“Tell me something.” I said.
“Anything, even if it’s something I already know, even if something you already said. Everything sounds better when it comes from you.”
Her eyes rolled, drastically, then fell on the crowd. Searching, as if somewhere in the sea of strangers she could have found what she meant to say. What are you wondering at, you beautiful wonder. But that’s just the way she was- with a hell in her heart and heaven in the eyes, storm in her thighs that consumed you by degrees.
“I don’t want to end up alone,” She said, a bit too honestly.
“You just haven’t met the right person yet.” I parroted, not thinking, just responding in the way some blood cells are supposed to.
“But I hate that idea. Of fucking…presupposing. Like meeting someone is really so inevitable. If people can find happiness in different things, in like, songs, or traveling, or a really good book, why should mine have to come from some other person?”
“They write songs about people who fall in love the way you do.” I said. “But that’s all they are. Just songs.”
My lies are noble. I didn’t think that was necessarily true, but what she needed to hear. Misleading is a treason I’m likely to commit, even if those were never my intentions. Then again, what consequences are? She looked back to the crowd a little angrily, ran her knuckles on the counter in a way that made me hungry, and Felice smiled like she had just said her own name.
We sat there, loud, but empty. Like glass bottles clinking. Humanity is a strange enigma, toasting to his or her own empty fantasia- specific instances of precise happiness undefinable by sobriety. An escape endlessly clouded by the myriad of errors that got you there. Forgotten, wasted, and inexplicable. Taken for granted like keys you swore you lost but show up at your bedside.
Her pupils stuttered and whatever emotion that almost revealed itself winced back to the chasm from where it came. No one’s ever been able to meet my eye. Some chalk it up to shyness, others have said there’s too much honesty in them, while my self conscious worries I may secretly be hideous. But logic tells me, whatever the real reason may be, I would not be able to change it anyway. And so whatever flaw or warning my stare carried became an overlooked quality I simply accepted in me. Like height, or never holding doors open for the elderly.
“You’re a good guy,” She said.
“I’m no hero.”
“No,” She replied with a smile. “Heroes don’t look like you.”
Felice walked into the bar looking like the kind of girl they wrote songs about, and I made it a point to not make that obvious.
“Haven’t I seen you wear that shirt before?”
“Where do you get it?” She asked. “This confidence you definitely don’t deserve.”
The air smelled like starched shirts, mistakes, and too much perfume. Sex. Such a sick validation of a grotesque existence. My heart strung on the soft tendons of her knuckles that left me wondering where the arches of her neck leads. A feminine physique, the scent of raspberries; wide hips narrowing to fine waist. They say a woman’s collar bones are the front lines of a mistake, and Felice was made of divine proportions.
“The smartest disease,” I said. “Is the kind that can disguise itself well enough to look like it’s a part of you. To fool the body into thinking it’s just another blood cell. That’s the way it is with people too. You gotta fake it til you take over their immune system.”
“You just compared yourself to cancer.” She said.
So young, beautiful, and cruel. She enriches me as a lover but ruins the writer, makes lighter all those tragedies I rattle with a beer can. Kissed by fire and freckled by 80’s rock ballads; she was terrible at the song of vice and liars. Honest to a fault with fireworks in her eyes- Felice. It means happy in Spanish and you had to smile to say her name. Hair halfway down her back and a dip between her shoulder blades. Thin fingernails and long, smooth knuckles that looked like almonds hiding under a bar of chocolate. Smokers lips and eyebrows that were either always sad or frowning.
“But I’m a Taurus.” I said. And she tried not to laugh, but failed.
We were coworkers at one point and I used to obsess over all her nuances. She was beautiful to me in fractions, not from the sum of all her parts. Each arch and nook of her frame and body seemed so unique, that I could tell the shape of her from anywhere. We remained light friends, occasional Facebook comment and el-oh-elling at a meme. An acquaintance that never quite made it as a friend, but if she ever cut ties and left, I would be a husk.
Because a cage without a bird is an empty thing.
Feelings are cute but can be turned monstrous and should never be fed after midnight like Mogwais. It only leads to breaking nights and promises. But I waited for Felice in Mulligans at 1:00AM none the less, cradling a whiskey neat and giving names to the little gremlins that spawned from the one desire that got me there.
A north wind swept between getting out of work and having to go back again, and that familiar urge crept upon me. Sensitive instances when I’m compelled to spend those empty hours huddled in dark bars, glaring at the world through the rose colored lens of glass bottles with someone pretty standing beside me. Something simultaneously new but old, like a hand-me-down, or having a second child. Losing myself in another so I don’t have to deal with myself is an emotional shortcut, like skipping to the best part of your favorite song when you’re drunk; a cheap high without the buildup and only as good as the whiskey is.
And I needed to feel a little needed, even if it was from somebody I didn’t give a damn about. But I don’t tempt the devil unless I’m ready to dance, and that night, I made sure to put on my most comfortable shoes.
Those great passions burn terribly and I am a city of ash. I should be able to resist such an annoying calling, but eventually I let the poor thing in. I feel sorry for it, like a cat scratching at your door, even though I know he’s just going to stare at me and not bother coming in. Indulgence makes me undone, and the moonlight moves something terrible and primal in me. An impetus only nature can divine and nurture urges to snuff out, the way dogs wander into the woods to die. But before that gentle good night I’m raging in the machine- on the hunt, for what, I never know until it finds me. Because at midnight you’re either climbing to the top of the world, or on the verge of being crushed by it.
There is no in between.
Weigh what men that love me
the way analyst add up pros and cons
on Excel spreadsheets. Fiscal year
ending, lost my notes in budget meetings,
I’ll be damned if it isn’t fun
to put the smallest gestures
against the guillotine
of my affection. Cut the head
and see how far
the river runs.
Twenty something and full of stupid, sliding into your DM’s without a shame in the world. “Wyd” texts after midnight are a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded, and I’m watching from the bench thinking I might just steal home.
I’m the type of guy that needs to set 4 alarms to wake up on time, dressing myself up in moments that don’t mean a thing to me. But I’ve read enough Dostoevsky and Nietzche to make just about anybody think they do. Boredom is an understatement: what I suffer from is an emotional atrophy. When you can’t stand grand-standing any more and need to feel something, so the nearest dead end starts feeling like a welcome sign.
Some addictions aren’t so easy to kick – especially habits that text you back to say they miss you too.
“sure,” Her text read. “whats one drink”
“Ask Socrates.” I replied
“that was hemlock” She replied. “you fucking nerd 😓”
And I knew it would be a good night.
Pain is the strangest of all human phenomena. A shapeless enigma with no definitive form or figure; vague and endless as the psyche that houses such a gray and wounded monster. There are times when people hold on tightly to their personal tortures, for the sake of vanity or some basic inability to let the past rest and remain unfinished. Modern day grave robbers digging down Facebooks and Instagrams until their thumb strikes that cold and empty coffin, crowbar it open, and find nothing but photos they don’t belong in and that empty feeling they started out with.
And other times pain is a beast prowling on the hunt, an ambush camouflaged in the most innocuous disguises. Like hairpins and people wearing ripped jeans, or the smell of grass and concrete the day after it rains. A predator that feeds primarily on the supposedly forgetful, makes prey of the most stoic or hardened person. And when it leaps from out of nowhere like a wildcat in the tall-grass, there are no fangs or screams, no death or desperate fight or flight. Just silence, and the bloody aftermath of someone who remembers.
Pain is the strangest of all human phenomena, my favorite thing to bottle and stick under a microscope. I like to collect them, like pets or dangerous diseases. To see what makes them tick, if they are a family or genome I can label and self-identify. Put them strangely on display in silly dresses, prose and names. Lay them on a coffee table and see how harmless they are in public. And in my quiet walks back home from nowhere in particular, no baggage to call my own, when the grass shifts a certain way and I know that pain is coming- I brace myself for whats to come, welcome what beast might let tears and taring sear me to the bone. Yet these days nothing leaps out any more, and I stroll home empty handed and disappointed.
But my little jar is ready.
I could have killed a man today. Fantasized my fingers around his neck
for the better part of two hours as he sat beside me, snoring.
Beating his head against the sink until I felt blood againast
my thumbs and the neck stomped resisting the repeated movement.
Lying limp in my hands as wet noodles that I wash and rinse and drown
in the toilet before calling the police.
Here should be a reason that the kill is justified
but I can’t remember what it was.
All that comes to mind is a blind
hot white rage, and a reminder that the reason
I could have killed a man today, and it would have been so easy.
A quiet corner office bathroom, somewhere God might grant me
enough time to bash his face in and not be caught in the act.
That I might suffer the joy of seeing light exiting his pupil,
that his grin might fade and I can spit on his smirk.
And when we were there and he said Hey-
How my blood lust peaked, and felt the promise
and excitement to end him coming.
We exit the cab and he says “This way,” and I see his eyes.
Wide, proud, bold, knowing it well. All the things I hated,
but most of all – helpless. Glossy as gray and cloudy skies
that refused to rain. “Why are you like this?” I asked, instead.
And he broke down crying.
He sat there like a leaning tower or masterpiece, one crisp and folded slack leg folded over the other. With an elbow angled on the arm rest, he tilted his head slightly, and Autumn hair tumbled down his shoulder the way the tree in my aunts yard did when I shook it that one cold November. The one where it snowed and there wasn’t a single car on the highway. The night Eddie kissed me under the blinking neon sign that spelled J-NIOR’s DIN-R.
“It’s not polite to stare,” He said suddenly.
Batting his eyes twice, he turned to slowly look at me, and I noticed splashes of green and yellow surrounding the black center of his pupils. They were dark and a little mesmerizing, cold, but inviting and full of cunning. The dark and ominous of glance of a man who’s far too aware of the his own attraction.
“Sorry, I forgot I was in public.” I said. “It’s been months since I’ve gone out and-…”
When I get nervous, my immediate instinct is to talk until I’m not any more. To push through the fear and shame, carry that heavy stone we call anxiety uphill and set it down at the very top. Any awkward moment or unbearable faux-pas gains a bit of character once you own up to it, and the majority of people will treat you kindly if you’re humble enough to admit your flaws and lay them so vulnerably at their feet. Others may give it a push, but from the top you can watch it roll back to the very bottom where you no longer are. Once you carry your mistakes and accept them, you can never be crushed by them.
“You talk too much,” He said laughing and smiling handsomely.
And I felt a crush start to develop.
I forgot how well her hair spilled on my pillow. Like rivers my mattress and cheap dollar store fabric heart are too stubborn to soak in. My mind housed such savage wants of her. Cruel and deliberate forms of torture that make ill use of hands and tongues. The sight of her skin sends my blood rushing to where I resist but God intended. But His grace is as infinite as my jest, and I make the most of ten dollar bottles of wine and Spotify playlist. Dress our gentle sin in such a way right and wrong become It’s-My-Turn.
“So why did you call?” She asked.
“I’m in the mood to hate myself,” I said. “And you’re better at making me do that than I am.”
We should have never happened, and if I could take us back, I probably wouldn’t. Regrets are for the young and un-assured, and I’m old enough to rent a car. I used to worry, when I was more lonely, that should it all be said and done that I may start looking for her in strangers. The way poets write about loving made me expect some fallout or debris. Like some lovely hell-sent angel might share her weird and heart with me, have the beautiful courage to finally reveal herself, and I would be ashamed at my disappointment to see another girl wasn’t there.
“I can never take you serious,” She said.
“Do you know what poisons cows?” He asked.
A plastic bag rustled between the long limbs of an old and wrinkling tree. Two paper coffee cups tumbled down the street, their plastic lids clinking against the grey drum of a bubble gum strewn sidewalk in New York. A car horn screamed from somewhere not too far away. The wind picked up, the bag rustled louder, cups clinked faster, and I thought there was a kind of music to the pollution of a city.
“Is Esperanza,” He said, but I wasn’t listening.
I was too busy watching three children skip-the-cracks across the sidewalk, near a fruit cart stand selling green and purple grapes by the pound without the seeds. Bananas bagged in bushels and boxes full of strawberries on sale for a dollar. All the fresh fruit low-income housing could ask for, all for cheap, and about a walks home away from expiring.
“What?” I asked, and Mingo shifted his weight against his cane. I heard his thousand year old Puerto-Rican bones groan, and his mustache twitched like a cats whiskers as he adjusted his body weight. He smacked his lips, further adding to my mental metaphor, which was a bad habit he’d retained after years of chewing tobacco.
“The cow.” He repeated calmly. “You know what poisons them?”
And I shook my head to show I didn’t.
We were leaning on concrete slabs that edged out the corner deli just steep enough to take a seat in. Me, looking too deep into the everyday scenery, and Mingo’s
lively and grey little eyes glinting, looking out to Third Avenue the way a farmer does his crop. He had the patience only age can teach you, the still yet sturdy air of decaying trees. Wise and old, or old enough to seem wise; I couldn’t tell. An old man can say just about whatever he wants and get a stunned tribute from me. Maybe that’s the remnants of my inner Catholic I’ve yet to snuff out: respecting elders and thinking too highly of them, feeling overwhelmed by guilt if I didn’t. Or it could be that I trust experience more than anything, because the hardness of life is also a teacher. And from what I’ve seen, we don’t learn as much from happiness as we do from the scars of healing.
“Esperanza, is a plant. They eat it, and then,” He ran his index finger along his neck, a universal sign, clicked his teeth, and the little calf was done.
I clipped my cigarette, feeling a stubborn and humid heat smoldering around me. It was close to 9AM but the day didn’t seem to want to start. Sunlight lingered on the horizon and yawned across the fruit cart vendors temples, slouched between the children across the avenue who’d stopped jumping and found more interest staring at their own feet. Dingy rays dragged between the plastic lids nestling in the gutter, crawled along the sidewalk and halfway up the 99 Cent and bodega storefront buildings. Then, near the top, seemed to wince and suddenly retreat, giving up on ever moving on with the day. The morning was a low, dull Monday: fat, bloated, and sitting on itself, waiting.
But for what?
“Why do they eat it,” I asked. “If it’s poison.”
And Mingo shrugged.
Esperanza is a flower, bright and beautiful with yellow petals. And Esperanza is also hope, just as bright and ruinous. I couldn’t decide which he meant killed them first, the toxins or definition, and as I wondered this, Mingo dug his shoes into the sidewalk and began to show his roots.
“I killed somebody once,” He said unexpectedly. “Coz’ of a woman.”
He was calm, not sad or entirely delighted. Not resentful, or proud, but with the air of a man that’s lived, and in living, was reflective of what he has done. I lack the grace to remain kind in cruel situations, but a hot heart for the coldest matters. Mingo had purposefully either confided in me as a friend, or turned the sanctuary of our corner into his personal confession booth. And in either scenario I couldn’t think of what to say, so chose to remain silent. Preferred to come off as indifferent than commit to either condoning or forgiving him, listened as a cars exhaust coughed awkwardly down the road.
“You got a girl?” He asked after a while.
Down the block a gilded goddesses hips swayed toward us, and she reminded me of a girl I reminded myself to forget. Gray eyed and somber lip’d, the kind of face easy to compliment and hard to miss-remember. I was staring and I didn’t care, and the longer I dared the sooner I realized that familiar was just wistful thinking. She didn’t look anything like her. The sighs were all wrong. She didn’t have the unhappiness riddled along her creases, she didn’t hold me like a melody at the sight of her hand or freckled forearm.
She passed us and swooped around the corner, and along with her, that memory I had almost remembered was gone.
“Yeah,” I said to Mingo, and I heard his head nod solemnly by the sound of his neck creaking.
Strange, the debris our hearts seem to build even after years of street cleaning. Odd, how songs still sound the same but lose lose their meaning once we outgrow them. The plastic bag still rustled between the limbs of an old and wrinkled tree, and a car horn’s scream got louder, but sounded just a littler farther off. The wind died down, the cups sat silently in the gutter, and I thought there was a kind of music to the pollution of a human being.
“Never killed anybody for her though.” I added, and Mingo laughed, ominously.
It began to rain and the three children scrambled under the safe pan of an awning. I felt a buzz in my pocket and reached for my cell phone, stood admiring the grim blue tint of a text message from a girl I reminded myself to forget. I didn’t mind the rain and smiled as the droplets ricocheted off the screen, a familiar invitation and a promise.
“You might someday,” He said.
I clipped my cigarette and said goodbye.
Music has never held me. Instead of instigating a feeling, I think it becomes a substitute for one. An emotional crutch we latch on to, and use to limp through new experiences with phantom limbs that aren’t missing. Injuries and cuts opened on a stereo or dance floor, lyrics hummed along because they are remembered, and what masochist doesn’t like a little salt in their wounds?
“Ohhhhhhh my God! Remember Justin!? This was Justin’s song,” She said, fumbling a Malibu between her fingers and awkward dance moves.
A lull goes over the eyes and her head hangs while the rest of her body doesn’t, a one way trip down misery lane to whoever this Justin is or was.
And I can’t relate. There can be a song playing in the bar or my car radio, but it doesn’t ever remind me of someone specifically. Instead, I’m flung back to that narrow stretch from when I first heard it, fully equipped with all the baggage of that era. Mr. Jones and me danced silence down to the morning, counting pigeons from my window sill and wondering what strange and amazing people my young heart had yet to meet. Swiped left on the wrong people and my twenties stumbled me into a Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Haunting delis and libraries for any beer or book that might be a means of escape. So brash and full of myself, but empty, like a silhouette. Trying to find who I was, not realizing I’d always been him.
“I hope he’s alright,” She said. “I haven’t seen in him since February.”
Then I met May in June, and my Springsteen started in July. Nothing but a Hungry Heart living out his Glory Days, champagne out of wine glasses and half-assed attempts at the adult version of being romantic on a college budget. Ten dollar bottles of wine and Save Tonight on repeat. Lost my virginity to Buddy Holly in Sara’s basement that one Summer, the same one You Give Love A Bad Name became an anthem and self explanatory. Learned about lust and the sweet pangs of loving someone from a distance, so the rest of that year I took a incredible joy in destroying myself with drugs and sex over and over again.
“You know he sang this to me at Crissy’s birthday party, right?”
So music doesn’t do it for me. It’s terrible, a conceited self reflection we’ve all decided to be alright with. Regrets made public with a chorus you can scream in a room full of strangers without appearing all too crazy. Much better than the alternative, having to face and put to words the way someone once made you feel. Skip the song, put away the salt and show your wounds and bruises. Explain just how you got them, even if they aren’t finished healing.
“Do you miss him?” I asked, opening the subject.
“Fuck that asshole,” She said flatly.
And kept dancing along to the music.
Heaven is hell-bent,
misshapen sanctuary of senile.
Men make sinners out of love,
sibyls from devils and saints out of
air. The clever pray for deliverance
in a cup, Gods nectar and wheat’s bounty;
bitter-sweet ambrosia by the barrel;
His holy bottled excellence.
A nightly Immortality.
Our hero marches, his voyage soft
to the song of chirping sirens.
Dear deacon of the deli, bringer of
my bread and sacrilege. Clandestine
clerk who offers passage to His hazy
river Styx, in brown paper bags and
long side glances that confess
disbelief a 2AM pilgrimage can wait
for the sacrament of home. Two coins
short and Charon grims, no ferry waits
for those when his toll has gone unpaid.
Our hero cautions his voice to balm,
cold and hooded ears who would deny them.
Forgive me Ahmed, for I am dimmed.
Sweet Gods of Hell and mercy,
grant me light and credit
that I may learn peace and pass
this dark and grim abyss,
to far and pleasant lands
where one dreams and is awake.
Our hero fallen, his journey lost
to the oarmen’s long and awful silence.
His cleric nods, Go-Then, take it, bid farewell,
but Heaven has no room for cleverness.
This world is a loan to be repaid,
and I will you see you once again
with a stone at your back
and Hell at your heels.
Our hero sombers on, his voyage back home safe,
with bags of ambrosia, pockets full of coins,
and the hidden smile
of Sisyphus son.