Saturday, March 28, 2009

Out West

I have been writing about a specific day in my childhood throughout my adult life. It was the first time I confronted death--or maybe the first time death confronted me. Anyway, as I said, I have written about it many times, trying to capture it in the right words, with the right tone, at the right length. There was much that happened to me afterward, too--from the time I was 11 until now. So, here's the latest attempt, which I think comes closest to the self-expression I've been searching for for years.

Out West

The girl perched on the foamy hotel-room comforter (which was by no means comfortable) and thought about Tijuana. She had been there a few days prior and wanted to love it. She had hoped to be kidnapped by Mexico, swallowed up, stuffed into a piñata, dropped off at the birthday party of a girl her age. She wanted to burst out like a blizzard of alien candy, and be invited to live in the dust with a new best friend. She would learn Spanish. She would paint. She would never to return to New York, never even to Brooklyn, which she cherished and romanticized. Mexico differed from the gray mist hanging over cold New York City. It burned bright red and orange behind her eyelids.

She found that Tijuana was not a piñata waiting to engulf her. Instead, everything was covered in a thin layer of beige dust. Children her age and younger starved and looked longingly at her Coca Cola. She couldn’t stand to look at them. She couldn’t stand that she loved Brooklyn more than Mexico. She wanted out. The city’s poverty broke her heart in more pieces than the sleeping souls sprinkled throughout the F train.

When she returned to the border with her family, a wilted sombrero in her sweaty grip and her zeal for Mexican citizenship left on the rusted bumper of a taxicab, the border guard asked her to recite the pledge of allegiance. It was the last thing she wanted to do. She couldn’t understand why he couldn’t recognize her discomfort when it rose from the sand in waves and bled everywhere. When she got older, in fact, she would be repeatedly reprimanded for not placing her hand over her heart and reciting the same saccharine words. Maybe that didn’t have to do with Mexico and the border guard. Maybe it did.

That morning, in the hotel room, she shrugged off the reality of Mexico and thought about Los Angeles. She thought she would see movie stars; it didn’t matter who. She sat in the chocolate hotel room, waiting for her sisters to finish dressing and her mother to finish touching up her eyebrows. Dully, she watched TV, as if L.A. was routine and she belonged. But her veins beat with blood and bounced with impatience. She waited. She sucked on the end of a hotel pen. She didn’t yet wear a bra, but already she yearned to smoke. Already, she thought the definition of living was coffee, a cigarette, a newspaper. Solitude, with simple pleasures.

Finally, the hot tar mixed with sun and temporarily blinded her. She walked ahead of her family, as she always did on vacation, hoping something extraordinary, or maybe a kindred spirit, would find her. Her sisters’ questions about where they were going whipped around her posture of apathy. She couldn’t let them see her care—a habit that would grow bad and rampant as she aged. Back then, when her mother took her to the movies, hot tears would burn her throat. The repression was so severe she thought she would have to scream. Like the terror of nuclear war that kept her awake and paralyzed in her bed for nights on end, she was desperate to hide her weaknesses, both good and bad. She didn’t know why.

As she crossed the parking lot, she looked at the locked-up hotel pool. She liked the abandonment otherwise lively places were heavy with in early morning. The water breathed on its own, shifting in the hazy sun like something viscous. Something sleeping. There was a smear at the pool’s bottom, fluorescent orange. Brown. The water masked its form, daring her to identify it. She asked her father if the orange smear was pool equipment and became instantly frustrated by her desire to have her existence affirmed again after such luxuriating detachment.

Her father started pacing back and forth in front of the pool gates. Racing, really. He didn’t answer her. The water teased him, too. Her mother started gasping. The sun started caving in on the girl like a woolen veil.

Her father yelled at her. She ran to the hotel lobby and felt young. Maybe she felt her age. Through her tears, she noticed that the hotel clerk couldn’t have been much older than her. She thought she commanded him to call 911. He stared at her blankly as she repeated it over again. Perhaps she didn’t say anything at all.

She heard her mother behind her, pleading with the boy and crying. She had only seen her mother cry once—actually, she had only heard her mother cry once, a few years before, when the girl’s grandfather had died days after being moved from their home to a nursing home. She had woken up in the night and heard wailing. She lay very still, knowing full well what kind of phone call in the middle of the night would produce such sobs, even without ever having woken to a ringing phone searing sleep. In the hotel lobby, though, her mother’s cries were louder, more urgent, without drifting off to softened mourning as they had when her grandfather died.

The clerk, acne spilled over his young and frightened face, stood gaping at both of them. The girl ran back outside, willing the orange smear to lift itself from the bottom of the pool and begin a joyful backstroke from one end of the pool to the other. Her father jumped in the water. Other guests had emerged from their own brown caves and decorated the curled, cement edge of the pool. They climbed the fence to watch the girl’s panicked father try to drag a body full of water from the bottom of the pool into the open morning air. But the climbing alone seemed to edify them. No one helped him.

Someone eventually produced a large hook. Wooden, it would have dragged a beefy burlesque dancer from a makeshift stage. There, one man used it to stab the water repeatedly, fighting the mocking, leaden waves as her father peeled the dead weight from the bottom of the pool. He appeared at the surface of the water, half on the hook, half off, struggling with the body. The man with the hook dragged the body poolside. Her father performed CPR. Water spilled from the mouth and nose, but only because her body was flooded.

A chasm of time ensued where there should have been police and an ambulance and maybe the girl explaining that she noticed the body between daydreams. But there was no logical connection for her between the shiny rivulets streaming over the dead girl’s face and how her family had managed to get to the car.

They were supposed to go to Disneyland that day, but her father decided to take them to the Mojave Desert instead. They all piled into the rental car, which had the foreign luxury of air conditioning, FM radio and cloth-covered seats, and her father told her to roll the windows up as tightly as possible. Even with the car sealed shut, the smog mingled with exhaustion in her mouth. Fright swathed her tongue.

The ride was infinite. They finally stopped for breakfast. More brown. She wondered if L.A. had collectively agreed that visitors should be greeted with brown carpets, imitation wood and brown vinyl. She wondered if brown was the city’s official color. The hair-sprayed, made-up waitress brightly smiled at her as she sullenly ordered sausages and hot chocolate. As if no one the girl’s own age had plummeted to the bottom of a pool, alone. As if the girl whose order was taken had not changed. As if life would go on, just as before.

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