All posts by Eimile

  • Dementia


    Art by Peter Roman

    Annie studies her reflection in the door of Schaeffer’s Gourmet Foods. Her hair is tidy, washed and set. Costume studs sparkle on her earlobes. A department store choker masks the crepey folds at her throat. She mourns her South Sea cultured pearls—three perfect strands with a clasp of round-cut diamonds, consigned to the bottom drawer of her jewelry chest, right below her Birkin bag.  At least the Novacheck tote on her shoulder matches her Burberry double-breasted trench coat. Even though it is eighty degrees and sunny, Annie checks her pocket for her fold-up plastic headscarf. It is one of the things she will forget when she cannot remember: To come in out of the rain.

    Annie lifts her chin and pushes through the door. The haughty teenage clerks exchange a glance and roll their shadowed eyes.

    “Crazy Annie,” they whisper, cracking their pale pink bubble gum.

    Annie marches past them, heartened by the whisper of the index cards pinned to the lining of her coat. Yellow cards, on the left side, record names and addresses—her own, of course; her bank and her attorney; her hairdresser and internist; even Trixie’s vet. The right side is more complex, the cards multihued: Blue is for warnings: Look before you cross the street and Don’t eat foods with nuts. Green cards remind her to Tip the doorman when he calls a cab and Take dry cleaning on Wednesday (senior discount). The pink card makes Annie’s eyes mist and she swallows hard. Find Trixie a good home, it says Now, however, she must focus on the task at hand.

    Years ago, when Annie hosted formal dinners in the big house on Cherokee Road, this store was called Roy’s Meats. Roy, Sr. kept her in crown roasts and chateaubriand — his glace de veau was superb, his pâté campagne the best she’d tasted since the commune in Gimont — but when he died of liver cancer in 1987, his eldest son inherited the store. Roy Jr. has enlarged it and enhanced it with an artisan cheese aisle and a website. The bright blue awnings and checkered aprons are gone, but the refrigerated cases still hold tender filets, standing rib roasts, and bacon-wrapped pork loin. And Annie’s name—Mrs. Gerald Oscar Phillips—still commands Young Roy’s respect if not his affection.

    Annie spies him where he lurks among the frisée and artichokes, arranging the bell peppers, bottoms up, pretending he does not see her. She bears down on him like a ship under sail, prepared to grill him: Are the lamb chops lean? Is the chicken free range? Have the greens been triple-washed and wrapped in Earth Friendly paper towels inside perforated plastic bags? Roy loathes her, but how else can she be sure that he will know what she expects, when she no longer does?

    Roy’s daughter, the bottle-blonde in the too-tight shirt, has followed Annie to the back of the store as though she might pilfer a jar of chutney or a can of peas. The girl wears a ring in her navel above hip-hugger, bell-bottomed jeans. She snickered last week when Annie asked for French fries when she meant French roast. Pausing by the dairy case, Annie fishes a card from her pocket and writes with the Waterman pen she has kept in her purse for forty years, Next time, shop at Whole Foods, but she won’t. It’s too late.

    Annie has seen her internist at ten a.m. on the third Tuesday of every July since 1996, when the Olympics snarled Atlanta traffic. Annie was late, her blood pressure sky high. While Dr. Ginsburg waited for it to settle, he prattled on about his family: Son Matt, pre-med at Duke, and daughter Beth, a summa cum laude Doctor of Economics at Emory, who had joined a think tank in Switzerland. She lives in London, married to a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician named Hobbes. They have a daughter, Elise.

    Annie remembers all this, yet last month Ginsburg’s office called at a quarter past ten to ask where she was. Annie, who had managed Gerry’s international travel, three children’s schedules, and a host of volunteer activities, had never missed an appointment in her life. But then, neither did Annie’s mother until she was seventy-three. And so, over Earl Grey tea each morning at eight o’clock, Annie lays out her day in a cramped and slanted script, on monogrammed note pads from the stationer she and Gerry had used for dinner-party invitations. Places to go, people to see, things she must do.

    She signs Schaeffer’s tab and requests delivery at four o’clock. Then, alone on the sidewalk, she opens her coat. After Shop for groceries she must Pick up Trixie from the groomer, Buy stamps at the post office, and Have a light lunch of leftover tuna salad on a slice of whole wheat bread with half a navel orange. After a Nap at two for thirty minutes—not every day, just Thursdays because the grocery is a mile from her home and unless it is raining, she walks—she will Do the yoga tape by Susan Winter Ward. That will leave time to dress, comb her hair, and apply fresh lipstick before Eric delivers her groceries.

    Eric is a lad of eighteen, a blond body-builder who reminds her of Richard, a lover she took when she was forty and he was twenty-six. Richard had the bluest eyes, the softest hands— and an ego so fragile it cracked like an egg without her daily tributes to his biceps, his buttocks, his…well, never mind. One day he rolled over and propped himself on one elbow. Staring at her rudely, he said, “When I am thirty-six and in my prime, you will be fifty and wrinkled like a prune.”  She was tired of him anyway.

    While Annie waits for Eric, she sips spring water and nibbles on shortbread with bits of orange peel, listening to the stereo installed by her grandson, an engineering student at MIT. It pleases her to be high-tech, although the system with its sleek cherry speakers— four in the great room, others concealed in the walls of her bedroom and kitchen—cost a small fortune. There is a CD player, an amp, a subwoofer, and a DVD player. Her Sirius subscription allows access to two hundred music channels from satellites orbiting thousands of miles above the northern hemisphere. She likes Classical Voices and Symphony Hall, and sometimes Pure Jazz. Idly she searches the listening guide for a program to fill her newly free Friday afternoons.

    “You’re quitting bridge?” Nedda had cried. “Mother, you’ve played for forty years.”

    “Forty-two,” Annie corrected her.

    Yes, it’s sad, but it can’t be helped. Detailed notes could remind her to take a cab at one p.m. to the Ritz Carlton where they serve crisp lavender cookies; that the redhead with the penciled-on eyebrows is Nancy, the upswept blonde is Lenore, and the blue-haired troll is her partner, Eileen, but Annie cannot scribe a hand of bridge on index cards.

    Their club began the year Nedda started high school with Eileen’s son, Jeffrey. Nedda and Jeffrey married in 1981. Their only daughter, Reneé married a Chicago obstetrician; they have three pre-teen children— Robert, the eldest, and twins Katie and Chester. Like Nedda, and then Reneé, they will attend private academies, their tuition paid by Gerry’s estate.

    “Will you still come for September?” Nedda asked.

    It has been Annie’s custom to visit Sausalito each fall for a month or two, but she answered, “Not this year.”

    “We’ll miss your birthday,” Nedda protested. “You can’t celebrate it alone.”

    But Annie is not lonely, and at this stage in her life, a distant family is best. Her loved ones won’t detect her burgeoning senility as long as Carter, her attorney, doles out shares of stock for birthdays and generous checks at Christmas. Like Goldman, her banker, Carter is on retainer, with named successors in case either man predeceases her. Both are under fifty, but Carter smokes and Goldman drinks too much.

    Tired of the music, Annie switches on a PBS program about the world’s worst dictators. That category should have ended with Hitler and Mussolini. Unfortunately, others—Omar al-Bashir and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—have risen up to replace them. She will not write their names on an index card. A few things she is happy to forget.

    Annie’s conscience prickles as it did the day before, when, in a sweep of her apartment, she discovered her first scrapbook in the back of her sweater drawer. Among the snapshots of slick-haired boys and full-skirted girls leaning against shiny Chevrolets and Buicks, one photograph stood out: A wide-eyed child in a sea of adults laughing and smoking on ornate sofas. At six, Annie had accompanied her mother to Paris to bring home Auntie Jean, her mother’s wayward twin. There Annie had met Gertrude Stein.

    Annie does not remember the visit, only the story told to her at age sixteen when her mother gave her the photo to distract her from the war. Annie had immersed herself in Stein and her mentor, William James. Later she devoured Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the Lost Generation, vowing that one day she would have her own 27 rue de Fleurs—though perhaps not a lesbian partner—where she would shelter outcast dignitaries and blackballed artists.

    As it always does, life intervened: college, marriage, divorce, and enough lovers to make her blush. Then a second husband and step-motherhood to Nedda, age eight, postponed Annie’s activism. The dry spell lasted until Nedda was twelve and felt called to protest Vietnam. Gerry forbade it—the poor man was a Republican—but Annie took Nedda anyway. On a clear day, in biting wind, they marched along Pennsylvania Avenue toward Capitol Hill, chanting, “One, two, three, four, Tricky Dick, stop the war.”

    So much has happened in Annie’s lifetime. Men walked on the moon, others fought for civil rights. The Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came down, and so did the towers. Meanwhile, Annie joined the hospital guild and the Junior League. She baked cupcakes for the Girl Scouts, led the PTA, and walked for Breast Cancer, three years in a row. She chaired benefits for children, native Americans, and hemophiliacs, always meaning to do more. And now this.

    When the calendar in her head began to fail, Annie bought a daily planner, leather-bound and tidy, but soon she grasped the frightening truth: Dates and events can be coached and cued; an entire life cannot. Now, like feathers on a giant parrot, like scales on a rainbow trout, Post-Its cover every surface in her apartment. Notes on her bathroom mirror tell her to Take valium when anxious and Shower daily with Caswell Massey oatmeal soap. On the wall behind Annie’s bed: Your sheets are di Firenze, 800-thread count. You can’t abide satin. Don’t read in bed. On top of the baby grand: You prefer Rachmaninoff to Mahler, Chopin to Debussy. On the refrigerator door: Eat three prunes at breakfast. Turn off the stove. Drink decaf after three p.m.

    At four, the doorbell rings. Eric puts away her groceries, pretending not to notice the dust—she has fired the cleaning lady who dared to remark on the “foolish clutter.” Annie’s “foolish clutter” is a priceless guarantee that, when her sensibilities are gone, she will still be who she is. She will not live out her days in a Florida trailer park, watching Jerry Springer and Survivor, eating Lean Cuisine and Double-Stuff Oreos, wearing zip-front polyester tracksuits and Keds with holes in the toes, voting for Jeb Bush. (You are a Democrat. You are pro-choice. But you will NEVER vote for Hillary Clinton for President. Unless Hillary runs against Jeb Bush. God forbid.)

    Annie tips Eric handsomely for his discretion and when he is gone, she prepares her dinner: Broil lamb chops, six minutes each side. Microwave broccoli, five minutes on high. And of course, Feed Trixie, although it would be hard to forget since Trixie is dancing the Macarena at her feet. The day is warm enough Annie serves their dinners on her rooftop terrace, where the view to downtown lifts her spirits. Crazy Annie indeed! Her three-bedroom penthouse is bright and airy. The large rooms brim with Regency antiques, Persian rugs, crystal chandeliers, and gilt sconces left over from the big house. The kitchen is gourmet, the bathrooms tiled in marble.

    Yet Annie’s rich and varied life has been streamlined and abridged. Her breakfast is the same each day, a soft-boiled egg and a slice of toast. Lunch and dinner vary, but repeat—today she is having lamb chops because it is Thursday. Once a fashion junkie, she clothes herself in lounging pajamas and St. John suits, always in the same order—the crimson tweed, then the navy blue knit with cream piping, followed by the lime shantung and a classic herringbone in brown wool—each stored with matching shoes, scarves, and purses.

    Annie has canceled her series at the opera and the symphony, along with her membership at the High Museum. She has culled her magazine and newspaper subscriptions to a favorite few: the Times, Vanity Fair, and Southern Living. All that remains is to sort out the personal keepsakes she cannot bear to part with but cannot leave behind. There are cards and letters she has collected, boxes stuffed with photographs, and treasured mementos like the faded fuchsia blossom that marks the balcony scene in her college Shakespeare text. It takes her back to the second-floor apartment in Philadelphia where she fled after she broke up with Liam, the activist poet. Her downstairs neighbor’s son—Chad, was it? Christopher? Craig?—pinched the bloom from a hanging plant. For three days, they were in love.

    Annie has saved her journals for last. There are forty-nine, begun on the urging of a psychologist friend when Annie started chemotherapy nineteen years ago. They fill an entire shelf of her bedroom bookcase—enough for a lengthy memoir. She packs the clothbound volumes in cardboard boxes and writes herself a note: Call the superintendent about incineration.

    When she has sealed the last carton with strapping tape, Annie collapses into a deep wing chair. Can it be that she is done? Her eyes sweep the room and land on a card stuck to the TV. Go to bed at 10, it says. It is 10:15 but she isn’t sleepy. She would like to watch the news. Instead, she goes into the bathroom and obeys her own instructions: Change into nightgown (top drawer of dresser). Cream face with Dior Capture. Brush teeth (in circles) with Colgate Extra Whitening—paste, not gel.

    Annie slips between the sheets and turns out the light. In the peaceful dark, her eyes drift closed. Yes, she is done. She lies there, content for a moment, and then she bolts upright. What if she goes blind? What if she has a stroke? What if there is a fire? Stop it, Annie, she scolds herself. You cannot prepare for everything that might happen. But isn’t that what she has been trying to do for the past month? Isn’t that what she has done all her life?

    Not long ago Annie would have said she had no regrets. Now she regrets everything: That she ever cared what people thought of her; that she made her choices based on other people’s needs; that she didn’t stay in graduate school, get her Ph.D. and work for world peace; that she didn’t believe she could make a difference and now it’s too late. What Annie regrets most is being afraid—of failing, or looking silly, or doing the wrong thing. And here she is, a slave to fear again.

    Annie sighs and flips on the lamp, climbs out of bed, and pulls on her robe. With the scissors on the bookshelf, she slits the tape on the carton she just packed. She pulls out a red-suede journal from 1997 and opens to a bookmarked page. The words astound her; they are lush and magical, deep and brooding, rich and joyful. Annie reads and reads, and finally she understands: If her memories fade like the pigment in her hair, these books will remind her who she is.

    A pen and a stack of cards lie on the nightstand. Annie starts to write.

    Call Nedda about flights to San Francisco. Get Glenda in to clean. Renew the opera series (Tosca, at least, and Porgy and Bess). Rejoin bridge club. Buy a laptop computer. Start my memoir.

    She giggles softly and writes one more line. Next time, shop at Whole Foods. 

  • Dark Room

    “Honestly, I don’t think he was enjoying living in this world.” 

    Bård Eithun of Emperor


    I read some newspaper article that said the Devil made me do it. The journalist didn’t ask me, though. He was afraid. Everyone’s afraid, and they’re right to be. I am not locked away, not like they think I am. My spirit is free and it is hungry.

    This all started with the church burning. I have been unable to tell this story because it is so intimate, it is like me telling you how my face looks when it twists in orgasm or how it feels to cut my veins open, hard, and watch the contents spill. I have to tell it now, though; the journalist—Erick Per Blumberg, something like that—he got it all wrong.

    The fire burned, first, and it was beautiful. Deep blues bleeding into oranges.  But isn’t that how everything starts? A moment of beauty consumed by raging, uncontrolled fire. It was such a strange church to begin with, tucked away on a wooded hillside, the roof such a deep triangular “V” that it went all the way down to the ground. It looked like the middle little pig’s stick house. It was ready to burn. It had been ready since some naïve fool built it back in the 12th century. I didn’t do anything that wasn’t waiting to be done.

    Most arsonists, they crouch behind a bush. They watch, but they don’t want to get caught, you know? I’ve never cared to get caught. That’s fine with me. I stood in front of the fucker and watched every moment, close enough to feel the ash sizzle and pop on my forearm like grease from bacon. Small red spots bloomed, and I breathed the smoke in deep so that my lungs would hurt and swell. I wanted this moment to become a part of me. I turned around, felt the warmth on my back. Bergen is such a strange town: coastal, so the salt and breeze filters in. You’d think the weather would be awful in northern Norway, but there’s a strange force field around the town: something prevents it from ever getting too hot or too cold. I looked out over the green treetops, saw the coast lined with cars and shops and houses, and I spit. By the time I turned back to the fire, it had erupted. Flames were shooting out into the trees, jumping from flammable surface to flammable surface. One flame caught my cheek, burned it pretty badly. I did not cry or even really feel it. I was sad, but it was time to walk away.

    How did that fire lead to this, you should have asked, Erik Blumberg—you should have asked me about the fire. I would tell you. I would tell you that it was about defending my own religion, about taking back the land that was given to the gods more years ago than you can even fathom. But nothing would have happened without that fire.

    The day after the church burned, I went back to the site and took pictures, black and white ones. I knew I would need them for something. Then I went back home to Oslo, went to Helvete, our record store, the one that sold our albums. “Simen,” I said to the kid behind the counter. His face was heavy with piercings and his hair was spiked with deep purple and black glue of some kind. “What do you have in for me?”

    “I don’t know, man. Nothing you don’t already have. Fucking slow week,” he said. He was reading an alt-weekly, sitting on a battered barstool that had, at one point, been attacked by spray paint. Everything in the store looked that way—except almost all of the store was in black spray paint. The chair was red, with big drips of red paint that had run and then dried that way. “You got the new Emperor record?”

    “Sure,” I said. “Sure.”

    “You’re a wreck,” he said, looking up from his magazine for the first time. “What happened to your face?”

    “Burned it.”

    He laughed. “Oh, no. Dude! You didn’t burn that fuckin’ church down, did you? In Bergen?”

    I smiled. He knew. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

    “You need to get that looked at. Hang on, my girlfriend, she can help. She’s good at cleaning up wounds. Star?” he yelled, and she popped up from the basement. I always thought her name was so stupid: she had been named Astra, but had gone with an American name. Everyone’s so quick to lose their homeland these days.

    Her pale belly stuck out in a few rolls underneath her t-shirt, and she wore a long plaid skirt covered in safety pins and chains. Her arms were covered in small white scars and a few bigger white scars. Even more sparsely were pink cuts, light ones that seemed recent. I would not say anything to Astra about this: we all had this problem at the time. It would be like if I got drunk and went to teach at a rehab, telling the drunks to quit.

    “Oh,” she tsk-ed at me. “Oh no, Kristian. You are hurt, I can tell.”

    She was such a cow. She never said anything interesting. I am only remembering now in the re-telling how annoying I found her.

    “It will be fine,” I said, but she touched me, insisted that she could fix it. How do you fix burned flesh? She didn’t know.

    “How will you go onstage tonight?”

    “The same way I always do.”

    “And your makeup?”

    Finally she was helpful. I hadn’t thought of that.

    “Is Jon around?” I asked. “I need to figure that out.”

    “Hey, asshole,” he yelled from downstairs. “I’m here, like always. Where else would I be?”

    Going down the stairs at Helvete was always an experience in and of itself. There was not great lighting, and there seemed to always be spiders ready to surprise you in the dark from the handrail. Cobwebs dusted the ceiling, and the paint, the constant smell and visual of the matte black paint.

    “Tykje,” Jon said when he saw my face. I knew he was just cursing, but I couldn’t help but tease.

    “Did you call me the Devil?”

    “Do you name the Devil to his face?” Jon laughed. “Perhaps that is a good nickname for you. We have been having the hardest time coming up with your name.”

    Jon was Skull. Of course, Erick, you would know that. You must have viewed it on Google or something before you wrote that article. Simen, our drummer, was Bonelick, and I was, at least for a while, Snaketongue. Everyone was always so surprised it was just the three of us, just bass, guitar, and drums, but we were very loud, and we knew how to make those sounds multiply together. I cannot take all the credit: as the guitarist, Jon was key. He played open, loud chords instead of the power chords the other metal bands worshipped. All of the strings vibrating together in dissonance while Simen and I played hard and fast.

    “I like that,” I said. “Devil.” The word felt good in my mouth. I thought about that church, burning to the ground with me as the only witness.


    I am feeling bad. The church burned almost like that. But maybe the flame didn’t leap off the building and randomly attach to my cheek. Maybe I walked so close to the building that I couldn’t avoid it. Maybe I stuck my face in the flames and held it there until it finally hurt.


    I did not do these things because I am evil. Honest, Jon was my friend, and I loved him. I loved Simen, too. But even now, when I say those words, I get a picture in my mind of some things that we never did: a hug we never shared, a laugh that never happened. We did not spend our time well, I guess. That might be my only regret. Everything else had to happen.

    One night after I’d started calling myself Devil, I had a dream where the real Devil came and spoke to me. He said, “If you are to use my name, you must do it right. You must understand that it’s a great responsibility.” We were in a field—no, a forest. And he held my hand to the cool ground, which felt like it was just barely hovering over the water. But all of the sudden, it was as if the water started to boil, and my hand started to boil, but instead of burning, I grew taller and taller. My chest puffed up and my hair grew long and I was a god.

    “I won’t let you down,” I said, and he slapped me across the face.

    “You are not beholden to anyone now. Do not let others sway you with their pride or anger.”

    Of course I woke up, and of course I felt good about it. It was a good dream. It was, in a way, freedom from all of the things that scared me.

    The night after the fire, I did go onstage, and I did play in full makeup. It hurt to put corpse paint, thick, sticky pancake stuff, over open weeping sores, but I knew that once I hit the stage it wouldn’t matter. (That was another thing you got wrong, Erick Blumburg: it was nothing like KISS or Alice Cooper. We wore our makeup to look like decomposed bodies. It was not the same). Jon kept patting the makeup on, sometimes gently, sometimes less so, and saying, “I am so jealous of you. This looks so hardcore.”

    That night was one of our last shows. It was the last one I remember. I wish you had asked me about this. It is important to know what the people who were actually there remember, and not the way historians and journalists look at it. I remember the show in Oslo, for a home crowd. I remember everyone in unison, screaming and moshing and throwing things. There was a blind fury that night. At one point, a small group of boys in the front row started screaming, “Skull, Skull, Skull” so loudly that it is like I can still hear their voices echo. And I was proud of him, honest. I was shocked to see that people were finally appreciating his genius, our art.

    Erick, you seemed to think the lyrics in our songs meant something, but they didn’t. It was noise to fill the void between guitar solos. We said whatever sounded the meanest. It was the only thing that seemed to make the kids feel better, to scream something mean and heartless at the top of their lungs. They seemed cauterized by that. They were almost able to cut their pain and suffering off like a bad limb and leave it on the floor of the concert. You seemed to think that we were worshipping Satan, but we were really just worshipping the music. I remember Jon, after a particularly nasty solo, smashing a bottle of whisky on the ground, using it to cut through his guitar strings, and then cutting his own tongue with the broken glass. His tongue. But that was the man Jon was. Perhaps crazier, he got another guitar and finished the show, spitting blood the whole time. My face didn’t look so gruesome then.


    Sometimes I wonder if the Devil was a dream. Is it possible that he had that whole conversation with me in my apartment? He is the Devil. I suppose he can do anything he wants. Of course, I am a believer in Norse history and Norse gods. I don’t recognize one evil being, soaking up all the evil in the world and spitting it back to the deserving. The world is a much more terrifying place than that. If the Devil had made me do the things I did, wouldn’t he have had me hurt sinners? Or maybe he wouldn’t. I do not know. I am not a scholar.


    I have heard that the night Jon died, someone had thrown a goat’s head up on the stage. I was on the other side of the stage and didn’t see it, but I was assured it was a real one: a goat that had been alive and was killed for the sole purpose of throwing its head onstage. Back in those days, I was numb to things like that, but now I do see that is pushing the boundaries of good taste. It seems ridiculous that we garnered that kind of frenzy. It was nothing like what would come after my arrest, after everyone else was dead. Then we would really be famous.

    According to Simen—who was the only person there, but certainly can’t be trusted to tell the truth on this matter—when he got to Helvete after the show, Jon was already dead, his head blown off and the gun still warm in his hand. He hadn’t left a note (at least not one that we could read: everything in the basement was covered in blood). The wall, however, was so dark and so painted, his blood barely showed up as anything more than a red sheen: barely visible in the dim basement. I do not know what happened next, but when I showed up after the long, painful task of removing my makeup—the wounds, remember, had not healed yet—there Simen was, over Jon with a camera. He had the flash on, I remember, because when it went off, it illuminated the whole scene. The blood was a different color than I thought it would be; like corn syrup with red dye in it. So bright. Everywhere.

    “What the fuck,” I remember saying. Did I cry? That’s a question for you, Erick. I bet you wonder if I cried.

    And I ran to Jon and I cradled his head in my hands, and I said, “Simen, what did you do? Why did you do this?”

    He looked confused. “I didn’t,” he said. “He did this himself. He always said he would. We knew this was going to happen.”

    “Why are you taking pictures?” I asked. I was kneeling on the cold unfinished concrete floor, my knees on fire from the hardness of it.

    “It seems like the smart thing to do,” he said. “I know you took pictures of the church. I saw them. I know you did.”

    I can’t remember exactly what we said, but if I could rewrite the conversation, these are the things we would have covered: what happened, why the pictures. I think at some point Simen was crying. I was so angry, I couldn’t care.

    “Why would he do this?” I asked over and over again.

    “It will make for a story, though,” said Simen.

    I didn’t let him finish explaining. I could have shot him, true: Jon’s gun was right there. It would have been easy. But I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I hit him in the face, over and over, until he was unrecognizable. I hit him until he didn’t look human.


    Or maybe it happened the other way around. Maybe I saw Jon dead on the sofa, head tipped back and dangling behind the couch. Maybe I was the one who, anesthetized by all the death and darkness, moved the hair out of his face and positioned him for the picture. Maybe I thought it would go with the church pictures. It’s possible, I guess, that I ran my fingers on the upside-down cross tattooed between his ribs, and perhaps then the whole thing hit me. When Simen walked in on me, he could have attacked me, and I killed him in self-defense. It’s hard to know exactly what happened. I am sure Erick, you have an opinion on this, and maybe you could write the definitive story. I am still so unsure.


    I know my memories of Jon are tinged by what we learned after his death: that he had actually slept in a coffin at night, that he had been diagnosed by a psychiatrist as actually believing himself to be dead. My memories of Simen are less specific: I remember his girlfriend, Astra, weeping inconsolably at my trial, almost as if she thought it were still the funeral. Everyone had moved on to the next thing: the sentencing. She was still stuck on the dying.

    I don’t write this to make myself look better. I know that these things will never look right to most people. But I need to be understood: if I had not been still taking off my makeup, if I had never been burned in the fire, I would have not allowed Jon to die that way. I wouldn’t have had to hit Simen.

    And maybe—if you had asked—I would have told you that I hated myself for taking pictures of that rotted church, empty and flaked with ash. I would have let it stay there, forever, like it was. There are things, I’ve learned, that cannot be captured. No matter how much you think you’ve got them in the frame, in a manageable way, there is always something lurking outside the borders, sneaking and evil. Perhaps that is like me.



  • Pulposito

    Art by Peter Roman

    Art by Peter Roman

    I had not come to Mexico to mop floors. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing in Mexico —I didn’t speak a lick of Spanish—but I knew it wasn’t this. The youth hostel in San Miguel de Allende required each person staying there to contribute to the daily chores, and since I was the most recent arrival I had the unenviable task of cleaning underfoot—as opposed, say, to watering the plants or folding sheets.

    Emily had been staying at the hostel for three months already. If she had a chore assigned to her, I never saw her do it. Emily and I quickly discovered that we were only a year apart in age, from towns in Massachusetts 30 minutes apart, and we both listened to Phish and Ani Difranco. She was looking for an apartment with three other people from the hostel but had recently seen a place that would be perfect for two, for us. So she ditched her other friends and we went to talk to the landlady. After my third night in the hostel, Emily and I moved into the first place I had ever called my own. I was 18, had just graduated from high school and deferred from college for a semester so I could travel. I wanted to leave the country; Mexico was what I could afford. Emily had just deferred for her third semester; she couldn’t seem to leave Mexico behind.

    The furnished one-bedroom, second-floor apartment sat adjacent to the landlady’s roof, a peach terra cotta surface that looked south to the spires of La Parroquia, the Gothic church in the center of town. Inside we had a small bathroom with rust brown tiles that seemed to attract large red spiders; a kitchen, in which we cooked noodles in tomato sauce sweetened with sugar and stocked the fridge with nothing but Negro Medelo beer; and a bedroom with two single beds separated by a small table. The blankets on the beds were thin and, as October progressed, proved to be entirely inadequate. Instead of buying more blankets down the street at the market, we simply layered on more clothes, drank more, and shivered through the pre-dawn hours.

    In the mornings, I checked my shoes for scorpions before slipping them on and walking up and down the cobblestoned hills, past El Jardin, to the art institute where I took classes in ceramics, photography, and Spanish. For lunch I ate burrito gigantes slathered in guacamole and sour cream, stuffed with refried beans and rice. Despite all the hills and the fact that I walked everywhere, I gained ten pounds in two months. In the evenings I met Emily at home for dinner and a few beers before heading out to Mama Mia’s, our favorite bar.

    Emily had a lopsided smile that showed her crooked teeth and made her eyes pull down on the sides. She remained pale after months in the intense Mexican sun. Her favorite outfit was a pair of blue hospital scrub pants and an orange T-shirt with a clown’s face on it, which I had bought at the dollar-a-pound thrift store back home. (My daily attire was not so dissimilar: a pair of black-and-white checked chef’s pants and a 1986 Chilmark Road Race T-shirt I had stolen from my friend who had actually run in that race when she was eight-years-old.) Emily’s hair was a nest of dreadlocks—a persistent, but pleasant, oddity to most of the Mexican men around town. She wore headphones whenever she walked to class or the store to drown out the their catcalls. “Chica!” they hollered, but she would not respond unless it was to occasionally yell, “I’m not blonde!” She told me once that technically “chica” referred to a blonde white woman; I was never sure if this was true. Emily had studied Spanish for four years in high school before moving to San Miguel. I had studied German for four years in high school. I trusted Emily in all things.

    The Mexican men were not the only ones charmed by Emily. She knew all the expatriates in town, including a 14-year-old runaway who had renamed herself Star and lived in a stone hovel for $50 per month, the house full of Americans who owned a television and VCR, the guy who knew the guy who could take you out into the desert to find peyote, and the people who lived in the apartment once visited by Neal Cassady—we stopped by to see his writing preserved for fifty years on the wall. At Mama Mia’s she associated with a mix of Americans and locals, dancing to salsa music and accepting free drinks from strange men. I tagged along, sipping at all the extra sangrias and margaritas that piled up on our table. Often I went home alone, stopping on my way through El Jardin to buy Mambas, those brightly-colored chewy candies of my childhood, from a street vendor.

    No matter how late we stayed out, I never skipped school. Emily took classes elsewhere, but soon she started dating a guy named Paco, who owned a local nightclub. She loved saying his name. “I didn’t know people in Mexico were actually named that,” she’d say and then repeat his name to herself again and laugh. Emily’s school schedule was less full than mine, especially when she stopped attending class altogether to hang out with her new boyfriend. At Paco’s club she began doing cocaine and staying out all night. She tried to set me up with Paco’s friend, Turtle, but I wasn’t interested.

    My Spanish tutor, Carlos, told me the best way to learn the language was to go to the bars at night, get drunk, and converse with the locals. I did. In the bar, after a few beers, I was fluent in Spanish. The next day it all disappeared.

    I hadn’t seen much of Emily in a few days when she came home one afternoon with a bunny so small it fit in the palm of my hand.

    “What are we going to do with it?” I asked. It was gray with black eyes and resembled a field mouse.

    “The boys selling it on the street probably weren’t over 10-years-old,” Emily said. “If I hadn’t bought it, they would have killed it.”

    “How old is it?” I asked. It ran up the sleeve of my shirt and tickled my neck.

    “We got the runt of the litter.”

    “But how old is it? A day? Two?”

    I pulled the rabbit out but it quickly found its way under my T-shirt again.

    “I couldn’t let him die,” Emily said.

    We named it Pulposito, or “tiny octopus,” because it seemed to be everywhere at once.

    That night we both stayed home trying to devise a way to keep Pulposito warm. A box lined with socks did not seem to do the trick. It was early November and the nights had grown cold. If we couldn’t stay warm with our inadequate blankets, how could a tiny bunny be expected to keep warm without help? Emily cradled him against her body in bed and fell asleep that way, even though I was afraid she would crush him.

    A few hours later, she woke me. “He’s shivering,” she said. “I rolled over and left him uncovered. What should we do?”

    “Let me take him for a little while.” I tucked him against my neck and lay still for hours, until the chickens began to make noises in the street below and cars, most of them ancient VW beetles, began to rumble by, and the light behind the thin curtain turned from orange to yellow.

    I went to class.

    When I came home, Pulposito was shivering again. I took him out of his box and cradled him in my cold inadequate hands. Emily showed up a few minutes later with a dozen beers.

    “You left him? You should have waited for me,” I said.

    “I had class,” she said. I couldn’t remember the last time she went to class.

    We held Pulposito and stroked his soft, downy fur. His thin ears remained pinned against his head. He ignored the eyedropper of milk we forced between his lips. He sat in our hands instead of running up our sleeves. The shivering continued long into the night, as we sat at the table playing cards and drinking beers, taking turns holding him. Later Emily snuggled with him in her bed across from me and we fell asleep.

    At 4:00 AM I woke up and discovered Pulposito in his box, dead, on the kitchen table. We had a narrow balcony off of our kitchen and I sat out there with my knees pressed to my chest, my feet propped on the wrought-iron railing, until the sun came up, until the store downstairs and across the street opened, the same store where we bought Frosted Flakes—“Zucaritas”—and huevos and leche. The owner stood in his doorway waiting for customers. He looked up at me and smiled, the same smile he always gave me when he was unable to understand my accent. “Huevos.” It seemed like such a simple word until there was nothing to point to, no way of showing him what I meant.

    Eventually Emily woke and plodded into the kitchen. I watched her prod the dead rabbit with her finger.

    “He’s dead,” she said.

    “I thought you knew.”

    She stared at Pulposito. Behind me the sun filtered through the television antennas and laundry lines that littered the roofs of buildings across the city.

    “I thought it was just a dream,” Emily said.

    That night Emily resumed her schedule with Paco. Those Americans, the ones with the TV and VCR, they had taken one of Pulposito’s siblings. Emily saw them that night, ran into them in the street. The next afternoon, after I had returned from the Institute and Emily had woken up and come home to shower, she told me: a hot water bottle. That’s how to keep a baby rabbit warm. Those other Americans had called a vet.

    Just before Thanksgiving, Emily returned to the United States. I was supposed to stay through Christmas, but I changed my flight to leave in early December. As soon as Emily left, San Miguel lost its charm. No more free drinks at Mama Mia’s, far fewer salsa partners. I’d run up a massive phone bill calling various friends in the United States, calling anyone I could think of just to chat. It was 1996 and I didn’t have an email account yet. For the first time in my life I was out of shape, friendless, broke, and homesick. I hated to admit I couldn’t make it on my own, so I persevered for a few weeks. I attended an ex-pat Thanksgiving with a mariachi band. I watched a guy I’d met at salsa dancing lessons—disturbingly—gore a bull as an aspiring matador at a bullfight on the outskirts of town. I drank beers and played cards with a girl named Anne-Laure from the same town as Emily. Then, finally, I packed it in and flew home.

    Almost immediately, my brother forced me on a few runs with him. Soon I was running and skiing regularly. Vegetables re-entered my diet. I got a job tutoring a family friend’s kid. Then, miraculously, I fell in love for the first time.

    A few months later, in February, I started college in Vermont. Emily was supposed to start college then, too, at a small school in Arizona, but she deferred for yet another semester, and moved back to Mexico to be with Paco. We exchanged letters for a few months and then we lost touch.

    Somehow I doubt she ever made it to college. I graduated, got a job, got married, had kids.

    I google her name every once in a while, but I have found no trace of Emily in fifteen years. I picture her in Mexico still with an adopted stray dog at her side as she walks the dusty cobblestone streets, always uphill. The dog wears a red bandana at its neck. When Emily reaches home, Paco waits for her, the stems of two cold beer bottles laced in his fingers. And there, too, are a couple of chickens in the yard, scorpions hidden in the toes of shoes, and a cage full of rabbits by the window—in the sun where it is warm, always.