I am usually ill even before I leave Los Angeles. By the time I get to this city, I have already been sick for several days with various ailments. The dread and anxiety are enough to attract an army of bacteria, viruses, and other contagions, in preparation for my departure, long before I even buy my roundtrip bus ticket. As the day approaches, my immune system knots up in a pointless bundle at the base of my spine, a thick, dull mass that renders my lower back and body defenses useless. I cannot walk or stand; I lean and slump at half my height, at a child’s height. This is how I wander the streets of San Jose and shuffle my way from one family structure to another. I am a viral agent stooped on empty sidewalks from childhood dreams, listening for street signals that I cannot raise my head high enough to see. Impressions from the corners of my downward facing eyes: Empty storefronts. Cold air, something like ice in the air, stinging my eyeballs, wet. Families piling out of minivans, walking through the river park with all the kids. Middle-aged men on bicycles with ponytails and ragged beards and black and silver Raiders beanies, sewer drains backed up with leaves, the street flooding, wetting my boots, tents along the river bank further down, out of view. Gray, grime, steel smell jagged against slick synthetic fabric and façade, empty mirrored buildings, plastics, resins, shopping mall trees, animatronic Christmas in the Park, styrofoam partridges hanging themselves from two-dimensional pear trees next to rickety cutouts of fake windmills and cherry groves, toxic magic dust settling over everything like shiny sparkly spores. And my baby nephew locked away already in a white ivory tower high on a hill, far from the dirty, uneven concrete under my feet. Kipper snacks and expired baguettes in hand, I make my way back to greet the New Year alone. Nothing here for me now but to watch it unfold from a distant, hunchbacked, mutant retreat.
Somewhere near Coalinga, about halfway back to LA, one of the guys behind me on the bus says to his cell phone, “Okay, yeah, I am reading another one of these florid, sentimental messages, and can I just say, I just want to vomit, okay? I’m realizing that the language of healing and community and love has been co-opted by weak, dishonest individuals who operate from self-interest through a veneer of unity and mutual support. Look, I don’t want to be too much of a jerk, but seriously, if this is healing and love, then may we all stay forever sick and lonely, vomiting on one another and clawing at each other’s shit, you know what I’m saying? No, the only thing that is mutually supported here is a debilitating matrix of addiction, denial, and despair. Right. Write this down: ‘Your tongue is in an ear again, giving itself away. The saliva carries disinformation and venom in equal parts over cringing cilia and aural nerve cells. Get that viral code away from my brain. Your vocabulary stretches a thin skin across multiple lying tongues. I would stay and recite a few lines but I’m afraid that I might puncture it with a punctuation mark. Better to just leave you beating your same old drum to ancient mythologies and outdated romantic lore. You are my other me. I am your other snore.’ Now, read it back to me. Mmhm. Mmhm. Mmhm.”
Lick the image of yourself, maybe the saliva will wake up something in the reflection of your eye.
#1: You bring the ice cream, I’ll bring the cherry pie. Amor à la mode, circus clown–style. Smash into each other’s face. Lick the resulting mess. Let the flavors mix on lips. Ice cream in my eye, hot cherry on your thigh. Lick it dry.
#2: Blushing a deep red, covering your pokerface with both your hands, sleeping with our clothes on all night. Bouncing souls, one eye two different colors, one inside the other. One is the silence, one is everything you do not say. One is for your lover and the other for your other.
#3: Your plan has been crystal from before we met, several meticulously threaded strands, a cat’s cradle Christian cross across your blood red nails, stretching net, a text message digitally touched-up and undone. You see a tightening, I see a perpetual unravel, a knot of fun, a symbol of the worship of the moon and the sun.
#4: The problem is that so many are so willing to settle for so little and no fun. There cannot possibly be such a disconnect in perception of the shared experiences between two individuals without a healthy amount of denial and the stubbornly willful maintenance of several carefully constructed blind spots. But then, this is what most of us call friendship and love.
I tried to tell them before this all began. I can pretend, and I can pretend, but in the end…I already knew it from way back when—
I can laugh at it, and I do. But there is a moment when your laughter freezes and settles into something else. A kind of dry ice. An empty grin. You become a connoisseur of nothingness.
There are a number of theories. Many involve elements of socialization, and most are steeped in cynical retreat: Our taste for misery is acquired and learned, just as with our servitude. We are taught to mistake right for wrong and up for down. We are taught to keep ourselves in harm’s way, unhealthy, a state of waste. Dissimulate. This is how we learn to love/hate.
I may be a liar, but I’m never a fake.
The need to keep seeking our own.
#5: Red. (Love poem for the one you have not yet met.)
It is an argument with a blind man about the color of something, knowing that he has never even experienced color. It is red, Sofia says. No it is not, the blind man says. It is not red. You don’t even know what red is. You don’t even know what color is. I know what it is not, the blind man says. I know what it is not she hears the phrase running in her head, wakes up, red. Outside is the sound of the schoolbell across the street, time for the children to line up. She walks backward, waving at a friend. The future is not in front of us, it is behind us, unknown, it unfolds around us as we move backward facing forward. Color in the blind man’s head, how can they speak about this thing. It is the color of our blood. Blood is warm and slippery, sticky, salty. This is red. No, this is not red. You smell it in the meat market. You smell it in the street sometimes. On my hands. Between my legs. Metallic—iron, copper, other elements and chemicals. Code twists in spirals, scrolls, Sofia puts a blank sheet of sandpaper next to some other object that is not really an object but it has texture, shape, form, smell, and the result is a kind of machine that is red. The machine is not the color red, the machine is red, is red itself, but a red that only the blind can see. Here, this is red, take it, bleed. The machine is in the blind man’s head, he moves around inside it. He connects the taste, smell, feel, to something else, alien. What is the sound of red? Is this the sound, something like the sound? Sofia moves around inside there and she sees what is not red. She and the blind man are two parts of the same machine of red not red. The sound of children running and playing. They travel across worlds. They invent new worlds, the machine invents worlds and uninvents. The red is what it is not but it is also something else maybe. Rules dissolve when schoolbells ring. I will leave this machine of red behind, I will bring it with me everywhere I go. It will be who I am and am not. There are rules to invent and break and invent ways of breaking again. It is red and not red. The machine involves also a kind of gristle, a rubbery tissue, and bone, fine and delicate. The machine generates sound, texture, several moments in time and several out of time. Rules form and dissolve. The red is play. I perform this moment for you, red. I am red for you. You can only see what I am not, you can only see that I am not you. I would build you a machine, I would spark two points of material contact together—petrified branch and glass shard, duct tape and wool, E-flat and your lips—anything, whatever it would take. To see what I see, to see what you see. To not be afraid. To bleed. There is something in these mistakes that undoes them even as they form, it is a wire that we must pull, there is always hope in the undoing of unraveling unspool. This thread tangles on I was here in this spot in 1992, and so were you. 1993. 1998. Maybe you don’t know it yet but these are things that you learn to pay attention to. The way that code spirals in a city like this, circling, tangling, scrolling, this is not just any city, these are not just quixotic flights. Paths twist and elements spark in strange ways that we must learn to read. I bleed, and you bleed. We persist. The city functions stories through us. These conversations may take decades. Some responses are centuries in the making. They envision narrative on the scale of millennia and so must we. They might have all the blood in the world, but we still have all the red. Even the blind man, Sofia says. Here, take my arm. Cut our palms with arcs. Matching half-moons in our flesh, walk through the city hand in hand, gravitational force pulling tides with red. A wave, another wave. A movement toward. This is red, and this is not red. Leak into me, there is still a lifetime’s worth to be said. We have bled, and we have all bled.
#6: Brown. (And for the two.)
And then later that day, I killed a spider that had been biting me at night. There were marks on my hands and belly. I smashed it with paper and then flushed it down the drain.
The next evening, I found another spider dead on top of my blanket near my pillow. It was brown with yellow spots and rolled up in a tight little ball. Perceiving no other obvious cause of death, I imagined that I had killed its partner in crime, and that it had died of a broken heart. I imagined that even in these tiny vessels of parasitic venom are the seeds of some kind of love.
#7: Yellow. (And for all the rest.)
Once, many years ago, I killed a yellow-jacket bee that wanted the food I was cooking on my stove. It had flown into my kitchen through an open, unscreened window over the sink. Soon another yellow-jacket flew in, and I killed that one, too. Suddenly, three or four yellow-jackets appeared at my window in a state of agitation. Alarmed, I began swatting at them with a rolled-up newspaper, killing several, but these were quickly replaced by several more that flew into the kitchen, until I had a moment to shut the window with one hand while continuing to swat at the air with the other. Three or four yellow-jackets were now furiously buzzing around my head as the unattended food began to burn on the stove and fill the tiny room with a cloud of smoke.
But it was the yellow-jackets outside the shut window that were truly frightening. Within moments, an entire swarm of them had assembled, and some began throwing themselves into the glass with the force of small, sociopathic birds, while others angrily crawled and scraped at the splintered edges of the wood frames in search of gaps and cracks. The sounds of their enraged, buzzing bodies pounding in concert into the glass and vibrating and scraping at the edges was like some form of deadly mutant rain, sizzling, electrified and toxic, wearing away at carefully assembled molecules of sand and faded, chipped, flaking white paint.
Crawling sensation under the skin.
Internal organ secretion.
Those who offer their teeth and lips and tongue to suck out the venom.
There is no expulsion, no evacuation from contamination.
Armies of antibodies mutating into tomorrows.
In us all now.
Your teeth around my tongue. Your lower lip between mine. Your palm sweating into my chest. Your scent intermingled with my own. My teeth in the small of your back. Our feet curled and wrapped. Your arms above your head so that I can smell you when we are alone. The sound that we make when we are alone.
image+text copyright ©2009 by Ruben R. Mendoza. All rights reserved.