Copyright © 2001 by Emmanuel Raymundo, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!--Arthur Rimbaud
. . . name but the nameable and leave the remainder . . .--Michael Taussig
- When I left Manila, I felt relief. I felt lightness and a coolness on my back, even in that in-between season of drought and monsoon when the sky is bright blue and there is no wind. I did not bother looking down on the islands as the airplane blasted higher into sky. I just closed my eyes and felt my body tilt slightly upwards. I imagined the blue Pacific hemming in the brown clumps of islands, patches of green still tinged with the brown of parched moss and burnt jungle; people. Why would I bother to look down? The last eight weeks spent there after a fifteen-year absence confirmed what I had long ago suspected: it is still -- all of it -- there. Even now, from wherever I am (because even I am not quite sure), I know it is still there.
- And when I got back here, this is still here too. A cool wind, slightly damp, blew in from the ocean. In the distance stood the snow-capped Rockies shoulder to shoulder in an unbroken chain across the horizon like young brothers on a farm -- November, Saskatchewan, harvest time -- posing for a picture. Or the looked like new navy recruits on their first port-of-call leave. Except for the colour of the landscape that sang in peaks and valleys, everything was muted. There were people pulling luggage out of trunks, taxicabs and buses but there seemed to be no sound . . . except the hollow sweep of wind on an overcast afternoon. The quietness of outside, the seeming emptiness of the place, plucked my heart and sent a wave of fear and terror that coated the inside of my stomach. My mouth was dry and from my forehead fell beads of sweat that quickly dried against the force of the cool breeze.
- On my first night back, I lay awake as my alarm clock flashed 12:00. I had yet to program the correct time, partly because I was too tired, partly because I had nowhere to be in particular the next day, and largely because I did not know the time. When it was dark outside, I felt music starting up inside me. My lungs would expand and want to breathe, gulp air and swallow all that was around me. The music was looking for street vendors, for children selling sampaguita garlands at midnight on the highway or mothers begging on the pedestrian overpass cradling their fast-asleep babies with dry, broken skin. It was trying happily to fight for space amidst a sea of people hipped in and crammed together on streets and in stores and in restaurants from elbow to elbow and from shoulder to shoulder. Instead, the sky was black. People were inside. Curtains and blinds were drawn. Under duvets and futons, I had no one to fight with. There was no one and I was alone. It was 12:00 and my alarm clock flashed 12:00.
- The nights were the best time. At night I would lie flat on my bed and listen to the radio in the dark. While classical music produced some menacing, lurking threat in me, the talk shows and Top 40 radio stations provided comfort, especially the late night call-in shows where truck drivers on Alabama interstates, college students in Mid-west dorms, and housewives in Anchorage would voice their pain and sorrow and a song would be played for them or their loved one.
-- It's been a year since my momma died and and I just still get so sad and my husband's great and all, very supportive and I thank God I have my sisters and cause I dont quite know what I would do and
- When I could imagine the red noses, the slumped shoulders or the elbows on kitchen tables propping up tired heads, only then would I feel that some of those people that I was afraid of -- who one minute had bad homemade perms and limp hair framing soft jaws and softer smiles, and the next had fans dripping with seaweed and blood -- were capable of fear and loneliness, and longing too. That somewhere, in their tight hearts, packed tighter than suitcases or snowballs, packed tight, there was a tiny space of yearning. Like the one I had inside of mine. Maybe we could fit in these spaces and sleep there, curled like the waves coming into the shore, like apostrophes that made someone belong to someone, that made property and ownership possible.
- What an awful time to have gone away -- made so by the awfulness of the season that greeted me when I got back: summer. The season when the days were longest and nights were shortest. The time I could spend dreaming of elsewhere, of re-living my newly rediscovered history if only in rapid eye movements, twitches of knee and gnashing of teeth, to see the faces of grandparents and old streets and opinionated neighbours (and, even if only to imaginage smell), was so short. The day was devoted to light and being awake, eating cereal and reading the paper, or going to the corner store to confirm that you are from somewhere else. The sadness and despair came in the reality that you were here and not elsewhere.
- The blinds were neatly drawn and there was no air in the room. If I angled my head correctly, I could see through a thin slit in the blinds. I tell time, I pass time, through the change of the sky -- through the excitement induced by a brightness that heralded the coming blanket comfort of the black-purple night. I imagine the big tree past this big window and I know that it is so dark outside, that night has really settled in, that even the outline and the fuzzy shape of the tree has blended into the black sky. But light comes soon in summer. The sky opens to a slow murky white. Maybe because all of me has been so fixed on the tiny slit that I can draw light into the room and make out the white strips of the blinds keeping me in here.
- I dream that all the furniture in the apartment above is crashing down on me, my body flattened from wood and plaster and concrete. My only salvation would be the $532 queen-size mattress cushioning my spine and sopping up the blood from my back. If not the ceiling, maybe my end will be the microwave. As I'm washing dishes, changing the plastic bags in the garbage can or chopping celery for a chicken salad, the microwave would explode. Amidst flying pieces of metal and glass, the thick glass revolving dish stays intact and hurls itself towards my head. I run around bloodied and hysterical until I come across the hallway mirror and look at my face, my jet-black hair, my dark-brown crying eyes made chestnut at the clarity of what is reflected to me, at the prospect of what everyone on the streets really sees, still sees, when I walk my friend's dog, walk to the dry cleaners or to the library -- me with a glass disc like a flying saucer that has sliced itself through my head, through my face: I am an alien. I turn my body sideways and think of other things but the only thing that comes to mind is the oven exploding in one loud and fast bang, so loud and so fast that it is silent. It is so loud and so quiet I do not hear it but only feel shards of metal -- some solid, some melted and gooey -- and glass, big thick chunks of wood from the kitchen countertop, more metal from the fridge (indistinguishable milk, cheese, frozen pizzas, celery, mayonnaise, eggs) fiercely hurling towards me as I lie here on my side. I try to calm myself down and tell myself that this will not happen. And my only response is that it may not happen now, but it can happen at any time. Maybe not while I sleep but while I am tying my shoelaces getting ready for a tennis match or answering the front door buzzer to let in a friend. The question was never "if" but "when."
- My heart thumps faster. I take long breaths. I try not to think of the other pictures of spines severed with Swiss Army knives as I walk past the GAP, or of the delicious pop of an authentic Louisville Slugger across my forehead.
- Feeling my foot as I lay restlessly in bed waiting for sunrise when I could go to sleep and get away from all of this here, I was amazed at the softness of my feet. The soles of my feet were not thick and cracked like so many people's. The buttery soft skin of my arches allowed my fingers and palms to slide onto the balls of my feet where I could almost feel the inside of pink flesh. Poking my fingers into the webs between my toes was an obscene pleasure. Touching the skin, stroking it, felt blessed and holy and obscene all at once. How could this be? How was this possible?
- In the eight weeks I was away, I never once wore sandals, although I had brought a pair with me. Along with several novels, three long-sleeved shirts and my CDs, my sandals remained wrapped in a white plastic bag tucked into the corner of my suitcase stored in the back of my cousin's closet. On asphalt, on dirt roads, in marble foyers, jumping over brown rainwater puddles, I had kept my feet wrapped in my shoes. In the eight weeks I was away, I avoided jeepneys and tricycles and pedicabs. I walked inside mega-malls. For eight weeks I was in the backseat of a chauffeured black Mercedes-Benz that had a rosary dangling from the rear-view mirror and a picture of Jesus (and those eyes that followed you everywhere) taped onto the black leather dashboard hiding the odometer. Steel and glass skyscrapers, tenement houses pregnant with shirtless children and unemployed fathers, peanut and fruit vendors: all passed me in a blur behind dusty-tinted windows, horse-power and European craftsmanship.
- Turning my fingers out onto my baby toe, I felt the delicate and fragile toenail. I was never able to grow a proper toenail there, only thin sheets of really hard skin that grew into craggy and pointy shards; too thick to be skin, too thin to be nails. A nothing, a something an in-between. I could never grow the white-pink curves that nails are supposed to be. I pushed the sharp point of the hard skin and moved it to the left and moved it to right. I could feel all of the hard skin on the toe moving along with it. I tugged it to the left and right, up and down, moving the toenail out of its cradle of skin and the flesh it was attached to. I tugged it further to the left and further to the right. I pulled it up until I could feel the flesh underneath it holding on. I would release my pull and squeeze the toenail deep into the toe to make it fit inside until it disappeared. I tugged the toenail up.
- In one swift yank, I pulled it.
- The white toenail in my hand quickly turned to red. It turned to red when I had brought it up to my nose. In the traveling time between being a part of my body, attached to my toe, related to nerves and embedded in flesh, and the time it was an object of curiosity, a specimen in front of my nose, it had forgotten itself, who it was, what it did. It had forgotten to bleed. Then I noticed a tiny, meaty red tail on it. I put it in my mouth and sucked the blood, placing my lip and my tongue on the toenail. In between my teeth and then biting down on it, I swallowed it. My toe went from white to red, slowly, like it too was remembering that it once was whole and trying to remember what it had lost. Only when it remembered what it lost did it bleed; only when it bled did the quick rush of blood stop. After a coming blackness, a soreness, a delicateness that I knew would force me to walk more slowly feeling more of the ground, relying more on my right foot to compensate for the weakness of the left, only then would a new toenail grow, would new flesh embed and wedge itself, would heal. The body also, all too much like the lives it contains, lives on borrowing, lives on debt.
- When I know daybreak is here, that no amount of wishing would change it, I crawl to the edge of the bed on my hands and knees and push my fingers through the blind. The fuzzy darkness of the room is muted with the soft morning light. The sun begins to rise. The sky is blue. Streaks of orange where the sun rose line the distance. Today is a new day, I tell myself. I feel my toe throbbing and pulsing and breathless, like it was mugged in a dark alley. The cost of the injuries we sustain in the night are worth the pain. I fall back onto the bed, my shoulders pinned flat. I am one large foot and one angry toe with a delicious and painful throb. Today is a new day, I tell myself.
- But I will still have to face the bus driver. I am afraid of the red-headed TTC bus driver who will take my transfer. Where am I again? Giving the transfer to him, I always think I crumple it too much, fold and crease it too much and that next time, I should just put it in my pocket and leave it there until I give it to him. I am so angry with myself. The ink on the stub to prove I paid my fare is folded and creased into fine white lint. I am so angry with myself. I imagine him saying No. You can't get on. But why? I need him to help me get to where I want to go. There is no doubt about it. I need him. He does not need me.
- I stand there and he takes his hands off the steering wheel. He falls back onto his seat and folds his arms. He looks straight ahead. He does not say a word. I stand there in front of everyone. I feel their eyes on me. I hear feet rustling and sighs -- lots of sighs -- and feel the patience of strangers stretched tight like a net, and soon even this net of sympathy from strangers will stretch more, and break I will be alone. They all have to be somewhere. I am holding them up. I am the cause of delay. I am the dead battery that has frozen the hands of the clock. I am standing there and thinking of something. But nothing comes but How do you multiply 1452 x 75? I stand there and I want to twist myself into a knot until I break ground. I realize I am on the third floor. Past the eyes and heads, I can see the tops of houses with steam rising from chimneys. I think past the steam, all that brick, the wire fences, the overflowing garbage can, the gas station and highway and tree, and imagine my house. I close my eyes and squint them from the inside and still, I cannot see my house. It is not a house but an apartment but not an apartment but an old insurance office turned into an apartment that I treid to fold and re-fold, wash and re-wash and polish into a house. Where is my house? I never even tried for a home. I hear cars passing on the street below, crushing ice from last week's snowfall. I am thinking of ways to avoid slipping on leftover ice on my way home. Ms. Rooney looks at me and all I see is the bun on top of her head.
How do you multiply 1452 x 75?
Did you do last night's homework?
Use the column method.
- Her voice rises. Why is she being so mean to me today? I was nice to her and that was what my mom told me: be nice to people and they will be nice to you. I think she is too tired. She looked too tired when she told me this while she poured milk into my cereal. Even though it was cold, I waited outside for her by the front doors while the other kids went into the cafeteria to wait for the first morning bell. When I saw her Lincoln Towncar, the new one, not the black but the one the colour of gold on Mars bar wrappers, I ran up to her car to help her carry her books. She came out of the car, carrying a stainless steel coffee mug, like the ones seen at the big mall in Passaic. It was a Wednesday morning. The freezing wind flattened the fur on her luxurious coat. Her hair, the bun, stayed perfect. She wore dark brown sunglasses that caught the sun and threw them into my eyes and I was smiling at her but I could not see if she saw me smiling or if she thought I was just cold and squinting. Maybe she didn't see me smile and I looked mean and not nice because that sun was so bright. She opened the trunk.
We are not going anywhere, we are not going to gym class, until you fix this problem.
- I step out onto the balcony and look at the cars below. They whirr past without notice that I am watching them. They are on their way to insurance agencies and banks, McDonalds drive-thrus and daycare. I count them for a while, noting the shiny ones freshly waxed, bright red ones, station wagons and minivans until they all become a streaky, hypnotic blur and I realize I am not counting for anything in particular but just looking. I wish I had a cup of coffee in my hand. I make plans. Today I will get my hair cut. Yes, today I will get my hair cut short just like it used to be. I will get my hair cut short. Short on the side and short on top. Like it used to be when I was young. Like it used to be in that folded and dog-eared, fading oversized black-and-white picture I got from my cousin's album. Or like it used to be in that discoloured colour photo of me at the amusement park or me in the supermarket parking lot with the old yellow Toyota behind me.
- I will get my hair cut short today. And the old Italian man will gear up the shaver and I'll say "No. Please -- no shaver; just scissors."
- And he will look at me and through his thick glasses he'll have surprise in his eyes. "No shaver?"
- "No shaver, please," I'll reply. And he'll shrug and he'll put the shaver away and swish the scissors from the drawer in blue disinfectant.
- My hair will be short again just like in the pictures. Where are those pictures? Where is my suitcase? Where am I again? I know, I think. Where is my suitcase? Did I come back with one? Or two? Or two -- yeah, I remember carrying back so much more than I left with. I remember carrying back so much more than I left with. There is a slight buzz in my head, an orchestra -- no -- some unemployed men sitting on a street corner drinking San Miguels and humming. My shoulders hurt, my hands tingle. I can feel the blackness of my hair and hear the smoothness of my skin.
- Looking back, I escaped cholera and TB from the Chinese who own all the water ("the Chinese own everything, hijo . . ."), Muslim rebel separatists ("hijo, the Moslems are crazy, no?"), a violent, unrepentant father and the beginning of monsoon season. I escaped Hepatitis A from side-street canteens with steaming food in dented tin pots, poor airport security, the labyrinthine maze of a 400-year-old bureaucracy, 51 degree Celsius heat, mosquitoes and flying cockroaches. I escaped the poor and drunk, the sexy security guards with loaded guns. I escaped dengue, HIV, parasites, malaria, kidnappings and other hazards of this kind of life. I'm clean. I am clean. Clean. I escaped them all but I could not escape white people. And there is no one to blame but myself. There is no one to blame but myself.
- I feel a tight guitar string plucked inside my heart, and the song it's been holding yawns open from a mouth I did not know was there and dives into a pool of waves into the Pacific. I feel a tight guitar string plucked inside my heart that becomes loose like a laughing mouth, mouthing a song with words it does not know but is having a good time anyway.
- I fall to the ground with the blur of cars as my fingerprints and the smell of the orange horizon in the distance. Where are my rosary beads? -- the dragonflies in rice paddies, spiders in matchboxes, telephone lines, hit by a car (my right side? My left side?) with Mountain Dew running down my leg (the right one? The left one?) instead of blood, black women I keep next to my skin and the back of my teeth like a loaded gun, high school basketball stars, sex with undercover LAPD cops in San Francisco, Kix bought with WIC vouchers at the A & P snapped into Tupperware as snacks for Saturday classes at Trinity and Dalton (maybe they were correct):I have no Science. I have no Epistemology.
"Lord, lord . . ."
(a crow, a black bird,
a crow perched
on a sycamore
by The Reservoir,
A blind old woman. An old man on a pension. And now, a young boy with a new haircut.
None of these were mine, remember. I was theirs.
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