A collectively kept cabinet of wonders; this is a place for discovery and digressions where a carefully selected group of editors from all over the world share memories, anecdotes, thoughts and inspiration.
Alex once saw a squirrel drown. It happened a few years back, after a short but violent summer storm. The squirrel fought desperately to get back up on shore, but the smooth wall of the wharf offered no grip to its paws. Each hopeful impulse was reined in by the weight of its soaked tail as the greedy current kept pulling it westward toward the troubled waters of the East River. Alex just stood and watched, waiting for the last splash, unable to alter the course of its fate.
This memory came back to him Monday morning, when Alex noticed it for the first time. Bursts of tapping and scratching in the ceiling above his bedroom left no doubt: a squirrel had found its way inside the wooden frame of his roof. He could hear it racing from one end to the other of the railroad apartment, and even hear the rolling of acorns being stored in the hollows of the structure.
The landlord’s initial response had been downright dismissive. Well, if it dies that’s the end of it, he said to Carla over the phone. He showed up on Friday of that week. After assessing the situation, he made it clear that he was not going to pay anybody to get a trapped rodent out of the roof. Alex explained that he’d actually seen the squirrel going up and down the fire escape, and that it was probably using the building to store more food for the winter. The landlord’s answer was predictable: Some bait and poison on the rooftop should do the trick, then. I hate to kill the little guy, but there’s nothing else I can do.
How do you know you’ll be poisoning the right squirrel, Carla asked.
Let me worry about that, he answered.
On reflection, Alex knew he couldn’t have done anything to save that first squirrel from drowning. Mother Nature’s fury had blown a branch, squirrel and all, right off the trunk of a London plane and into the turbid waters of Newtown Creek. The squirrel’s death, sad as it was, had been at all events a natural occurrence. And even if the struggling rodent had been within his reach, Alex had no business interfering with a script written at much higher spheres.
By comparison, this squirrel making noises in the ceiling had actually transgressed a pivotal rule upon which animal-human (and human-human) relations are built: Any threat to a human dwelling constitutes grounds for extermination. In the much smaller context of this orthodox approach to mortal matters, Alex felt compelled to act as a benign priest, a clever monkey touched by the spark of a higher consciousness, yet capable of empathy and compassion toward this lesser creature, who, in its dim level of awareness, had neither recognized the facts of its boundaries, nor realized the gravity of their transgression. Tomorrow morning, in the early light, Alex would make sure the squirrel got its pardon.
Carla was still in bed when Alex went out the window to the fire escape and climbed the ladder onto the rooftop. The morning sun reverberated off silvery surfaces. Alex had a clear sense of purpose, though. He turned from the skyline glistening in the distance and started searching for possible entries. He inspected the slightly slanted surface, but it showed no cracks, holes or openings of any kind.
Then, he thought he heard a noise in the façade end of the roof—it was near the top of the linden tree planted on the sidewalk. He walked to that corner and cautiously looked over, first over the front and then over the side of the building. There: the ripped vinyl tile and the dark mouth of a hole big enough for a squirrel to get through.
Alex didn’t like heights. Still, he lay on his stomach and reached down to probe the opening with his right hand. Even so, his arm could barely reach all the way down. Inch by inch his body crawled past the edge of the roof until he could easily slide three fingers in the hole. This is it, he thought. Then, as he was pulling his hand back out, he felt a shooting pain on the tip of his middle finger and promptly lost his balance. His body swung like a pendulum. Only the grip of his left hand on the raised edge of the roof stopped him from falling off. As he dangled from his fingers, one of which was bleeding, he saw the squirrel jump out of the hole and reach the end of a bough.
Alex fought desperately to get back on the rooftop, but the smooth tiled wall of the building offered no grip to his feet. Each hopeful impulse was reined in by the weight of his own fattening middle aged body, as the greedy gravity of the planet kept pulling him toward the trash containers 30 feet below. There was no one watching, no one waiting for the last splat, no one able to change the course of his fate. But he didn’t have time to appreciate the irony. He could only hope that Carla’s sleep wasn’t as heavy as usual as he yelled for help as loud as he could.
Ese verdor de Asturias
te apacigua el corazón,
desanúdate los huesos,
facilita el subidón.
Ese verdor de Asturias
con un solo de Coltrane y con mucho sol, que es raro,
¿a que mola más que un tren?
Ese verdor de Asturias,
¿qué te puedo yo contar
que ya no te haya contado
la espuma del verde mar?
The Looney Tunes voice in the speakers was advising passengers to stay away from the closing doors as Liz arrived running at the top of the stairs. She sprinted across the platform trying to make it through the narrowing gap, but the doors shut inches away from her face. Another twelve minutes went by before a new train arrived. It was 5:38 PM.
As she went underground and the windows became double mirrors, Liz thought of the workers boring a hole through the granite underneath the concrete wall of the tunnel, precisely as the lines in the Poetry in Motion poster suggested her to do. But the dark circles around her eyes kept pulling her back to her own reflection. Hoping to escape from that double stare, irritating as a high-pitched feedback, she tried focusing her attention on her silver Doc Martens below. Soon her boots too were rewording the same question she had tried to avoid every time her image became clearer on the train window. Was she in disguise, dressed up as someone she no longer was? Again she pictured those heroic workers, in real working boots, boring that same tunnel that was taking her nowhere.
Back home, just over half an hour ago, she’d welcomed getting back in her old black jeans after almost two years and a double pregnancy as a small, surprising triumph. Her old silver boots, bearing the scars of nights past, way back in the depths of the closet, were the inevitable pairing. Even if they felt like someone else’s shoes at first, her feet found themselves right at home after a few steps around the house. More importantly, she did like what she saw in the dresser mirror. As she went out the door, even Milo complimented her with a silly comment about her not looking the legal age to serve alcohol.
Feeling pretty confident about the way she looked, Liz walked down 23rd Ave towards 21st Street. It was finally sunny after a long train of miserably wet days and the tint on her shades made everything look softer and more gentle.
Just as a surge of optimism quickened her pace, she spotted the bouncing figure of Jose Miguel López, her next-door neighbor, materializing on the corner directly in front of her. She quickly thought about maneuvering out of this unwanted greeting situation, but there were no stores on either side of the street to take refuge in. There’s no way out, she thought with dismay. He was already lifting his right arm like fucking Columbo, making sure she didn’t miss him.
Lees!, he yelled still half a block away from her. Where are yoo heading so cheerfuly?
She made an effort to be polite, not quite stopping but slowing down and smiling a half-smile as soon as he was close enough. He somehow managed to stop her in her tracks to hug her and kiss her as if they were close relatives who hadn’t seen each other in years. Pointing at his naked wrist after freeing herself from the embrace, Liz explained she was heading to work.
Yoosteel working at the Odessa?, he asked ignoring the not-so-subtle gesture. Instead of letting her answer—this was one habit of his she found particularly annoying—he shot another question:
When are yoo finally going to open your own bar, Lees?
If it were anyone else, she might have shrugged and marched away, alleging business, but he had a way of tapping her shoulder as a sort of physical punctuation that made escape rather difficult. It occurred to Liz that he really would have made a good cop, no matter how hard he tried to come across as the shaman/therapist type.
That name is SOO good. Yoo know I would be your most loyal customer, he added.
I’m sure you would, you freaking charming sponge, Liz thought about saying.
One of these days, José. One of these days, she replied instead, flashing a big mouth-and-teeth-only smile before turning around.
No, I will not fucking forget to say hi to Milo, she mentally replied as she stomped away from his neighbor’s fading-out voice. Just like I won’t forget to ask him again what in hell is that he sees in you.
By now her mood had irreversibly switched. Liz was the first to admit the irrational, almost magnetic repulsion she felt against López, but there were also real reasons behind her dislike. For example, she hated the fact that the Venezuelan blabber, as she liked to call him, seemed to know and remember every minute detail about their lives — case in point, his questioning about her own bar, something she might have mentioned once ages ago, when she and Milo first moved to the building.
It was true that Milo did like Jose Miguel quite a bit, and that didn’t make things any easier. Liz could only guess that geeky dudes were just naturally inclined to like each other. That—the geek gene—is not what bothered Liz. If anything, she had always had a soft spot for nerdy guys. She just couldn’t trust this particular one. Not only did she think he was nosy, but also sneaky, and maybe even a bit of sleaze.
Only a few nights ago she caught him peeping at her from his kitchen window late at night, while she was having a cigarette on the fire escape with nothing on but an oversized t-shirt. She literally felt his gaze on her ass as she put her cigarette out against the metal rail. Of course he pretended he wasn’t even aware of her presence when she looked in his direction and saw him standing there on his blue robe. Not that she thought that a guy seizing the opportunity to check her—or anybody’s—ass out was such big deal. It wasn’t, even if the guy was married—to Ana, a Spaniard she actually liked, even though they weren’t nearly as close as Milo and José Miguel were—and had a child a few years older than the twins. But it did irritate her, mostly because he had also caught her indulging in a clandestine habit of her own.
The fact of the matter is that Liz had always felt there was something odd about the way he looked at her, as if trying real hard to figure her out. His annoying questioning seemed to stem from a desire to analyze and second-guess her, rather than from genuine interest or even politeness. Perhaps not knowing the reason behind the level of curiosity he showed toward her and her family was what made her so uncomfortable around him. What was his fucking agenda anyway? She really had no clue, but she didn’t buy the idea that it was just a cultural thing, which was Milo’s way of explaining away everything that was wrong with him.
When are you going to publish your own fucking book, José?
Good comebacks are always late, Liz thought as she went through the turnstile and stepped out onto the sidewalk. She’d been mentally destroying her neighbor for about 14 subway stations. That’s about seven miles of hate, and she wasn’t even done. Maybe Lopez’s inability to get anything published made him snoop around the way she was sure he did. She overheard him one evening complaining to Milo about his lack of fortune as a writer; at the height of his third or fourth Modelo he even confessed he was ready to relinquish, even though moments later he seemed to be detailing a new plot to Milo. It made sense to Liz that not being able to weave an effective fictional net to catch enough gullible readers, he decided to mess up other people’s lives. Liz had only to look at how the brief exchange with the Venezuelan babbler had flipped around what had started out as a beautiful evening. Instead of a relatively new mom in her mid-thirties, still looking hot in the clothes she wore when she was in her twenties, she felt like a woman in denial, wrapped in her past, dressed up as the single girl who dreamt of The Sweaty Dandy.
Liz turned on First Ave to avoid walking in front of the nail salon façade where she once pictured the blue neon letters spelling the name of her dream pub. She came up with the idea now close to seven years ago, one summer night after a gig with The Fossa’s Baculum, in a steamy little club in Providence, RI.
Guess what, she said, looking at vocalist’s Ronnie Quintana’s shirt, I have just found the perfect name for my future pub.
She was only half joking.
Liz had been working the bar at the Odessa Saturdays and Sundays for about a year, and had also recently started pouring mugs on weekdays at the Beer Garden, in Astoria. Despite having always thought of herself as a misanthropist, or whatever is opposite to gregarious, she was sure to be the right fit for the job. Unlike playing the bass for the Fossa’s, bartending actually paid money, allowing her to postpone, with luck indefinitely, having to accept the death of her musical ambitions. The idea of generating a small cash flow without officially capitulating helped her give shape to the idea of owning a bar. Now that she had a name, she could transform the idea into a concrete project.
Available spaces don’t come easy in NYC, even back then, but as luck would have it, Ronnie’s father, Israel Quintana, owned a bodega in a prime location on Avenue A. The old man was way past retiring age, but hated the idea of parting with his old store. When he heard about Ronnie and Liz’s business proposal, Mr. Quintana agreed to lease them the propriety at a low rate as long as they had all the permits and renovation plans in place. That way he could keep the property, happy to see Ronnie and his friend take over and run the new business.
The two friends set to work on it almost immediately. A formal business proposal was written, tons of paperwork was processed, sketches were sketched and contractors contacted. But because luck is a two-faced bitch, people die all the time, and that’s what Mr. Israel Quintana did as a result of a CVA, eight months after hearing about The Sweaty Dandy for the first time, two months after closing his bodega and one day before Liz and Ronnie got the final approval for the loan.
A few months after the death of her husband, Ms. Quintana, who accepted but could never approve of Ronnie’s being gay, sold the space to a real estate management company that nearly tripled the rent. Liz thought about trying to prevent it by faking a marriage with Ronnie, but seeing how devastated he was after losing his father, she lost the courage to even mention it. Shortly after, Ronnie moved to New Orleans. The Fossa’s musicians followed soon later. Last she heard, they were putting together their third album.
By the time Liz had finished internally recapping the loss of The Sweaty Dandy, she was already half a block from the Odessa. It took her about ten blocks. That was hardly a mile of nostalgia. With still a few minutes to go before her shift, she decided to go across Avenue A into Tompkins Square—she had just enough time for a bittersweet-ending cigarette in the park.
She felt a sense of relief. The timing of Milo’s insertion in her life had been fate’s consolation prize. Hearing the distant cries of the children in the playground, she suddenly missed the twins. That’s what she got instead of a pub, and it was okay to miss some of the things she lost along the way to have what she now had.
She suddenly felt a little crappy about that poor Venezuelan bastard. Shouldn’t she be thankful to him for this little moment of insight?
Nah. Fuck him.
Comforted by this thought, she surrendered to that unique rush of nicotine that only the first cigarette of the day can provide. It was a perfect evening. The sound of drums floated in the air, subtly Puerto Rican. Above, on a tree branch, she spotted a black squirrel, just like the one in the map of Mirkwood in Milo’s room, back when they were dating.
The glossy tights of a running woman pushing a sports stroller caught her attention. Her form was flawless. The precise mechanics of her legs in motion started to pump the deflated memory into shape. Before she could realize what was happening, she felt the blood rushing to her cheeks. The dream, vague, could have been a response to catching Milo doing what he was about to do when she walked in the kitchen. There were hardly any images, only a buzz and a button, the feeling of a hand breaching the elastic border of her pajama bottoms.
There was also laughter, soft and joyful laughter that matched the same gurgling sound recorded on the earliest pages of her pubic history. She woke up in the middle of the night before she could come. One of the few concrete images she could recall was her face. Liz had already recognized it once before, a while ago, on a roadside ad on the BQE, but so far as she could tell, this was the first time she had seen it in a dream. Horny but too tired to do anything about it she went back to sleep, hoping in vain to slip back into that same dream.
Liz put out her cigarette and waved the last traces of smoke away from her face. Funny the way memories pop up in dreams, she thought, as she rushed back to the Odessa to begin her shift, only partially aware that luck is a two-faced bitch and that coincidence is its favorite amusement:
Back in Astoria, with the twins finally in bed, Milo at last reaches the climax he was forced to postpone the night before. His ecstatic expression is bathed by the bluish light of a screen filled with the same fair features that Liz remembered seeing in her dream, those of the lovely meteorologist Loretta Cassey.
Love does come in spurts, thinks Milo, as he runs to the bathroom to get a towel. Little does he know that the seeds of his little obsession—easy to call it little after an orgasm— were planted long ago in Liz’s head, and their seedlings were already growing tall and strong.
When they hopped on the N train at Ditmars Station the downpour showed no signs of ending anytime soon. A long ride took them from the elevated railway in Queens into the rocky arteries of Manhattan, then up again across the river into Brooklyn. They transferred to an overheated LIR train in Atlantic Terminal, near the Barclays Center. Ninety-seven minutes after leaving their home in Astoria, soaked and exhausted, Liz and Milo were finally crossing the glass doors beneath the massive yellow façade of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. It was 1:39 PM.
The soggy trek alone would have justified the less than perfect disposition exhibited by the couple, but that was not all: despite their best efforts, Kora and Lenny had fallen asleep in their stroller, warm and dry under its clear plastic cover, just shy of the museum. Milo suggested waking them up, arguing that, after all, the twins were the only reason for them to be there, but Liz wouldn’t hear of it. Only a ruthless tyrant would do something like that, she said, instinctively shielding the stroller with her body as Milo gestured to lift the protective cover. He knew she was right too: for the second time that day Milo was being an asshole, and his awareness of this fact only worsened his mood.
Being already there, half a world away from familiar Astoria, they decided to redeem their passes all the same and stroll through the exhibitions, hoping the bustle of the place might eventually wake up the sleeping twins. But they had greatly underestimated the depth of their slumber. No amount of noise, abundant and varied as it was, seemed to have the desired effect. Kora and Lenny slept through everything: seven Hassidic kids who nearly overturned the stroller outside the Neighborhood Nature exhibition, a Dominican woman yelling at some kids (presumably hers) next to the Sensory Room, and a group of preschoolers clapping and cheering at the Totally Tots exhibition. In fact, the only effect of the ubiquitous high-pitched racket was to deepen a sense of annoyance that sank Liz and Milo’s spirits even lower.
There was also something about the inside of the building that didn’t sit well with Milo, but he hadn’t dared to say it out loud. It could have been the cheap aspect of the materials used in construction, which gave the whole place a makeshift air that contrasted sharply with the impressive façade. Or maybe it was the premature, sadness-inducing decay of many of the interactive elements in the exhibitions. Whatever it was, he didn’t feel it worth courting the possibility of a disagreement: with tensions running high, anything could trigger an argument.
By the time they got to the World Brooklyn exhibition, Liz was nevertheless ready to admit what he had been trying to repress for the last forty-five minutes.
This place sucks, man; let’s get out of here and grab a beer before these two little fuckers wake up.
And there she was again: the raven-haired punkette who, six years ago, behind the bar of the Beer Garden, had questioned the wisdom of Milo’s decision to get only a half pint of lager on a dull March evening. Underneath all those thick layers of social convention that marriage and parenthood had thrown over her—layers that Milo himself had helped to weave by inoculating her with twins shortly after proposing to her—Liz was still the edgy New Yorker who had captivated his dorky, Greek, Midwestern heart. Seeing evidence of that complicity still holding fast was worth the long trip to the irritating Brooklyn museum.
Please, begged Milo. Liz’s smile sparked on his bovine eyes.
They avoided the crowd in the main area of the exhibition by sneaking through the mock grocery store and the pretend bakery. Just a few more turns and they would be out of that hell of playdough colors and mangled shrieks. Milo could almost taste the freedom—it had the flavor of barley and hops—and feel the cold rain on his face.
That is when he noticed the bulletin board by the turnstiles, behind the ticket box. Something on it—he wasn’t sure what—sucked him in, forcing a closer look. There was an outdated poster for a Caribbean Carnival event and a bunch of group pictures from schools and summer camps. On one of them, a grainy cutout from the Brooklyn Eagle with two columns of copy below, he couldn’t help but notice the two adults chaperoning a group of children in yellow t-shirts. One of them was a middle-aged woman, clearly a teacher or a school official of some kind. The other was Loretta Cassey.
Come on, Milo!
Liz’s voice crashed onto his head like an icicle, breaking his reverie. As he felt the blood flushing out of his scalp, Milo lurched back to the present, pushing the stroller toward the exit and looking straight ahead with an almost martial expression on his face. He couldn’t even tell how long he had been staring at the picture. (Were those yoga pants she was wearing?) Lost in his concealing act, he didn’t notice the small braided girl stepping in front of him. The hit, while not actually as violent as it sounded, knocked the little girl down. She started to cry, and a solidly built man wearing a head rag and a Knicks sweatshirt rushed to the scene and started shushing her softly. As he picked her up from the floor, he asked Milo to back off with a look that left no room for interpretation. Milo kept apologizing, pointlessly motioning from the requested distance and wishing the man would just pull out a piece to end his misery right there. Just fucking watch where you are going, the man said stoically, and stepped away with the girl in his arms. From the stroller, no longer muffled by the plastic cover, came the familiar cries of Kora and Lenny. Milo couldn’t gather the courage to look at his wife’s face.
Sunday was over. The twins and Liz had fallen asleep in the master bedroom while Milo busied himself in the kitchen with self-assigned chores: cleaning counter-tops, sweeping the tiled floor, sorting out tupperware, reorganizing the contents of the fridge. He would gladly have added more items to the list, as long as they kept them from having to revisit the sorry episode of earlier that day, but it hadn’t been necessary: once he was done with the fridge, he made sure they were all sleeping before turning off the night lamp in the bedroom and moving back to the kitchen.
Liz and Milo had endured the long ride back home from the museum mostly in silence. On the train, Milo’s attempt at apology was met by Liz’s conditional acceptance: she wanted him to start seeing Dr. Thiakos again. (Milo had stopped seeing her—and taking her drugs—when the anxiety attacks were more or less gone, shortly after the twins were born.) Unable to come up with a good defense against her request, Milo distracted himself by giving Kora and Lenny the attention they were desperately demanding; the refreshing effects of the long nap were apparent in their cheerful communicative efforts. Liz was too tired to insist and chose to capitalize on the opportunity to nod off the rest of the way.
Back in Astoria, Milo fixed dinner (reheated lasagna and cucumber salad), emptied the compost bin, dropped two large loads at the corner Laundromat, and picked-up a consolation six-pack of Modelo Especial on his way back home. He was conspicuously trying his best to display diligence and submission while keeping a safe distance from Liz and the children. With luck, he thought, the issue would soon go away and Dr. Thiakos name wouldn’t come up again.
Now, once again, he had the house to himself. He grabbed a bottle of Modelo from the fridge and went to sip it by the window—his old observation post—trying to forget that afternoon’s embarrassing episode, even as it kept playing in his head.
The rain had stopped. The layer of clouds was swiftly shredding, revealing an almost full moon high in the sky. He heard a faint rustle below and looked down: something was moving on the ground by the dark mass of the yew tree. At first he took it for a cat, but its long, hairless tail gave it away. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen an opossum, though it was probably during his Ann Arbor days, many years ago. The sight of this marsupial bathed in moonlight filled him with an old, safe joy. Even under the cover of the night, regardless of the complexity of the plot dictating the actions of its actors, he could understand everything on that private stage. As the wild mammal tried to sneak out of sight under a fence, he could easily tell that that naked, curling tail belonged to an opossum—an animal unique to the Americas, well adapted to urban habitats, and not to a cat, or a cat-size rat.
Loretta Cassey had entered Milo’s life by pure chance, the same way that opossum had. Yet Milo couldn’t decipher what part the beautiful broadcaster was meant to play in his life. He was ready to admit that early that morning he had actually hoped to see the sultry Loretta Casey predicting the weather on a TV screen, but her popping up at the museum as she did had been a fortuitous event. Having no control over her insertion in his reality—or over his response to that insertion—was troubling. Perhaps Liz was right, even if she didn’t have all the facts: Perhaps he should seek professional help.
Milo wondered if there was a pattern. Once, not long before the last time he saw an opossum, he had had developed a crush on a young mutant doctor named Cecilia Reyes. Around the same time, he had also fallen in lust with Death, from the DC Comics series The Sandman. In fact, earlier in their relationship he half-jokingly confessed to Liz that her resemblance to that hottest—and coolest—allegory in the history of comics had played no small part in the pull she exerted on him.
This was different, though. As out of reach as she was, Loretta Casey was not just ink on paper, but a real live human being, who broadcasted her predictions from an actual studio in Manhattan, just a few miles from his own apartment. This was an unsettling realization. She’d probably seen and loved many of the same sights he had seen and loved in that confined geographical area: the disco roller-skaters in Central Park, the façade of the Maritime Hotel in Chelsea, the mural behind the bar at the St. Regis Hotel—to name just a few. There was even the chance they had ordered the same food in the same restaurant; a pastrami sandwich at Carnegie Deli seemed a distinct possibility.
Then a second realization hit him like a speeding truck: she surely had an important presence in the Internet, one that included countless 140 character insights, opinions about books and movies, displays of her perfect life history, and photos, many wonderful photos in an overwhelming array of amazing outfits adapted to all kinds of climates and weather conditions. The bottle in Milo’s hand shook visibly
With the caution of an assassin moving across a nightingale floor, Milo made his way back to the kitchen from the bedroom without a letting a single creak betray his passage. He safely held his laptop in his right hand.
Milo dimmed the lights and opened the computer on the kitchen table. He sat down and carefully typed her name, seeing the letters slowly appear on the search field as he pressed each key. All the results listed on his browser after hitting enter seemed relevant. There was no Instagram link, but there were links to Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, plus a number of links to celebrity and entertainment news sites. Milo’s heart raced and a cold sweat dotted his forehead. As a precaution, he opened a decoy window with CNN’s website on it. Then he clicked back to the window with Loretta’s links. A glance over her Twitter profile revealed loads of weather related tweets, with maps, temperature charts and projections. He could easily hear her mellifluous voice in the wording of some of the warnings or her more cheerful predictions. But there were almost no pictures. Other than the profile picture, there was one possibly older shot of her face with shorter—and spectacular—hair, which only managed to fuel his impatience for more revealing images.
He quickly went back the results list and clicked on the videos tab. An impressive list of YouTube links filled the screen. A quick glance at the previews and descriptions confirmed that he had struck gold. He clicked the first link and was brought to a YouTube page.
The abundance of videos was almost overwhelming. There were many weather reports and predictions in studio and quite a few exterior appearances, in bright summer dresses below bright blue skies, under colorful umbrellas, standing on wet, glossy sidewalks in matching raincoats, lost in the chaos of a blizzard, wrapped in fluffy white overcoat and furry hunter’s hat, always microphone in hand, lovely and professional in equal parts. There were other categories of videos, hardly related to any meteorological phenomena. Several of them featured puppies offered in adoption, and some of these were edited to deliver the promise of their titles (Loretta’s Daring Upskirt, Puppy Loving Thighs, Meteorologist Hottest Shots), slowed down to capture every inch of flesh exposed as Loretta crossed or uncrossed her legs with a poodle on her lap, or kneeled down to pick up a playful two-month old chocolate Labrador chasing her Balenciaga heels.
Having found this vein of pure digital gold in the Internet didn’t overjoy Milo the way one would’ve expected. Along with the inevitable physical signs of arousal, a wave of self-hatred and misery washed over him instead, as he recognized the truth that he was just another creep among hundreds lusting after a beautiful weather woman. Here was that old pattern again, this time showing its saddest side: he knew there was a Facebook group with some 532 members named In Love with Cecilia Reyes.
Milo had witnessed his own hands behaving like independent five-legged animals before, when scratching an itch, waving a fly away, or drumming nervously on a desktop. Now this video of Loretta Cassey, found three pages deep into the list of results, seemed to be forcing his hands again to act like blind, determined animals who paid no regard to Milo’s self-esteem issues. The footage—probably the idea of a clever network executive in charge of the Morning Show—featured the forecaster in a white bikini, floating with eyes closed on a salty pool, just one of several facilities of what the video’s title described as a floating and sweating spa. At the sight of her skin underwater, his right hand leapt from the keyboard and landed on his knees, then started crawling toward the waist of his pants. As soon as it reached the buckle of his belt, his left hand rushed to its aid. Just as the two hands were undoing the last button restraining his erection, the door of the kitchen flew open and Liz stepped half-asleep toward the cupboard next to the kitchen table. She grabbed a cup and went to the fridge to pour some water from the Brita jar. Only then did she notice Milo sitting at the kitchen table with the blue light of the screen on his pale face. The main page of CNN was the only thing visible when she approached and stood next to him.
Be careful: reading news late at night can make you blind, she said before going back to the bedroom.
Milo opened his eyes seconds before the phone started to crawl across the night table. Slowly pushing his weight up with both arms, he sat on the bed and let his bare feet touch the floor. Then he made his way to the bathroom, stepping carefully on the floorboards as if crossing a creek on stepping stones. He took a long piss, aiming at a spot just above the water line to prevent any noise. Then he went to the kitchen and made coffee. It was 6:15 AM.
Milo was a man of pretty regular habits. He generally liked waking up early, but he especially loved it on Sundays—sipping coffee and looking out the kitchen window from an apartment engulfed in silence. The strip of backyards, isolated by buildings from the relentless grind of the city, offered a protected habitat, one he wishfully wanted to consider reminiscent of what nature might have been like before buildings were raised and streets were laid down. Witnessing its interactions before most of the city was fully awake was a privilege he’d learned to enjoy even before he was married. This bustling of animal activity on the back stages of New York City had never ceased to amaze him, not since he moved east of the East River from Michigan, almost a decade before, and realized that the drama of an entire food web could uncoil right before one’s eyes in a few square yards of tamed green space, all this in one of the busiest cities of the western hemisphere.
How did he allow anything to change this cherished ritual was not an easy question to answer. Milo liked to think that he wasn’t good at lying to himself. Yet he knew that lately it was not the chirping of the sparrows in the yew tree, or the flash of blue jays in the neglected rosebush that kept him waking at quarter past six every Sunday with all the discipline of a jogger. Not even that quiet moment of caffeine bliss, before the din of Liz and the twins saturated their small Astoria apartment, could really count as the reason for his early rising. Not anymore, anyway.
He was almost positive that there was nothing untoward about this recent addition to his early Sunday routine. Granted, there was something about the intensity of his yearning that he could not, in all fairness, call normal. But he wasn’t hurting anybody. Objectively speaking, he did need to check out the weather before making plans for the day ahead. One could even suppose it was his duty as the family’s early riser. It would have been reckless to only count on predictions based on his own observations from the kitchen window.
But couldn’t he just get a quick and impersonal prediction, as accurate as any, right there on his phone screen? Certainly. But it was Sunday! Glorious, useless Sunday: a day of leisure and grandeur, a day pregnant with possibility, a day to take stock of before facing it, a day to watch the projected path of a storm on a big TV screen while a flesh and blood meteorologist interpreted the color-coding and suggested appropriate garments to wear. Only then he would be able to decide on the best course of action to carry out whatever family plans he had in mind.
Satisfied with this rationale, Milo took his position in the living room sofa with a fresh cup of coffee. He turned the TV on, lowered the volume until it was barely audible, and quickly found channel seven.
A surge of disgust made him grunt as he recognized the chords from London Calling being used to sell an Audi. He would have changed the channel, but he knew the alternatives were wide-eyed capitalist pastor Joel Osteen and two simultaneous Ninja infomercials. Plus, zapping further away from the Audi speeding down the Pacific Coast Highway was out of the question: he did not want to risk missing a second of the Early Show’s weather segment
Milo didn’t expect her radiant, full figure on a white V-neck dress to light up the screen so soon, right after the Cialis commercial urged viewers to call their doctors in case of an erection lasting longer than four hours. Caught off guard, he felt it all again, just like the first time he saw her: casual and elegant, she moved her pouty lips while pointing at a sunny icon on a seven-day projection. But the heavenly vision lasted less than a second; half a dozen other broadcasters paraded right after her on the screen, as an overly excited male presenter announced their names—it was just an ad for the same show he was about to watch. But the false alarm spiced up the waiting.
Another ad followed, this time for a Bette Midler show on Broadway. Milo snorted impatiently and took a big gulp of coffee as real-life theatergoers, some of them teary, praised the show with competing degrees of eloquence.
Then the Sunday edition of the Early Show came on with a fanfare. Following the introductions over a background jingle, an unremarkable brunette greeted the viewers and read a piece of breaking news. Still images showed a bus sliced right down the middle by a light post near Atlantic City. Back in the studio, after the account of the horrible incident by a male reporter on the scene, another hostess —remarkably similar to the unremarkable newscaster, only blond instead of dark— announced the dish of the day in the upcoming cooking segment. But first, she said, let’s take a look at the weather today with Loretta Cassey.
Milo could confirm that the sole mention of her name triggered a clearly physical response: his heartbeat raced, his palms sweated, his mouth became completely dry. Each pronounced syllable carved out a precise silhouette in his brain, one that dilated his pupils and sent blood rushing to his penis. Arousal, he realized, could also come in the form of a proper noun. Just when he felt his head was about to explode in anticipation, one of his fourteen-month-old twins stumbled into the living room, dragging a battered Buzz Light Year.
Lenny! What the hell are you doing up so early?
Lenny just stood there, hardly swaying, gazing at his father’s flushed face and unable to reply. Milo was being an asshole, even for someone just startled by a lurching toddler. But there was no time to say sorry. Instead, he signaled for Lenny to keep quiet and anxiously stared back at the TV. Loretta Cassey’s outfit—that one powerful element of surprise he could always count on—was going be revealed any second now. Then he noticed a white, middle-aged man in a brown suit had just made his appearance on the screen overlapping the meteorological map of the Northeast. Smiling awkwardly, he introduced himself as Lorenzo Bazzoli, substitute meteorologist, and explained that Loretta Cassey was on vacation. There was a burst of lighthearted laughter in the studio, as the hostess who mistakenly announced Loretta Cassey apologized to the audience. Milo cursed under his breath, passionately hating the two unremarkable women and loathing the inept weather fellow, who, on top off it all, was remarkably ugly. He exhaled noisily as he let his body slouch on the couch. Then he looked back at Lenny’s confused face with a sad, apologetic smile on his. Let’s have some breakfast, buddy, he said as he picked him up and walked to the kitchen.
It had all started a little over a month ago. Kora and Lenny were having a terrible night. Exhausted, Milo felt tempted to snore his way through their newest round of cries, but Liz reminded him with a short jab whose turn it was.
Soon after running out of crib tricks, he took them to the living room and the merciful TV. Milo surfed the channels, hopefully looking for sharp animated colors on the screen, while trying to endure Kora and Lenny’s dueling sobs. But their bawls didn’t subside. Instead, the two clashing sounds grew into one formidably loud buzz he feared capable of depriving him of reason before brining his life to a halt, like some Nazi era secret weapon.
But suddenly the twins fell quiet. On the setting of the Early Morning show that filled the screen, Elmo and Cookie Monster were trying to command the attention of a male host. To appease his two guests, the man promised he would find a cookie, but first he wanted to know if they cared to learn what the weather was like today. Both monsters nodded repeatedly, cheering as the camera panned toward the studio’s weather station.
Then a miracle happened: a full body frontal shot revealed the figure of a strikingly beautiful female meteorologist in a short indigo dress. The children started to sob again, but Milo no longer cared. He was transfixed by the glowing vision, like an intoxicated shepherd boy. The woman greeted the audience and introduced herself as Loretta Cassey. Then she opened her arms beatifically to welcome Elmo and Cookie Monster, who came running into frame from the other end of the studio.
Back in the living room, the children stopped crying again. Milo smiled at the audacity of the puppeteers, as each monster clung to each of the meteorologist’s legs. She graciously kneeled down to kiss the two furry puppets and her melodic laughter infused the stale air of the apartment with its youthful vitality. Milo’s exhilaration verged on euphoria, and Kora’s satisfied gurgle indicated he was not alone in this feeling. One last close-up revealed the tiny freckles that dotted Loretta Cassey’s nose, right before the commercial break blew it all away.
Milo was thus mired in this recollection of this first encounter with Loretta Cassey when Liz rushed into the kitchen to open the window with Kora in her arms. He shut the burner off and moved a chair closer to the smoke detector. I’m sorry, he said fanning it with a placemat. I completely spaced out.
After a few more seconds the alarm stopped. The bacon didn’t burn, and Liz did like her bacon crispy anyway. But he didn’t even have to say anything. From his highchair, Lenny was now forcefully demanding the same privilege enjoyed by his twin sister, who laid there in her mother arms, grabbing boastfully one of the breasts that had only recently been taken away from him, the first of many privileges to be revoked on his long and tortuous path to adulthood.
It is going to rain all day, said Milo, trying to hide the lingering disappointment over Loretta Carrey’s vacation time.
I guess we can go to the Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, replied Liz with both children now in her arms. Lana, from the day care, gave me two passes.
Milo thought about the long ride to Brooklyn on such a damp day. Ms. Ferraro, from the playground, had mentioned it was not really a fun place for a baby. But he didn’t feel he had the moral authority to oppose Liz’s idea. He also regretted to think that Loretta Cassey would have probably inspired him to come up with a better plan.
I guess we can, Milo said tamely.
He noticed that some of the bacon did burn, but Liz didn’t say anything.
El mal está allí y lo he visto a los ojos
se traga a mis amigos y se traga mis países
me acaricia la nuca de noche y baja la cadena del inodoro
El mal está allí y viste sus símbolos eternos
como un manual de instrucciones
El mal vive y triunfa y muerde el corazón de los bosques
máscara sobre máscara sobre máscara sobre máscara
apunta su libreto al oído con las manos en forma de bocina
rompe la barrera del sonido y bebe la sangre del futuro
en terrazas luminosas
en galerías de vanguardia
en bautizos, juegos, protestas, entierros
El mal toca todo, desordena la sala y esconde mis libros
despeina matrimonios y ratifica su existencia
troca, tritura, resemantiza y desemantiza
no descansa ni cuando duerme
y escoge las canciones que bailaré el jueves por la noche
El mal está allí y lo he visto a los ojos
sus números titilan en pizarras y bailan en la piel de mi antebrazo
larvas en un reguero de entrañas
que dictan las tendencias del mercado
números, números y más números
El mal domina la lengua del universo
y conjura sus concilios bajo el sol amable del Caribe
entre los rayos de las auroras boreales
en las profundidades del Golfo
en las estepas polares
en las curvas indomables de sus esclavas
en la seda salpicada de rojo y en las astillas de mis huesos
se roba los crepúsculos y vende eclipses de bolsillo
aumenta el color de la luna y disminuye el sol de la sangre
eyacula sobre las ciudades y borra las horas de las esferas
El mal se esconde en mi cartera
y apunta frases en mis diarios
me llama en susurros y cuando giro ya no está
empapela las paredes de las redes sociales
y asesina las salamandras que duermen al fondo del gallinero
El mal respira sibilante
nos hace creer que estamos a salvo
y ríe con gusto mientras diseña sombreros
fluye elegante y vulgar
en flautas de cristal
corre en el viento y camina en las cornisas
tañe arpas de platino y juega en tumbas señoriales
cambia el curso de mis dedos sobre el teclado
siembra, cosecha, muele y hornea
el mal siempre delega
I must have been seven the first time I saw one, or at least the first time I became aware that I was looking at one. Dad always parked his station wagon under its shade, next to a couple of tame saddled horses waiting to be ridden by us city dwellers. Maybe he told me its name, or maybe mom did. That I don’t remember. What I do remember is that the long, black pods that hung from its branches and carpeted the perimeter outlined by its shadow made the perfect scimitars for our endless battles. These curved cases loaded with beans produced a dramatic sound effect when they clashed in the air. The violence of our fights would often break our weapons, but we didn’t care. There were always plenty of pods on the ground to replace our broken sabers. The acacia not only provided arms, but a cool battlefield to fight on.
Once a year—I can’t really tell if it was around May or earlier—the acacias bloomed. On the road, we would admire the endless parade of flaming treetops moving at different speeds. Up in the mountains, their shades, I had learned in school, helped to protect the coffee bushes from the tropical sunlight. And it only took a few minutes outside the comfort of our air-conditioned car to realize that in that scorching western climate life was only possible under the acacias.
The last few times that my family visited Boraure—that’s what the sugarcane farm was called—I was already a teenager. Seedpods, flowers and battles with my siblings no longer aroused my interest. I had replaced them with post-punk music, girls, and cheap cigarettes. The big acacia was still a valued shelter from the sun—and from everything else—during those photophobic days. Wrapped in black clothes, sitting on its roots, sweaty and miserable, I would take long drags at my ciggies, missing the recently developed bodies of girls that I didn’t even talk to in school, while Bela Lugosi died one more time in my earphones. What would have been of us young tropical vampires in the Venezuelan countryside without all those acacia trees?
When I became an immigrant, over twenty years ago, the acacia, along with the mangos, mahoganies, palms, and rubber trees, got pushed to the back of my memory, as new geographical and linguistic realities flash-flooded my brain. My senses were filled with oaks, maples, elms, birch, and other northern species I only knew from books and pictures. Then one day, on the platform of Park Street Station, in Boston, I bought a cheap copy of The Spoon River Anthology. And on the train back home I saw it once again, more beautiful and real than ever, on the epitaph of Francis Turner:
I COULD not run or play In boyhood. In manhood I could only sip the cup, Not drink— For scarlet-fever left my heart diseased. Yet I lie here Soothed by a secret none but Mary knows: There is a garden of acacia, Catalpa trees, and arbors sweet with vines— There on that afternoon in June By Mary’s side— Kissing her with my soul upon my lips It suddenly took flight.
The old acacia, blacksmith of my childhood, had returned to set the only plausible stage for a kiss that made a garden fly. It brought back the familiar in the form of English verse. It bloomed in the poem and connected to my experience, offering a safe refuge in a language that, as much as I loved and wanted to make mine, I had always perceived as a foreign and not always friendly landscape.
I was fascinated by the beauty of Guernsey Street years before I decided to make Greenpoint my home. The acacias that grew on its sidewalks displayed an unusual vertical elegance, in contrast with the horizontal, radial beauty of the acacias I had seen before. Their trunks and branches were taller than the facades of the buildings they shaded, and their tops intertwined right above the middle of the street, forming a green gothic vault: an outdoors nave that filtered the sunlight like the glasswork windows do in the nave of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
These trees, however, were not real acacias, just like St. Patrick’s Cathedral is not really a gothic cathedral. Leafsnap, the Columbia University app I use for tree identification (after all these years I am still clueless when it comes to most northern trees) tells me that these are actually black locusts, or Robin pseudoacacia. They certainly are part of the same Fabaceae family, though their smaller pods resemble curved daggers rather than scimitars, and the architecture they generate calls for a different kind of narrative, one that includes a haunted house, long shadows of faceless predators, and armies of wild children; one unwritten narrative that on certain sleepless nights coils around my head like a turban in flames.
The last acacia tree I saw was made of air. It grew on the stage of Le Poison Rouge while the band Imarhan performed its unique blend of Tuareg rock. Leaves and branches grew bigger and taller as the melodies watered the roots that feed from the fascination of the audience. That last encounter made me realize, as I wrote in another space, that the shade of the acacia, where songs and stories flow like the breeze of the Saharan night, is the only home of the nomad. It also helped me realize that the acacia, in all its many incarnations and species, has been a constant in life, one that has sheltered my imagination and prevented it from scorching under the blazing sun of reality.
Muros de piedra que se transforman en una cascada de sabuesos feroces, seres ultramundanos que surgen del asfalto como fuentes de brea humeante, árboles de largos colmillos y cintura estrecha, víctimas obedientes que le entregan las llaves del carro a sus captores y se entregan mansamente a sus designios, adolescentes que desfallecen en la pista de baile con espuma en la boca. Detrás de cada una de estas imágenes cuelga una flor como esta.
Una flor, cualquier flor, es una invitación. Según los diccionarios etimológicos que encuentro en línea, invitación, voluptuosidad y voluntad comparten una misma raíz de origen indoeuropeo, la misma raíz que ancla al arbusto mágico en la memoria colectiva. Lo cierto es que el perfume viscoso de estas campanas carnosas empapa jardines enteros, y a su invitación responden abejorros, mariposas y, sobre todo, varias especies de polillas que despiertan al ocaso para chupar su nectar y facilitar la polinización.
Para los humanos —con nuestro rimbombante título de conciencia del universo, pensamiento de la naturaleza— el repicar silencioso y descarado de estas vulvas perfumadas es sobretodo una advertencia. Las campanas anuncian un relato, a veces doblan como heraldos del júbilo, pero también repican advirtiendo el peligro, y siempre señalan un punto de encuentro —como los árboles— entre dos dimensiones: cielo y tierra, sea cual sea la interpretación que se le dé a esta dicotomía.
Los relatos detrás de la campanita están sembrados de horrores: con suerte son un paseo terrorífico por los pasillos de la locura o un atisbo traumático a la muerte, sin ella, un viaje a la locura o la muerte sin pasaje de vuelta. Pero como sucede con tantas plantas sagradas, sus aplicaciones medicinales son variadas e importantísimas. La información está ahí: no hace falta que transcriba lo que cualquier interesado puede encontrar en Wikipedia. ¿Alguna vez tomaste una pastilla contra el mareo? Detrás de su ingrediente activo también florece un arbusto de campanitas.
Los cuentos, como las plantas, florecían por doquier en Caracas. Sin embargo, no fue sino hasta visitar esta casa en Asturias, hace ya más de ocho años, en las montañas del concejo de Pravia, que vi una de estas plantas de carne y leña. En las noches despejadas de luna llena sus flores parecían de plata y su aroma arropaba a toda la aldea. En noches como esa, yo encontraba en su olor embriagante la causa de los aullidos y los ladridos de los perros. Pero ni siquiera la luna era culpable: los jabalíes, los melandros y las raposas que yo no podía oler eran la causa del revuelo.
Lo que más me impresiona de esta planta es su tasa de reproducción. Pura pornografía vegetal. Orgía de pétalos y alas. La flores nacen, crecen y se marchitan a un ritmo perceptible. Los pistilos marchitos cuelgan como penes flácidos de los pedúnculos junto a retoños que apenas asoman sus pétalos. Una alfombra de pétalos podridos se extiende a los pies del arbusto, aunque quizá debería decir arbolito: este de las fotos tiene casi tres metros de altura. Y, quién lo duda, es el rey de este huerto. No del huerto contiguo, donde crece un tejo centenario. Pero de ese rey hablaremos otro día.