“Do you know what poisons cows?” He asked.
A plastic bag was rustling between the long limbs of an old, wrinkled tree stump. Two paper coffee cups tumbled down the street, their plastic lids clinking against the worn and grey gravel of a bubble gum strewn sidewalk in New York. Urban tumbleweeds sifting between cars, bodies, half-opened trash bags and brown dry grass never to see Spring again.
“What?” I said, not really listening. I was too focused on the fauna fouling around us.
A valley of ash without the eyes or pity of TJ Eckleburg, the machinations of New York City they never write about in the movies. Grime, industry and man conglomerated into one. The wind had picked up, the bags rustled louder, cups clinked faster, and I thought there was a kind of music to the pollution of a city.
“The cow.” He repeated calmly. “You know what poisons them?”
I shook my head and he nodded wisely to himself, shifting slightly against his cane which made his thousand year old Puerto-Rican bones groan. A while passed and he said nothing, stood leaning against the earth with the patience of trees.
“What poisons cows,” I asked absently, and his mustache twitched like cat whiskers, as if the question startled him awake. He smacked his lips, a bad habit he’d retained after years of chewing tobacco.
“The cow.” He repeated, again calmly. “Do you know what poisons them?”
“No, Mingo. What poisons the cows?”
We were leaning on concrete slabs just steep enough to take a seat in, meandering the morning in fifty cent cigarettes and a small bottle of Jameson tucked safely in a brown paper bag. Me, looking too deeply into everyday scenery, and Mingo’s lively little eyes glinting grey, gazing out to Third Avenue the way a farmer does his crop.
He had the patience only age can teach- the still, sturdy, wise air of witnessing and being a part of decay. 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 an absolute veneration from me. 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 possibly I trusted 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, clicking his teeth. The little calf was done.
I felt a stubborn, humid heat smoldering my skin. It was close to 10AM 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. Lazy, dingy rays dragged between the plastic lids nestling in the gutter, crawled along the sidewalk and halfway up the 99 Cent and bodega storefronts. Then, just 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, what he was referring to: 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 had 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 and sip the bottle of Jameson as if he’d just commented on the weather. I 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 street, a gilded goddesses hips swayed toward us, and she reminded me of a girl I reminded myself to forget. Gray eyes with dark, somber lips; 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. Her face, the angles, the sighs were all wrong. She didn’t have the unhappiness riddled along the creases of her cheeks, she didn’t hold me like a gasp for air while crying at the sight of her hand or freckled forearm.
She passed us swiftly, her heels clicking behind her like a round of applause, and swooped around the corner. Mingo slapped his lips again, and the girl I had almost remembered was gone.
“Yeah,” I said to Mingo, and I heard the sound of his neck creaking a nod.
Strange, the debris our hearts seem to build even after years of street cleaning. Odd, how songs still sound the same but lose meaning once outgrown. 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 little 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.
“You might,” He said.
I clipped my cigarette and said goodbye.
Window with a view to fill my lungs,
wet air, dry eyes, smoke and a
heart full of bourbon, sipping
out of a styrofoam cup the way you did.
Old Grandad on deck and jazz on vinyl,
humming bluegrass. Tapping foot. Cast-iron
skillet and some cheese I don’t know the name of.
Its a ritual, reserved for the unusual
moment I feel like missing you,
a maligna of the mind I treat
the way old doctors did insanity.
Summon a memory of the body,
the carnage of love, sapphire wounds;
gilded kisses lost so long ago that glass Summer.
But I don’t like the taste of whiskey any more,
my cigarettes don’t have menthol,
and lyrics sound like people I used to know
but have nothing in common with any more.
Friends lost for no particular reason
other than growing apart as people.
Strangers I shared death with.
Even when I’m not a vagrant there are days I get the taste of gin and cinders on my tongue again. Waking up skeletal, bare as bone, with nothing but a name. Veins poking from a sleeve, revealing what I’m made of, like wires from old headphones you get ashamed to pull out in public. Some days leave me feeling ends-less, frigid and grey as the clouds I’m blowing smoke circles at from the balcony of my house. The air feels wet, the grass shimmers just a little greener, and as I take a breath I’m thrown to somewhere that isn’t here. Smell, they say, is most directly linked to memory, so there must been a scent of the early 2000’s perspiring in the grass of Trump’s America.
I was nostalgic, I guess. Remiss of the past, the way a particular type of weather reminds you of that time in third grade when it was raining, the day you saw Samantha scrape her knee in the PS 143 playground. A gash so long you couldn’t tell where it began or ended. You can’t even remember what it looked like, just the sensation of black tar and plasma. And while some kids ran for the nurse she just sat there, no crying, not shedding a damn tear, staring into that cut the way adults look at sunsets or somebody they used love. Almost hopeful, like waiting long enough might make something jump out of all that velvet. Make it more than just colors and blood.
I think that’s when it started for us, really. Fifth grade, Ms. Turmiski’s class. She made an impact on me that day, and no matter where she sat I had my eyes on her ever since. Even if she was in another room. Feelings I denied vehemently until sexuality amplified too high to be tucked away in an Ew-Girls. Samantha had came back from Summer damn near 5’5, towered above the rest of us with her home-cut bobbed hair and thick black rimmed glasses (before that fad came in, you hacks.) The only girl in class who had a binder when all the rest of us were early-primming into drawstring Nike bags and spiral notebooks. Come junior high she started keeping a deck of cards on the sleeves, and I’d make it a point to always sit across from her on the other team when we played spade or casino. Took the usual route of juvenile affections, found it easier to make her an enemy than admit her face made me want to do things with her I didn’t understand yet. Bluffed through boyfriends like Troy, Elijah, and Anthony like a champ. Fake-It-Til-You-Can’t-Take-It was the name of the game, and I was good.
Kept it cool until that one long walk home Sophmore year, hit a slump I couldn’t manage to flash a smile and hump over. Told her what I always felt, even mentioned that thing about her knee in fifth grade, and she said “I always knew, dummy.” Kissed me on the corner of Taylor Avenue, deli lights flashing above our stupid little heads. A world on the verge of conquering us at sixteen, and a universe of intimacy opening the floodgates. Going at it like jackrabbits and a lot of arguments over silly things. I wanted to make the world laugh, and she wanted me to study and make something out of me. She had kisses made of phosphene, I still remember the way her lips against mine would make my head melt. The only girl I ever suffered the dilemma – kiss her, and feel that bliss of touch and sexuality, but miss out on all the lovely things she could have said.
“i want to see your face. send me a photo.”
Her text read at four in the morning, and so I did.
“no. a real one. something I can hold and write your name.
scribble the date and the way you make me feel on.”
Her love was comforting, the way a light from another room is when you’re trying to fall asleep but afraid of the dark. Or yourself. When I couldn’t bare to go down a street because it looked so lonely, she’d remind me what I was scared of wasn’t outside. But in. And I loved her terribly, but only in retrospect. Spent more time dreary eyed with the boys on Amsterdam when I should have been watching Samantha color code her study binders. A realization I wasn’t able to see or understand until long after it happened, and honestly, only because it was gone. Like suddenly missing a limb or finger, or admitting you were an asshole to somebody that didn’t deserve it. There’s a learning curve to gratitude and I was on the verge of overcoming the anchor line. Which is no excuse, I guess. Hindsight is 20-20 and not having regrets just means having things you haven’t thought of enough yet.
“So just like that, you’d leave New York,” I said. Unable to admit by ‘New York’ I meant me.
“It’s a scholarship. Why wouldn’t I?” She said.
And I think we could have made it work, past the slammed doors and distance. Rebuilding trust from where there was none over jokes I shouldn’t be making. Six month breaks that break easy over the holidays, and all the blood we’ve tried to draw from one another wiped clean with something as simple as an I-Miss-You text. Enough distance that makes us wonder what we were so angry about anyway, two weekends into Lets-Just-Be-Friends that ends the moment we notice its 5 am and the bar is closing. Goodbyes and lonely train rides home that turn the world into a stranger, that make us pull the breaks and reverse into each other. Is it still falling if its the fifth time in love? Why are we so surprised to be veering off the side of the road because Why-The-Fuck-Does-Everything-Have-To-Be-A-Joke-With-You? A phone call slammed, and I don’t call back, because I’m tired and her birthday is right around the corner. I’ll take six months off before I start rolling the boulder of our love up over and over again, like Sisyphus. Glossing over our past in grey, summer weather. Sitting there not shedding a damn tear, staring at the sunrise like somebody I used to love. Hopeful, like waiting long enough might make something jump out of all that rosy velvet. Make it more than just the colors and blood we shed to each other.
That kind of chemistry can become exhausting, so her walking out for good was a victory, really.
Even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Tonight I’ve got an appetite for applying love songs to someone it doesn’t belong.
I’m only Marlboro Red-ing when I’m heavy into missing you at 2 in the morning. People are disposable, and I overlook them like songs I used to love and skip without a thought when they come up on a playlist.Contingent on the inevitable, when I can tell something is close to its ending I can’t help looking elsewhere. Skimming to the back page of a boring book, always opening another beer before I’ve even finished the last one. It isn’t wasteful, but a muscle memory that makes me tentative of what’s ahead. Admitting an early defeat and preparing for the next one. Head full of grays and a heart full of yesterday. The feelings that live inside me are cannibals, constantly feeding off of one another.
Trying to decipher them is an exercise in futility, like second marriages, or microwaving French fries. You’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.
But I go through the motions. Hop on a midnight train to South Houston on nothing but a buzz and Metrocard. On a road to nowhere and baby I’m in a rush, to Coralines, to the bar you kind of liked and where I wander into when the mood of you strikes and hits too hard to stay home. Sometimes I haunt where we had a life like a specter, and the way I see it, you can take your goddamn love, but I’m keeping the memories (and the dog.)
I need someone to blame it on anyway.
I love this place now, Coralines, even if the music is shit and the drinks are watered down. The walls are crumbling and the floor is always dingy, but I love this place, because it’s where I loved you, once. I love this place and all the personal secrets it holds. The stool you slipped and fell off of when we first met, the ash trays graffitied in ashes and name-tags we swore we would add our names to but never did. The corner table where we held each other as if it were the only thing keeping us from falling into the crowd or sky. Where we fell so deep into each other. Each half emptied beer can and wilted counter flower is a display case in my own personal museum of one of the happiest moments in my life.
And don’t get me wrong: this is not some all or nothing confession/attempt to win you back. There is no recovering from where we’ve been, no going back since what we’ve done to each other. But I like having somewhere so loud with joy, somewhere I can come to forget the now and slip into yesterday without needing the bottle. You always said I drank too much, not to forget, but to remember.
I can have this and not want to have you back, can’t I?