was a sallow teenager with little common sense.  It was gray, crooked, and overwhelming, but I was still too sheltered and naive to understand what I was experiencing.

Dakar
I hailed a taxi back to HLM4; I was tired and Alan was drunk.  As we skirted the dark, silent stalls of the market, the driver popped in a cassette tape and suddenly “Changes” by Tupac Shakur was rattling through the speakers.  Here was a language everyone in the taxi understood, and we all sang along until Alan and I were dropped off.  Late nights in Dakar could always shake off the bitter complications of our diurnal lives.
Saint-Louis
I remember numbing all sense of emotion with a good amount of gin, then casting myself on the bed with the TV on.  What did I see?  I’m not sure what I saw, but I remember distinctly what I heard, her voice echoing crystal-clear in my memory:
Aimer
Être aimé
Nous avons tous besoin de l’amour
Port-au-Prince
T’es loin de chez toi, chèrie, I said to her.


Loa and Lightning

The tattered old farmer walked by the front step where we were sitting.  He was clutching a full bottle of clairin in his hands.

Tonton, where is your conch shell?  I inquired.

He stopped and squatted next to us and we began an aimless chat.

Tonton, I said, pointing to the bottle he carried, if you drink all that clairin you’ll go blind.

No, he said, I have a very powerful loa that permits me to drink copious amounts of alcohol and suffer no ill effects.

He continued to tell me of other powers his loa granted him, and as he spoke he flipped off his dirty baseball cap to reveal a crumpled sheet of notebook paper and some dry, yellowed tobacco leaves stowed within.  He quickly tore off a shred of paper and rolled a morsel of tobacco inside.  I proffered my lighter so he could ignite his patchwork cigarette.

Mesi, he said, thank you.

After a couple of tokes, he gave the tiny cigarette to me, and I took several puffs.


Cryptic Journeys

Once in Dakar, locate a sept-place or a Ndegan-Ndiaye going to Kaolack.  Set out early in the morning, as it is a 5 hour journey.

You will get off at the depot just outside of the Grand Mosque in Kaolack, buzzing with activity.  Try to get to the depot to the south, closer to the river.  Locate a Ndegan Ndiaye going to the Gambia via Karang and climb on.  This will be a very sweaty 2-3 hour ride.
Pass through the towns of Passi and Sokone.  After Sokone, you will go through approximately 4 villages before arriving at Toubacouta.  Rap very hard on the frame of the bus so the driver and apprenti know that you want to get off at this town.
Walk down the main street in Toubacouta, past the mosque, until you reach the tailor shop.  Take a right at the tailor’s and continue.  Eventually you will pass some burned-out buildings, a kindergarten, a dispensaire, and a prenatal clinic.  There is a lady selling baignets outside of the prenatal clinic; buy some baignets from her.

The road will turn a rust-red color, and then you will find yourself out of Toubacouta.  There is a post office to the left, and next to it an Alize mobile phone tower.  Keep going, past the half-completed villas, past the grazing cows, past the shoddy military base.
After about 500m under the baking sun you will arrive in Soucouta, the last village on the road.  Take a left just past the telecentre, walk past the foosball table crowded with adolescents, walk until you come to a grand tree with a bench under it.  Ask anyone there for the house of Yande Ndaw.  Yande might be there, or else her daughter Gnima might receive you.  Whoever it is, give them the baignets you bought and ask them to show you the place where Mamadou Sarr stayed.  They will lead you past the stacks of drying fish to a derelict campement looking out over the mangroves.  Take a look around, write a note, reflect for a moment.  I can’t tell you right now what you will find, but you will know what it is once you stand there.


Kayor 1979

Sometime late that afternoon I heard Ibou’s moped buzzing down the dusty road. Sure enough, there she was, sitting on the back of the moped. She appeared like an angel in the savage jungle sun. They stopped in front of me, and Ibou flashed me a mischevious grin. She hopped off and took a look around. Ibou, still grinning, took off in a cloud of dust.

-Hello, she said, her expression bemused.

I mumbled a reply and stared at the ground. If I had known she was coming I would at least have found the time to take a shower.

-Surprised to see me? Her face broke out in a wide smile.
-Well, yes, I said, the project won’t be done for another month or so. I can’t imagine why you would want to come here so soon.

I couldn’t stop staring at her hair. Sure, it had been there all along, but here in the brutal reaches of the bush it seemed transfigured. Her hair was dark like October rain, thick and black and taunting. I wanted to dive into it…

-What are you staring at? she asked.
-Nothing, it’s just your hair, I stammered.

She laughed and put a hand on my shoulder. I wanted to kick myself.
-Come on, she said, you’ve got to show me around this place.

I turned around and we started walking down the trail to my compound. Had it really been 10 months since I last saw her? It would be like starting all over again, here in the bush. I took a deep breath.

-How long were you planning on staying?


St. Tropez (Alisa)

“Behind every disaster and tragedy in history there is a long-lashed, dark-haired woman,” he said, and then he poured himself another glass of anisette.

She rolled her eyes, thinking their situation was far from a disaster. It was just like him to exaggerate. As she sucked on the rim of her own glass, she hoped that this helping (his sixth) would finally calm him down. Perhaps he’d even take a nap. Oh, to be so lucky. She needed her hands free to clean up the place and make a few phone calls, the most important being to Papa Paulo who was a magician at erasing the past. It just so happened he owed her one.

She glanced over her shoulder and saw him flop down on the wicker loveseat, his eyes closed, smiling. The smoky liquid in the drink he was still holding teetered over the edge and dribbled onto his dusty khaki shirt. She had the urge to run and get a towel but stopped herself. Instead, she bent over and picked up the palm-tree patterned pillow he had thrown at her just 20 minutes earlier and gently placed it under his head. There was a part of her that loved the way he exaggerated, his penchant for the dramatic, the mystery, the wonder in his eyes.

City Beats (Omnibus)


City Beats

It’s another night of black onyx and ivory, dirty pavements and taxi queues, stiletto pumps and heavy eyeliner. The skyscrapers above us look like the burnt-out husks of shattered giants, the sidewalk rendered dark gray by night after night of filth, the lights inside the diner on the corner are dim to the point of resembling a grinding inferno, and the waitress won’t take your order. The dark sky above seems to buckle and churn, the stars hiding their faces, lost in amber fog. This place is hell, you’re drunk, and you can’t imagine the sun ever rising again.


A Night at The Ivory

Keyshawn tapped a few keys on his laptop, fiddled with a few dials on the main console, and all of a sudden the hall was filled with the electro-screeching of that blond dreadlocked pop singer from San Diego with the symbol in her name, @isha, or something.  Her music sounded like a brain-damaged text message, somehow essential to her rebel sex kitten image.  So many contradictions had to be stirred into one celebrity to keep it interesting.  The club, however, went wild upon hearing the first few bars, and they subsequently started gyrating with new purpose.

How can you play this garbage?  I shouted over the din.

Naw, man, Keyshawn shouted back with his lopsided grin, White chicks love this shit, it’s a fucking honkydesiac.

I chuckled at his portmanteau, and went back to staring at the ceiling.


Qualifications: A Night in Adams Morgan

Lord Shiva stares from among the shelves of liquor in the color-changing bar.  Episode where Anthony Bourdain goes to Uruguay.  Twelve ounces of Kingfisher lager.  Dry Sack, Kentucky Gentleman, Drambuie.  Mango nectar, middling-quality vodka, ice.  Poison/life swirled into a chilled martini glass.  I let their nasal chatter fade away into the background, let them stare at me instead.  My eyes do not follow you, I let you instead ponder my mystery.  Or, the mystery of these plastic flowers in the sensuous, round vase beside me.  Anthony Bourdain sips red wine and Coca Cola in some forgotten concrete jungle of Montevideo.  No tengo ritmo, soybeans and puffed rice in chilis, what a Nepalese farmer eats for fortification before the day begins.  Here, my fortification is for blank conference rooms and sprinting up escalators.  I like fish and mango pickle.  Somewhere distant, they are giggling and laughing over real Nepalese food.  Here, I accept a facsimile and imagine I am somewhere else.  Ice cubes delicately tipped into a slender glass of mango nectar.  Elsewhere, death in the kitchen.


Casablanca 2010

We are seated in a tiny upstairs café in Casablanca, overlooking the five-way intersection.  It is only a few blocks from the Parc Mohammad V, but the din of the Saturday afternoon crowds is barely audible.  The waiter sets down our tiny espressos with a clatter, but I barely notice.  I am still quite distracted by the heart-shape her face takes when she gives that mystical little smile.

Quoi?  She asks me, eyebrows raised, and proceeds to mix the sugar cubes into the thick espresso.

Usually I never take sugar with my coffee, but today I stir in both cubes.  The next evening, when I kiss her in front of the cinema under glowing red neon, I faintly taste the smoke-tinged sugar on her lips.


Graves

Boys with expensive haircuts, girls in expensive dresses.  Girls talking about their summer in Germany, boys talking about a Swedish vampire film.  Medallions around their neck, skinny jeans tapering into pointed leather shoes.  Skinny, skinny everything, so skinny as to be untrustworthy.  A diner in Austin, a punk rock club in New York City, coy questions in French, conversation consumed with weary irony.  A whiskey and ginger ale, thin hands nervously caress the wrists of the tallest boy in the vintage football t-shirt.  Where to find cheap sushi, cilantro, and Tom Robbins.  Tear down these walls, wrench the mace from Satan’s fist, and confront hell with barbaric screams, eyes of fire and blood.


Bill Lang and Artichoke Ramekin

Back in the 1990s, artichoke ramekin and Bill Lang made the Loring Cafe famous.  The idea was to eat the fabulous artichoke ramekin in the outdoor alley dining area while listening to Bill Lang play be-bop up there on the roof.  Problem was, bats loved to dive at him up there in the  semi-dark, so Bill had to take up wearing a bicycle helmet.  In the winter, Bill moved inside to a small crows nest set up in the corner of the grotto-like dining room.  He had to climb up a ladder to reach it, and he’d sit up there like a scowling jazz demon in the dim light.  The Loring closed a long time ago, so all we have now are stories about Bill Lang and the artichoke ramekin.


The Blue Hour

She calls at three in the morning and dares me to come over.  It is cold outside, cold enough to carry every single noise into echoes of infinity.  All is silent except for my footsteps, which sound like the soundtrack for another movie entirely.  She told me that she is tired and cranky, but I still want to feel her ivory cheek against mine, even if only for a moment before we fall asleep.  The sidewalks and streets are so empty, there might as well be only the two of us existing in the entire universe.  I pass through amber pools of light thrown by towering streetlamps, measuring the distance and time before I arrive at the door of her apartment building.
Two long minutes.  Here is the door.  My choked voice breaks the silence of the night.


New York City Minutes

Lady GaGa is eyeing me from her perch above the permanently shuttered Virgin Megastore. The lights swirl into patterns that I swear I will remember forever, but of course I forget it all in the next dazzling second. The streets are wet and flecked with detritus, but you catch only glimpses through the humid humanity. Meg and I stop to take our picture with Lady GaGa; she is a silent sentinel over the hundreds that blink past her enormous sunglasses. Not a soul can read my face, I play with the cards close to my chest. We share a quiet moment together, Lady GaGa and myself, and then I am spliced into the mob once more. My black shirt is tight, and perspiration is gathering in an uncomfortable line on my collar. I imagine my forehead is shining in the deep crimson glow. She is standing on a bar somewhere in this city, slaking their thirst.

White linen, heavy. Everything in this miniscule Italian restaurant is heavy, from the velour chairs to the accent of the lacquered waiter. I order a glass of thick red wine to go with my prosciutto and spaghetti, the thick cream sauce playing tricks on my eyes in the hazy light. Extroverted roses sit in a vase beside the bar, while an extroverted rose of a different variety sits in the chair to my right. Neapolitan shrieks of burgundy and ivory, my mind settling into a wet stupor.

The Pakistani shopkeeper tilts his head back in laughter as I choose a sparkling, sequined piece of gauzy black material that is five sizes too small for me. I try to explain to him that is for someone else, not for me, and I nearly knock over a row of cheap plastic Statues of Liberty. I try not to let it slip that it is for a Maithali girl from Queens. Across the street the multistory monstrosity dedicated to M&M-related merchandise mocks me in its elegance inutile.

Twenty-four dollars twenty four hours a day open open open girls girls girls. There are dozens more shops with the same fluorescent lights illuminating the faces/histories of passing pedestrians. Their thoughts are on other things: the cast of “Wicked”, fish in Fulton Market, walking the dog in Central Park, 1800 in a silver bottle behind the bar, a carton of milk in the back of a narrow Bengali grocery, the sassy rhythm of a rooftop saxophone, dashikis in Harlem, sepia photos in a dusty ancestral album, Joe and Joe’s Pizza in distant Brooklyn. I am thinking about these things too…

I walk past three Mourides hawking fake Prada bags; I bark a greeting in Wolof and their dark faces crack broad smiles. Further down the street, there is a shawarma stand with a line stretching down the block, disappearing in the infinity of 6th Avenue. Just a few steps away are three more shawarma stands, empty of customers. Nobody can explain why everybody is waiting in line at this particular one. All those that sleep are high above our heads, the fires of hell burning below them. I am but a familiar spirit wading through the damp abyss. The subway rocks the joints in the asphalt, but I manage to keep in rhythm with the screeching WALK sign.

Black sport coat, black t-shirt, check to see if the mojito glass is empty, my hair stiff and bristling in the blast furnace heat. My head feels like it is two feet wide. A bead of sweat trickles down the back of my neck as an impish blond explains her obsession with the media, her life centered on NPR and the Daily Show. I appear interested, but the ache behind my eyes will not go away. The audience at Saturday Night Live tweets from Blackberries, too distracted by the universe inside their devices to extract any beauty from their memories. Fish tanks are stacked behind the bar, guarded by a male bartender in size zero women’s denim. I picked the wrong decade to visit New York City, or perhaps it is just the company that I keep.


Cafe Freedom/Citronelle November 2008

The lights are burning deep into my eyes.  Not that the lights are too bright; this room with the high ceiling is dim, but it feels as if all the demons of hell are burning into my eyes.  The turmoil began on Monday, the desire to start screaming at the top of my lungs.  I think I did, at least while I was alone where no one could hear me.  So, now I sit here in the frigid corner of a crumbling coffee shop.  The coffee is cold, the beer has gone flat, and the tea, well, the tea…
The tea reminds me of the taste of her mouth, a mix of sweet-sour burgundy stirrings that makes me lose my eyes.  Now my eyes just burn.  For some very odd reason, the unshaven barista of this hellishly dim coffee shop has propped open the front door, and now the cold air is pouring in like an invasion from Nunavut.  I always get angry at the irrational decisions of others, but I can never explain my own.  It is leaving a bad taste in my mouth.
What should I do?  Go outside, kick at the snow and rotting leaves, curse and light a cigarette.  I quickly decide against it; better to just crease the page over and try to make something jump out of this mangled paragraph.  In a few minutes, I think, the frustration will finally take effect and the burning in my eyes will quietly subside.


Minneapolis (Alisa)

A man stands at the intersection of West 43rd St. and Upton Avenue on a warm Sunday evening.  He proceeds to howl at the sky.  The traffic lights continue to mutely cycle red-yellow-green.

She says that there will always be a place for you, if only on the couch.  Instead, you may stumble into her apartment around one in the morning and throw up on her rug.  You might be mumbling something about wanting to take a swim in Cedar Lake.  In the morning, to apologize for your crude behavior, you might make her an omelet and an extra spicy Bloody Mary, just the way she likes it.  However, when you are finished you discover that she has already left to go to work.  You touch the extra plastic nametag lying on her nightstand, mixed in with the rings, bracelets, and old movie ticket stubs.  You let yourself out, making sure the cat she is cat-sitting does not escape.  It is somewhere around 10:30, and you catch the 18 bus to wherever you are supposed to go.

She didn’t know where he had been. Out with the City, catching up, exchanging stories, reacquainting himself with her dark corners, she guessed. She didn’t ask any questions, did her best to brush the cat hair off the couch cushions, dragged the extra blanket off her bed. She woke him up, groggy, absent, very early in the morning, asked him to kill the centipede in her bathroom. He did and she forgave him for the vomit on her rug, but not before he fell back asleep on the couch, the cat sniffing his forehead, pawing at his ear. She went to the kitchen and washed a bowl, in case he wanted cereal when he woke. Late for work already, she grabbed her purse, forgetting her nametag, shooed the cat away, who was licking his bare shoulder, and ran out the door. She didn’t need to lock it, knowing he would let himself out when the somber summer sun through her dusty blinds became too much.

Mid-Century Modern

There was perhaps another time before this, when we both found ourselves stuck in a small town on a lake, the Studebaker overheated and broken down until down.  We were on our way to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, for a wedding, but now found ourselves delayed in a place that barely deserved a name.  The roadside motel we lodged in advertised a television in every room, but the Admiral set in ours remained switched off as we laid out suitcases on one bed and studied the faux wood paneling on the wall.  The room felt too small after long hours driving down the highway, so we head down the street to the 24 hour diner (Plato’s).  It is surprisingly busy at this late hour, the waitress craning her head towards the back to see if a booth is open.  The rotund Greek behind the counter in the paper hat, presumably the owner, resembles Pan a bit, with a little sleepy Hades mixed in for dark effect.  Nonetheless, the black and white tile floor is clean, the seabreeze green Formica table of the booth is sparkling, the tableside jukebox is shiny and polished.

The day was spent driving through cacti-pocked desert that turned into alfalfa fields, so we feel ready for a chocolate shake and a cherry phosphate.  You pick out some Eddie Cochrane on the jukebox, and we hold hands while we debate how to make up the lost time tomorrow.  I look out the window and study the cars in the gravel lot: a few old Ford pickups, a Thunderbird, and a Galaxy.  It is a Ford town, I mumble.  You shake your ponytail to the beat of the song, and it ends right when our refreshing confections arrive.

Hmmm, meatloaf sandwich? I inquire, looking at the menu.

Nope, you respond after a slurp of your chocolate shake.

We linger for a bit, then wander back to the motel to shower and turn out the lights.  Headlights illuminate the drapes throughout the night.

The next morning, I walk to the garage next door and recover the Studebaker.  We load up the suitcases in the trunk, grab a cup of coffee from Plato’s, and drive out of town past the lake.

We get to Carlisle just before the rehearsal dinner, but manage to climb into our semi-formal attire beforehand and arrive with fresh smiles on our faces.  It is good to see old friends, the ballroom where the reception is held is coral pink, the band’s tuxedos are blindingly white.

However, it still feels good when we roll home a few days later, unpack the suitcases, and collapse into bed.  We wake up late the next day.  Fortunately, it is a Saturday, with warm ocean breezes through the open bedroom window.

Tiki bar or bowling alley?  you inquire.

Why not both? I respond, and then roll out of bed for a shower and a shave.

However, before all of that cosmic amusement, we need to climb on the bicycles and ride for the hills. I close the garage door as you fix your sunglasses on your face, and we roll down the asphalt until we get to the Las Cruces Mountain Trail.  The pine wrens fly above our heads as we sweat and pedal our way to the top of the hill, your polka-dot scarf holding up your hair, your thighs in denim shorts glistening with sweat.  At the top of the hill, we behold the Pacific Ocean and the winding ribbon of highway below, a solitary black Lincoln nosing through the curves

Race you to the bottom? I inquire.

Nope, you respond with a shake of your head.

I set out down the hill, working my brakes as I round the corners and brush past the dogwood branches.  Halfway to the bottom, I hear a rushing sound, turn my head, and see a blurred figure in denim shorts rush past me.

WOOOOOO, I WIN! you shout, your fine rear end racing away from me.

Once I get to the bottom, you are inspecting a grease stain on your cheek, just below your eye, using your pocket compact mirror.

I’m better than you, you snicker.

I respond with a rockabilly growl, and we coast back home on the asphalt, laughing.

Once home, we drink iced tea with lemon and read paperbacks on the patio, the sweat drying in the breeze.  Your paperback is called THE BEEKEEPER’S DAUGHTER, mine is titled LAST STAND ON NEPTUNE.  You rest your feet on my legs, and I gently massage your thighs between turning pages.  The pitcher of tea finished, we go inside for a steamy shower.  You get in first, and I decide I don’t feel like waiting.  I open the frosted glass door to behold your figure like a shot of tequila with lime.

May I join you? I inquire.

Yup, you respond.

After the shower, we have to pick out which tiki bar to go to (Tiki Atomic or Natalie Zea’s) and which bowling alley to lace up at (Airport Bowl or Laguna Lanes).  However, for now, we have a moment where we can find each other in this little cabin of steam, speaking in the poetry of touches and kisses, finding the center of the universe in your body and mine.

The Kibuye Letters

So, here I am by myself in this enormous guesthouse overlooking the lake.  It is extremely clean with new furniture, but feels a bit like a mausoleum.  I could be the first person that has ever stayed here; there is so little trace of this house having been lived in.  The guesthouse is in the town of Kibuye, the camp is in Kiziba, which is about a 40 minute drive from town.

Kiziba is a bit of a fever dream to visit, with its permanent fog and hazy view of Lake Kivu.  The lake here has a Mobius strip coastline, sharply rising into green terraced hills.  There are a host of small islands, none of which look particularly inhabited, dripping off of the shore.

The road from Kibuye up to Kiziba is carved like a wound into the side of the hills; it is a coarse, bumpy road that still manages to provide a spectacular view with every twist and turn.

When one approaches the camp, the first thing that hits you is the strong smell of eucalyptus, mixed alternatively with wood smoke or goat manure.  There is eucalyptus everywhere, both in its standing planted form and chopped into poles and branches for building and fire, the only two things humankind has ever wanted from a tree.  The shaved bark surface of the eucalyptus gives it texture and depth, light tans mingling with ashy grays, the kelly green leaves flapping in the wind or laying listlessly on the ground in defeat, slowing turning bronze.

Kiziba has actually expanded from the last time I saw it.  When I was here in 2013, you turned a corner on the road and beheld the camp as a large mass of off-white shelter roofs crowning a hilltop.  Now, those shelter roofs extend down the side of the hill, almost reaching the valley.  The road is in a bit better condition, the surrounding agriculture appears a bit more organized.  You enter the camp through the high mists and clouds, the hard-packed dirt road scarred a thousand times with ruts and rivulets.  Past the ARC office is the central boulevard of the camp, lined with mud-and-stick buildings bearing hastily-crafted signs for various businesses.  There is even a ferry agency where you can buy a ticket to take a boat across Lake Kivu.  I stumble along with Gustave and Gentil among the steady stream of Congolese people.  There are lots of children, but also lots of older people walking with sticks, the men in leather cowboy hats and the women in tattered pagne headscarves.  We arrive at the big central market, where women sell small piles of tomatoes and pale eggplant off of torn raffia sacks.  I find one woman who is from Fizi Territory, and we manage to hold a brief conversation in Kifulero and Kibembe, two of the peculiar languages of South Kivu.  I buy some avocadoes and tomatoes (later I give them to the housekeeper to take home to her family), and we move on.

Gustave and Gentil divert us from the main road into the narrow corridors between shelters to inspect some roofing transformations.  The passage is so narrow that it only allows one person at a time between houses, past dark doorways and through puddles of mud.  The only way one does not become completely lost is by following the slope of the hill, which is what we do until we find open space and a road at the bottom of the camp.  Beyond us, there are sorghum fields and churches, beyond the confines of the camp.  The lake still appears as a gray, dreamlike band in the distance.  Beyond it lies Congo, its crocodile and okapi mystique obscuring the mokele-mbembe calling to our souls.

We wander back up the hill, past the old school buildings now barricaded and rusting, past the gleaming new brick-and-blue-paint schools, past the samurai castle walls holding back the hillside, past groups of men sitting on tree roots, past houses with rusting tin doors fashioned out of flattened USAID vegetable oil cans, back towards the neural center of the camp.

Gustave and Gentil take me to a long mud house, where an Oromo man called “Cappuccino” runs a business selling spicy tangawizi (ginger) tea, coffee, Fanta, and chapatti.  The tangawizi tea is so strong it gives me hiccups; the fluffy, warm chapatti was baked this morning and is stored in enormous black plastic containers that resemble 1960s undersea exploration submersibles.  There are gargantuan thermoses full of hot water lining the wall, and somehow a satellite TV perched on several Fanta crates showing a cycling race in Italy.  Mr. Cappuccino has been in Kiziba for 6 years, knows very little Kinyarwanda, but seems to manage with Kiswahili and a little English.

After finishing the tea, we go back to the office, which overlooks the basketball courts built a long time ago.  All the ARC logos with strange acronyms I have never heard of before, in curving fonts I have never seen before, make me feel like I have wandered back in time somehow, back when some longer-haired version of me was falling head over heels for a girl like you, except you were wearing a paisley-print dress and drove a Chevy Nova instead of a CRV.  Gustave and I finish up work to the noise of children on the basketball court.  On one side, a group of young boys play soccer.  On the left side, a group of adolescent girls play basketball.  The backboard has “ARC” written on it in big, green letters.

I think about you all the way back to Kibuye, the Land Cruiser packed to the maximum with all the staff going home for the evening.

Right now, I am listening to my favorite evening-in-the-field album (Rudiger Oppermann and Malamini Jobarteh, “Same Sun, Same Moon”), and trying to figure out how I am going to shower and slip into bed.

Dead Sea Blues

You ever been to the island in the middle of the Dead Sea?  It is not immediately apparent as you stare through the hazy atmosphere, the dry, lifeless shoreline and the mirrored surface of the water conspiring to bend the rules of reality.

However, it exists, and on special days it becomes apparent to observers on shore.  Its appearance follows no scheduled pattern or schedule; the island cannot be conjured or found through scientific or mystic means.

There seems to be only one being that is able to visit the island at will, make it appear, and bring others there: Lucifer, the former Celestial Prince, Beloved of Yahweh.  It is speculated that the island belongs to a special domain of Lucifer, a remnant of shelter dating to before he was cast out of Paradise along with half of the Heavenly Host of Adonai.

As Jesus wandered the wilderness after his baptism, the days and nights grated on both his body and his conscience.  He consumed nothing in the form of food or drink, but instead digested the prophecies he was destined to fulfill.  He struggled under the daily reality of mortal existence, the knowledge that if he was to continue on this mystic path of redemption for billions of ungrateful and destructive souls, he was to experience a yet-undetermined period of time in Hell itself, at the mercy of his former companion.

After Jesus spent ten days stumbling around the shoreline of the Dead Sea, Lucifer came to perform his task: tempt the Messiah.  Staring at the horizon humming with late-afternoon heat, Jesus became aware of an even greater heat behind him, cutting like a knife through his rough robes.  Although the blood red fireball of the sun continued its slow descent, Lucifer carried with him an absence of light that darkened not the vision of the eyes, but the inner vision of the soul.  There is little more to describe of Lucifer’s appearance; he was more of a manifestation that was felt, and any physical expression could easily be dismissed as imagined by the mind.  His presence was more related to sudden shifts of the spirit that are not normally detectable.  This was in contrast to Jesus’ very human physical form, which was gaunt, tanned, and carrying a thunderstorm of emotions behind dark eyes.  The Son of the Morning and the Son of Man stared at each other for what may have been hours, then they gave a collective sigh; there was a task at hand, so both God and Devil began.

We know the story of the Temptation of Christ, how Lucifer taunted Jesus for his assumed mortality (what could be more ridiculous than a deity as wrathful and removed as Yahweh sending Himself in human form?), for his insistence on faith (outrageous for a omnipotent being that could purposefully and easily demonstrate His existence in tangible ways humans could understand), and for the absurdity of his methodology of redemption (showing a pretense of humility and obscurity, when all humanity has known or ever will know is the language of power and authority).  Was perhaps Yahweh showing some signs of regret for the cruel context of human existence?  Was this an awkward attempt to bring His creation closer to Him, while stubbornly refusing to admit error or apathy?  Lucifer’s presence hovered next to Jesus over the next twenty-six days, speaking for the rational mind of humanity through his temptations.  Jesus, the Lamb of God, felt anger and rebuke rise in his throat, and rebuffed Lucifer through statements that resolutely insisted on ignoring any logic that humankind could understand.

There is a part of the Messiah’s Temptation that was not recorded in any gospel or testament.  On the thirty-second day, Jesus slipped and fell as he sought to escape the swarms of flies that materialized from no apparent source.  The fall bruised his ankles and drew blood from a legion of scrapes on his hands and ankles.  The blood darkened and congealed in the lifeless environment of rock, dust, and heat.  As he had done for all previous days, Lucifer stood by as Jesus’ face silently contracted in pain.  A slight moan escaped from the lips of the Messiah, and Lucifer fought the urge to try and help Jesus to a more comfortable position.  It would not work, of course, but in such a moment all celestial and existential polarities could be momentarily forgotten.

Stiff and in pain, Jesus huddled at the base of a giant rock vaguely resembling a ram’s head, staring out at the Dead Sea and laboriously exhaling through his nose.  The air still felt heavy, the noon heat oppressive.  He could taste the salt in the air, felt his head swimming from dehydration and chagrin.  Nothing felt real anymore, the sea before him evaporating and reconstituting itself multiple times.  The Dead Sea was deceptively simple; there was nothing alive within, it consisted of only rocks and corrosive water.  However, it played tricks with the mind, and one wanted to believe there was something in the middle, something underneath it, something to break the monotony of its impassive existence.  Jesus found himself giving into mortal emotions that wanted to see something different, some new in the still brine.  Lucifer lowered himself next to Jesus, fixing his gaze into the sea.

“Father thinks He had beaten me,” said Lucifer, using a transcendent word for “father” that predates any language known to this age, “He thought that casting me out of His presence, to roam to and fro on the earth, was an adequate defeat.”

Jesus shifted his chin. “There is nothing you can do about it, it is a decisive judgment.”

“Ah, but Sibling, there are still mysteries hidden from the most mysterious being in the universe.” Lucifer raised an enigmatic eyebrow.

“My Father knows all, He sees all.”

“Has he hidden this even from your eyes, then?” Lucifer was nearly whispering.  He lifted his hand palm upward, an indication that something was about to happen.

That is when the island appeared, floating out of the mist.  It was a rock shaped like a loaf of bread, its gritty surface the color of wet sand and crushed jade mixed together.  At the top of the island was rooted a single leafless tree, gnarled and black.  The tree’s branches seemed to reach out at the viewer, and Jesus knew that wherever he stood, the tree would continue to reach for him.  At once, Jesus knew the cosmic implications of this island.

“Shall we go?” inquired Lucifer, brow furrowed.

Jesus uncurled his limbs and slowly rose to his feet.  There was something here to confront, a new truth to be discovered and contemplated.  It was all so simple, and yet he could feel the ripples being sent through time.  Lucifer stood up as well, gazing upon his last sanctuary in the middle of the Dead Sea.