Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Phobos Claustrum

Once boundless, the sky is framed today. A tiny Polaroid blemished by vertical stripes marks the boundary between freedom and its skeleton. Timelessly I sit in expectation until the sun, for a glorious and fleeting moment, traverses my viewfinder. Under its warmth I melt, the specter of me alive again for a respite until purgatory returns for yet another day. The moment’s gone and icy walls close in on me, brandish their bastions in warning. My boiling mind notwithstanding, I am resigned to being trapped.

But the more circumscribed the body the freer the mind, it seems. For now the opacity of things has cleared and from turbid waters I see clear bottoms. I am a pendulum poised in revelation. Perhaps it is one of the great ironies of life that captivity makes ethics so much more obvious. Without oscillation time ceases its flow and stands still. The same day repeats itself ad infinitum, a well rehearsed act by the cold, the grey, the vertical and the geometrical conspiracy in this mise en scene designed to hijack my mind. But I’ve yet to yield to insanity. There is still much to read, and although this living is by proxy and anachronistic at that, since I’ve a penchant for the classics, it is the only kind of traveling I’m allowed. However meager for this ravenous wanderlust, I’m afraid stories will have to do, for now.

I remember as a child I always craved for the sweets that were not on the table, however diverse the selection. To want what is absent, to summon back what is discarded, to detail people who leave and disregard people who stay, these are the symptoms of the contretemps between man and life. It occurred to me yesterday that I would have given anything for a ride down a water toboggan, that is what I lusted for. The yearning so strong, the possibility so bleak, that I felt I would have gladly relinquished a part of my flesh, a finger or an ear, to have this wish granted. Perhaps I am not far from insanity after all. In hindsight I figure that on the outside I would entertain similar yearnings for seclusion. What I wouldn’t give, I would say, for solitude and silence away from this racket of the city that silences my mind. Yet restored from exile thoughts run in hungry floods and it’s a challenge to tame them. The hand scribbles madly in the journal, now my vade mecum which I’d never part with, and here’s me doing one more thing I thought I’d never do.

Another day through the viewfinder, the sun shines with promise. Life is but an afterthought, but I’ve no regrets and as I shed my scales to this catharsis I’m prepared to receive whatever’s in store for me, since for any scenario I can imagine something that is much, much worse. Optimism, one more thing that deprivation breeds.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nobody's Business

Easter of yesteryear in bus 331. A pauper dozes in the seat reserved for handicapped persons. Opposite him, a coquettish redhead winces like the smell bothers her. In the back of the bus a rubicund gentleman looks through the window. Two crones gossip. The air, of an inebriated hue, hangs. Closed-eyed, the pauper twitches, as if chasing a fly away, then settles.

The city is dead. Through the window a nondescript germination happens. Bucharest is a city of Lego with little plastic men stabbed in the asphalt to dissimulate human activities. The bus flies past them monotonously, heedless of signs and traffic lights. My lids weigh heavy, sleep presses and I am close to surrender. But the bus takes a sharp turn and I am woken by a thud.

Eyes hurry to the front of the bus, where the pauper has collapsed on the floor. He lies crouched in the middle of the bus, his body inert like a wounded animal. I look around. The other passengers avert their eyes, the window presently more riveting than the obvious spectacle. I take two steps toward the human mass and realize that I cannot lift him by myself. With horror I wonder if anyone would give me a hand. The driver condescends a brief glance in the rearview mirror. Not his business, either. Lines of embarrassment dig into the faces of people. Would anyone react if I said something? Would they look at me if I yelled? Numb, the bus rolls on.

Still, the pauper lies lifeless on the floor. His clothes grey, his skin ashen, his cheek indifferent against the grey floor where microscopic grains of mica glitter in the sun. He looks like a child groping for a toy in his sleep. His feet remain thrown over the base of the seat. Urine darkens his trousers in rivulets and continues on the floor. Concerned, the redhead raises her shoes to safety. She does not look at him. All around people feign preoccupation. Men and women are absent. There are only their carcasses here.

Breathless, I press a red button. The doors open and I gush forward, like a frothing stream against a manmade dam. My limbs are made of gum. Movement disconcerts, stillness nowhere in sight. I speed up to get home, where there are colored eggs and family, and everything is well. In front of my building lies the corpse of a giant mouse on which flies feast, ravenous. How picturesque, I conclude, putrefaction in the most select quarters of Bucharest. My hand poised on the doorbell, I cannot ring. I stand paralyzed, with my disgust, my shame. I weather a disease that must be faced stoically to acquire immunity. And then I do the only thing that we can do in Bucharest to live in peace with ourselves: I turn my head.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Other Matt

He has forget-me-nots in his eyes. I noticed this when we were meeting at the swimming pool, by chance, two flip-flopped pairs of feet dragging toweled bodies in the outrageous hours of morning. He asked me something once and I rejoined, perhaps with a clever remark which made him laugh, and then I heard his thundering laughter too. I see him almost every day now and he is still as intriguing, even more. Forget-me-nots rest on me sometimes and he smiles at once, a celestial rise, and I feel as if he’s seen me shiver and given me a coat. “Thank you,” I want to say. “I’m not chilly anymore.”

He likes my take on Thoreau, I suspect. Under his score of “97” I roll down like a crepe and jubilate. But immediately I want to ask “Um – where did those three points go?” because old habits die hard and arrogance is another battle I’ve yet to win. So I smile and say “I’m glad” in a tone that’s not humble at all, but at least the intention’s there and I have to hope it counts for something. He collects his papers under his arm and proceeds toward the door. I did not imagine him as tall, taller than me, and so massive, a friendly teddy bear. Grayscale hair, pellucid eyes and blazing teeth, he is a tonality of the dark room variety, not a man but a portrait, an esthetic interest at most, because he does not really exist, not in this version I’ve collaged of him anyway. We are face to face now and I feel petite, so few occasions for me to feel this way.

“So, what are you going to do when you’re out of here?” So I tell him, I confess my disorientation, probably use some profanity, which pussyfoots into the conversation too fast to detain, but I feel that now is the time to be honest, so I throw the curtains aside and just talk. “But are you set on the States? he baits, the corners of his mouth quivering upwards. “For instance, have you considered Canada?” I cannot contain a smile, my face much too naked for this professional hierarchy that was here a moment ago, but now...? So in this mutual amusement in which I know he knows, he knows I know he knows, he tells me what he thinks is better in Canada and, while I take notes in my mind, the moment of information gives way to the moment of revelation, for the implications of his question are gigantic, an iron bridge across such taboo waters. He is a person and I am a person and we are talking, regardless of how many springs I have behind me or how many words I know, how much politics I understand. He’s read my writing and he knows there is something here, in this coffer on top of my neck, and he does not need more than this to give me a vote of confidence, intimated as it is. My status notwithstanding, he does not see me unfit to do as I do.

So here is my comeback, not a revenge but a comeback I say, one defense to stand against all previous gratuitous evaluations kept covert, under the tables where at surface level there’s only smiling and benign jokes. But it only takes one, doesn’t it, to have a majority of one, and it is still a fallacy to say that an opinion is truth because so many people hold it.

At tables there are always levels, I suppose, even though our chairs have us at the same height. But in the intellectual strata I am the troposphere, this is the consensus. And hereby I must step into the armor of the quiet and passive, because I am twenty-two and what could I possibly know about life or about a culture that’s not mine. According to the Adulthood for Dummies, 46th edition, children must not be allowed to dump their gibberish at our dinner table. You have nothing to say, Silvia, and it is easier to acquiesce to this profile than try to refute it. It makes things more comfortable, if not for you then for everybody else, and doesn’t the greater good supersede the individual, really? As fretful as I am for truth, as averse as I am to lie, I would parrot this cartoon of me, only to make everything easier, if only, if only I had your vote, at least.

Somehow in this simplification it always boils down to an inequality that’s negative across the spectrum except between -1 and 1, a narrow margin, as narrow as my waist, and because I look like this would be pretty much the only reason why a 39-year-old, for instance, would want to be with me. But superstition is not truth unless you believe it, and folklore will always be the intelligence of the many because, well, it is comfortable to think that life fits in stencils and that to understand new things all we have to do is look at old ones.

“Let me know how it works out,” Forget-me-not says as he saunters off, his innocent statement connoting more than what is obvious. So walking back to my dorm room, which although devoid of festoons and paraphernalia of teenage dramas is still the room of a student, I can only be a person. I am a person who considers the world and quite simply tries to understand, if interest and curiosity are the only arguments I can employ in this unpopular defense I’ve improvised. Considerations of status I would have never thought override the reality of artifact. It is all an honest man can do to negate slander, whether frank or oblique, not by rhetoric but with artifact. In the end what you are is tantamount to what you can do and I find that a fair equivalence. Everything that’s not certainty is faith, or promise as it were, a bet in a race where I think that this particular horse has a good chance to win. But there is risk in this speculation, I concede, and although I could really use your vote, which you’re withholding, I’ve yet to be defeated, even with a majority of one.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Cobwebbed eyes measure the interstates. Borders are irrelevant, if not for speed limits. Seventy in the South, sixty-five in the North. We care less about life at the bottom of the map. Heat and dust and grapes of wrath have us moderately insane. The gas pedal whines with my wavering foot, but no matter. Press on. At the other end of the state Bill unfolds route maps and worries. I have gone itinerant on you and, considering my flighty nature, you know, it was bound to happen.

Somewhere in Tennessee silhouettes of fleshy mountains are etched in the dark. Tents bolstered by the stars ahead. Another hill and I am there, at the base of the behemoth, but after each pinnacle there is a chasm and my wheels hurry greedily within and fall, like fluff. This is the cardiogram of night, of any night: a sinusoid that changes its mind so inconveniently. Here goes the first can of Coke, half-spilled on my white peasant shirt, the remaining half tasting of sweet awakeness.

Kentucky. The anonymous Kentucky creeps in with no welcome signs, no special recognition. Exemplary modesty, one could say. I am carefully inserted into the envelope of heavy fog and sealed inside. The night is opaque. Hades is puffing his pipe in the Underworld, smoking us out. Not much for courtesy. One more Coke before I yield to these heavy lids.

The endless Ohio. I arrive in Cincinnati in its most glorious hour. All alight and angular, a man-made organism. It breathes into me as I pass. Eyes flung open, mind sharp, I drink. The streets are barren but life palpitates, dormant like a hibernating animal. Ahead, the highway is all mine.

Columbus is a ghost town to which I have no desire to return. Creatures that sleep so peacefully make me drowsy. Not a twitch. Another tab clicks, contents effervesce and I look but straight ahead, where the night shudders undecided. Somewhere in this endless Ohio I bully a guy in an SUV to make it clear that I am awake and he is hardly. Petty delights of this monotonous drive. As I pass I take a sip and my aluminum goblet glistens in the moonlight. He is looking, I know. Adroitly I slide and sneak back into the safe lane, my alacrity conceited for sure. In my taillights he drowns ignobly. Another exit, an orange dot intermittent and I’m alone again.

Sun enters before Cleveland, for which I am grateful. But this is when sleep catches up with me and goads, the poisonous rat, the light of morning notwithstanding, and I slide from lane to lane, describe infinity on the road. I yell at myself. Concerned, I pinch my arm. Another can froths. Right and left there is nothing to entice, the eyes still trapped in long exposures. Although I am nervous I can’t conquer this wayward flesh that softens. A city, Cleveland, please. Please, sooner.

Along the water everything is different. After the Endless Ohio Pennsylvania is a meteor, short-lived eye candy. New York would be too, if it were not for tolls every ten miles. A full tank of tolls. It is right when you gain some speed that you can see the yellow booths up ahead where petulant people hand you unfathomable cards. A wordless transaction. Except for Niagara: there they smile and wish you a nice weekend.

Two more tolls and I am there. Cars line up in Fibonacci sequence. Passports ready. Origin engraved on backs of cars. New York, Michigan, Ohio, Ontario. Georgia. I advance before I am called. A border gaffe for which I am heavily reprimanded. The driver behind makes room for me to back up, contritely. Everyone is looking. I blush pathetically. Behind her dark glasses the officer’s expression is murderous and she scolds me again. I melt with shame for this poor introduction. First time in Canada? she demands. And with this question a door opens, a sort of crevice to look though which I do, thirstily, like children who don’t have money to go to the cinema but love the movies. The pleasures we fight for are so much more delicious than those we get effortlessly. What is the contentment of an American living in the States compared to mine?

There is a stamp on the passport, reluctantly granted I suspect, but my paranoia sometimes misleads me. In any case there is a river I cross and then a road, just one road with two lanes, where I am informed that in Canada the speed limit is 100 km/h, which is 60 mph if my math skills are poor. After my brazen driving heretofore the sluggishness feels bizarre. I crawl lento in the right lane, the big trucks passing me, everyone passing me. I am doing the right thing, at least, and hereby I imagine that I atone for advancing before I was called at the border and disrupting the events. No, nothing will atone for that. I am not a person of good introductions, after all. Never have been. I am hard pressed to imagine that anybody ever liked me the first time we met. I am for patience, forbearance, for second chances. For this reason I am not in a hurry to get anywhere.

You drove to Canada in one day? he asks later. Well I’ve looked at these Americans, always ready to get up and go, essentially a bunch of nomads without roots, balloons without strings. There is plenty of risk in this constant Brownian movement, of course, but there is also beauty in the breakdown and the possibility of happiness is always more attractive than decided unhappiness. I learn too, see? Few things are impossible and they seem even less so when you are doing them. I am telling you, on the other side there is more light and less fear and seventeen hours behind the wheel feel like a pat on the back, if anything. There are much harsher things in the world. Much worse places to be. Much more unfortunate shoes to walk in.