[15 november 2009]
After Victorville she had written in her notebook These will be our new prisons, they are building them now, they will have shopping malls and gas station convenience stores and ATMs; Manny photographs the desert like it is a game. The night of the ofrendas we danced with our faces painted calavera-style but even with that other mask on I knew that Antonio could see right through, watching me from where he danced with all his artist friends on the other side of the stage, playing it cool, that way of looking at me intensely and yet not seeming to be looking at me at all. Manny was too faded to notice anything anyway. These other suburbs, shadows of ones like our own, built and propped up on a false, intentionally misleading reference to places like El Monte, Covina, Hacienda Heights. The places we grew up, sheltered, nurtured, on our way to UCLA, Berkeley, Stanford, CalArts. Alma calls us the new breed of Chicanaristocráticas on the prowl for our Chicanarquista boyfriends to tame. My mom’s house. My dad’s garden in the back. The avocado tree. Football with my brothers at Thanksgiving in the street. Just a little further east, the new promised land—escape the smog, escape the drugs, escape the freeways, escape the gangs. The new frontier in reverse, the real destiny finally manifesting its full logic. A lure. A trap. Antonio’s sideways glance.
A police helicopter circling, blaring a message about a criminal to be on the lookout for. African-American male, six feet, wearing…
Manny laughing, slowing down and leaning out the window to hear the message better. “Yeah, right. What a nice public service announcement. Why don’t you just say, ‘Don’t even think about fucking around, worms, we’re watching you.’”
“There’s no escape,” Silvia said.
It had been his idea to drive out here and find an abandoned house to break into and camp out at for the night. He’d heard stories about blocks and blocks of dark, empty, brand new houses. Entire tract developments foreclosed and unfinished, streets that ended abruptly, dissolving into desert. Power boxes standing alone in the middle of nothing, disconnected from grids that had never materialized. He’d heard stories about the crime, most of it just weird, bizarre, pointless. The stupid, spontaneous acts of meth heads and teenagers bored out of minds stretched thin and ragged over bleak desert, over gutted future, over an aesthetics of aftermath and dull, half-hearted survival. No jobs here, no fun, no nothing. The sky stretching wide and high. Nothing but getting stupefied and high. Speed freaks, biker gangs, nativist white supremacists. Wal-Marts emptied out of ammunition and guns. Immigrants and underclass people of color lured from the city centers by the promises of work, home ownership, escape from relentless gentrification.
And now, stranded, stuck out here in the halfway nothing between Las Vegas and L.A., safely removed, isolated, contained.
Bright, white driveways and sidewalks and swirls of smooth, dark asphalt icing over desert in soothing culdesac curves and lines.
Quicksand dance, I can’t tell the camouflage from mirage she had written later. “I can’t tell the camouf—“
“Look at that!” Manny said, and pulled the Mazda over.
Out on a wide stretch of undeveloped nothing behind an isolate suburban street of empty houses, a group of boys and girls had surrounded the blackened carcass of an old, abandoned, burned-out white Lexus, and were pounding away at it with baseball bats, pipes, rocks, wooden planks, bricks and chunks of concrete and other leftover building materials. The car was still burning in spots. The blows made dull, thud-cracking tones that had nowhere to bounce off of. Muted, single notes quickly muffling themselves on wide, empty air. Manny jumped out of the car, zoomed in, snapped some shots.
“Let’s go talk to them,” he said.
“You go talk to them, I’m not going over there.”
Scraps of paper and plastic eddying, catching on dry, tangled branches clawed close to hard ground. Off to the side, maybe four or five yards from the group, one of the girls sitting alone in the middle of nothing, cross-legged, something almost calm and serene about her, but in a disconcerting way, Silvia thinking of a Butoh dancer, or a meditating Buddhist priest. Breathing in and out of a brown paper bag. Looking up at the sky, down at her lap. The ones who set themselves on fire. Jeans, some kind of sports jersey, blue and white, oversized, hanging in folds all over her bony frame, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. At this distance, Silvia couldn’t make out the jewelry she wore, but it caught sun and threw off gold bits of it so she knew that there were bracelets, earrings, other piercings. Cheap shopping mall glitter. She thought about the last time she’d been lured to the Ontario Mills by her cousin from Fontana for some friend’s birthday party. The strangeness of the place, of monotonously scripted movements and conversations.
Contained. Regulated. Sanitized.
“Come on,” Manny said. “Why not? Let’s go get some close-ups and talk to them.”
“Hell no.” She shook her head. She hadn’t moved from her seat in the car, hadn’t even undone the seat belt.
Like it’s National Geographic. Wildlife Special.
At the bar in East LA, Manny’s friend had melted down a few nights before right in front of all of them. Throwing his money around—paying the cover charge for everybody, buying drinks for everybody; and then, later, almost crying, getting drunk, dancing way too close with way too many girls who had way too many boyfriends already. She’d felt bad for him, but kept her distance. Manny did too, but just because he didn’t know how to handle watching another man show so much pain.
She’d kept quiet for her own reasons.
Out in the smoking patio, the guy had offered to light her cigarette with the middle and ring fingers of his right hand. “I don’t know what it is but that guy is always misinterpreting me.”
“Who?” she said.
“You know. That guy.”
“No, I don’t. Which guy?”
“You know. The one who keeps taking your picture and buying you glasses of sake and plum wine.”
“Oh,” she’d said. At first she thought he’d meant Manny. Then she realized he meant somebody else. Then she realized it didn’t matter who he meant. “I don’t know. Maybe you’re the one who’s misinterpreting yourself, and he’s just got it right.”
“How many times do I have to make a bad first impression with him?”
“Maybe it has to do with honesty?”
“I think that it is the color of my skin and the code running through my veins. There are those who will never fully trust where I am coming from. I guess I can’t blame them. We make our own history but not in circumstances of our…something. Marx. The brothers.”
Manny didn’t know it, but his sad, drunk friend was friends with Antonio—good friends, she knew, because Alma had grasped her arm and whispered it to her when they got there. Alma was watching them now through the window that looked out on the smoking patio.
“What are you waiting for?” Alma had said earlier in the week, while Silvia’s mobile phone blew up with drunken texts and calls from Manny.
What are you waiting for?
The guy was staring at her, waiting for a response. She pictured computer code coursing through his veins. It was green pixilated numbers and letters, something from the 1980s. “Maybe it’s not that they don’t trust you, maybe it’s just that you don’t trust yourself.”
“No, see, I have taken thirty-seven death-defying risks in the past seventy-two hours. One for each year, and half of them for you. So, my question to you is this: Why can’t you see that we are perfect for each other? I mean, at least for the time being, for a little while at least.”
And here, with great flair and timing, the guy pulled a small loaf of bread from somewhere inside his pea coat and placed it in her hand. It was warm and soft; she could smell it, freshly baked sourdough. It crumpled inward immediately at the pressure points of her fingertips. He winked; they both knew that it was just a performance. Or at least, she did, and she assumed that the wink meant that he did, too.
There is always such a lack of balance in everything. When will I know for sure that what I want is really what I want, and not something else from twenty-three years ago? When will this oscillation narrow to a closer set of frequencies? These bowing anti-harmonies that drag one way and then the other way. This guy looking intently into my eyes, listening to every word I say, and to every space between every word, and to every other unspoken thing implied by these. Every gesture I make, every facial expression.
“…so then, I was telling her that I have never been dumped, but I think she took it the wrong way, because in my head what I was trying to say, what I was trying to get to, the point, my point I was trying to—was, like, that I have never been dumped because I haven’t found anybody worth the risk of putting myself in that position for—until now.”
“Those are two different things, guy. That last part.”
“Yes, it’s always that last part.”
Alma was signaling through the window; Manny on his way out, headed to the bathroom next to the patio.
“So...how did you first meet my boyfriend?” she asked the guy, as Manny made his way toward them, swaying a little.
“Who—Antonio?” the guy said.
Those are two different things.
I call them the Suicide Crew, the La Ciénega Posse, the Nostalgia Myalgia Pals. Manny has never heard these terms. Some of them are his friends. Some of them are his enemies but he still thinks they are his friends.
Perpetually sinking, perpetually flailing, they have planted their feet firmly in place in bubbling tar with their bodies always within arm’s reach of one another in order to make sure that no one tries to lift a foot out of the slow sink to which everyone has solemnly committed her/his life.
Once, at a particularly vulnerable moment in my own life, they invited me to join them. They took my intense experience of sadness, disappointment, and grief, as indication that I was seeking to take part in their lifestyle of mutually reinforced depression, codependent addiction, and infinitely limited creative potential.
I tried to explain that it was just another performance, a way of working through, experiencing, and honoring overwhelming emotions without being controlled by them. But they wouldn’t hear it.
We must remember that there is safety in numbers. We must remember that for some sociopathic people, there is something sickly comforting about holding another human being down with them while they drown.
For a brief moment, I entertained the idea of reaching over the edge of the pit and trying to help pull them out, but I knew that this was just another trap, too.
Manny was over there talking to those kids today, taking their pictures, while I sat there in familiar solitude, comforted by the buffer, waiting; it didn’t matter if I went over there or not anyway, we both knew. It was all about him, always. How is it that you can feel more lonely with somebody than by yourself? I could still feel that warm bread in my hands from the other night, inhaling its earthtang warmth, its remnants and traces of oven fire glow. It made me want to puke. I wanted chemicals—a cigarette, a paper bag, the dark room of Manny’s photo lab in the basement of his mother’s house—anything but this. The nourishment of ravage and decay, emptying out all material trace to make room for fumes and toxic waste.
By the time the photographs of the kids are developed, their futures will have completely evaporated and their pasts will have been huffed away.
I just want to find somebody who can believe with me that this is not just a matter of exposure and decay.
image+text copyright ©2009 by Ruben R. Mendoza. All rights reserved.
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