Perfectly Bright and Perfectly Still
In our first piece of fiction, author and 'one of the fellas' Tim MacGabhann shares an exclusive extract from the third book in his critically acclaimed Mexican crime trilogy
Tim is my sweet friend. We’ve known each other since university when we both engaged in some unhealthy substance imbibing and eventually dropped out of our respective Masters (his in Dante, mine in clowning) citing emotional and mental breakdowns. We feel better now. For anyone who has read the first two books of his trilogy, Call Him Mine and How To Be Nowhere, the following extract will be quite exciting. For those of you who haven’t, and don’t follow his Joker content on Twitter, I advise you rectify both these things immediately.
Next week we’ll have some Very Good poetry from Kandace Siobhan Walker, this year’s winner of the The White Review’s Poetry Prize.
In the meantime, enjoy this 15/20 minute read, where we’re back among the calabazas with broken-down journalist Andrew. Click the three-dot truncation line bottom left at the end to finish the extract. -Roisin.
My best friend Maya is out of the journalism game.
‘The whole thing whittled me to a nub,’ she said, ‘and chucked me away.’
She’s happy enough with where she landed – out in the Ajusco, near the pine forests – but she knows too much about the place to feel fully comfortable. First time I visited, bringing her a fancy cafetière and a set of Bluetooth speakers, I told her it looked like she’d made a getaway, and she started telling me about the pipelines under the mountains, the ones put in sometime in the mid-‘90s, which are glugging away at the aquifers under the trees, and which lose – according to conservative estimates – some fourteen hundred gallons per second. And I mean, you know, the way she talks, looping back over disaster, letting information rattle through her all the time, I guess it just proves that even when you think you’re finished with journalism, it’s never quite finished with you.
‘I keep having weird dreams,’ she told me. ‘Big sinkholes opening in the pines, the topsoil and the grass and the trees sliding into the hole in one unbroken piece like a tablecloth with all the stuff on it. And the underneath, I think, is the bit that makes me shiver — just this bald, ash-grey earth. And ash-fine, too. So stark. Little stubs of trees stuck in the heaps like burnt matchsticks.’
I didn’t say anything. She usually prefers to just vent for a bit, and plus, you know, telling someone to settle, or calm down, or whatever, it’s dismissive, really, especially when I see weird shit all the time, even when I’m awake, even when it’s not there. I just kept looking out the window. It was a rainy night. The storms are worse every year. I feel like it’s the revenge of the lake, sometimes. The drainage that the Spanish began killed what was left of the old city, and now it’s killing the new one, too. Sometimes it feels like Europe is nothing but the incision through which the whole world is bleeding to death.
‘Like I think it’s haunted, you know,’ Maya said. ‘You know what happened underneath here?’ She stamped a foot on the terracotta tiles.
I shook my head, blowing steam from my mug.
‘They bulldozered a whole village. In the ‘50s. Just because.’
‘Well, I’m sure it wasn’t just because.’
She gave a twitchy shrug and said, ‘OK, so it was because they were afraid horrible housing would turn the locals communist or something.’
‘Did they get everyone out in time?’
Maya tutted, her arms folded. ‘I mean, some old people say there were these guys in black ties and suits running around the place with pistols and submachine guns making sure not everyone got out. So I don’t know, I just hear a muttering at night, or a mumbling, maybe, more like, that bass register, humming under the tiles. I feel like it’s them. The suit guys.’
‘The garden help?’ I gave a chin-jut at the soaked view through the glass, rows of beans, corn, calabaza, chile serrano, the leaves coming up in shivers of green.
‘My little sentries,’ she said. ‘They’ve got such good posture. It’s a screen of leaves, in the mornings. Yeah, you’re right. It does help. Just listening to them, the hiss.’
I do like the rainy nights, even though they’re scary omens. When it gets dark, the city hovers in the blue dark, the lights bobbing, and for a second it could be the old city on a lake. The drive here takes me, past an orange market called El Chorrito – little torrent – because of the clear water that used to foam right past where its door is now, then on over highways named after the old rivers that flowed through here, Mixcoac, Barranca del Muerto, Churubusco, Piedad. The old photos of those rivers – homed in underground tubes since the ‘50s – show molasses-black churns of tree-roots and rubbish. During the aguaceros of the summer, when you can get a foot of rain pelting down in an hour, mudslides flowed in over the place where my neighbourhood is now, and, in 1952, people had to battle through water up to their waists, or put in barricades of sandbags that went up nine or ten metres. The whole city must have smelled like a cut-open sewer. This was when the canals were pumped underground, sunk into concrete and metal tubes, and buried so deep that the rumble of their waters can’t even be felt, except in a ghost-version conjured up by all that roaring traffic. Floods still happen: when the aguaceros hit, the drains mutter and boil with a dark glar loaded with prawn-shells and dropped tortillas and crumpled bottles of Pepsi. Now and then photos surface on Twitter of Metro stations where brown water goes spilling onto a crowded rush-hour platform. Sinking the rivers hasn’t solved the problem that centuries of slash-and-burn agriculture, drainage projects, and drought have left the city sitting on a loose bed of volcanic ash and gelid river-silt, so, in quakes, my entire building wobbles like it’s been rugby-tackled, making a two-point-nine feel three times as strong. Sinkholes open, too, turning highways lunar, swallowing hedges, park-benches, people. There is a alamo tree in Iztapalapa hung all over with pink ribbons and dead bouquets where a sinkhole opened and swallowed a quesadilla stand, its owner, and her customers. This night at Maya’s, it was that kind of rain. Anything could be happening out there.
‘Anyway, you know, I don’t even feel that far out of journalism,’ she said, sitting way back in her chair at the kitchen table, her heels propped on the seat of the chair opposite. Her toes in their furry red slippers wagged back and forth. She frowned at them. ‘Some reporter from the US wanted to “pick my brain” over lunch.’
‘Weird thing to say,’ I said, sitting down across the table from her. ‘Doesn’t she know where she is?’
Maya squinted at me. ‘What?’
‘You know.’ I made a stabbing motion at the air. ‘Trotsky. Ice-pick. Coyoacán.’
‘Oh. Yeah. And the guy who killed him was pretending to want feedback on his writing, wasn’t he?’ She huffed a breath out through her nose. ‘Nah, but now I feel bad, of course, don't I. Because she tweets a lot about how she grew up poorish or whatever. Meaning it’s not like she’s even… pushy-pushy? So much as desperate.’
‘The thing you need to remember,’ I said, ‘is that she’s from the US.’ My coffee was cool enough. I took a sip. It was a lot better than I bought for myself, and, indeed, I hadn’t bought even it for myself – some Dominican blend, a gift from a Costa Rican guy I’d been seeing until he annoyed me with his happy singing and early-morning stamping around the place: too young for me, maybe, or else just not worn enough.
‘I feel like I’ve a fucking knot made of balled-up elastic bands in my stomach,’ Maya said, ‘because everybody all the time everywhere is asking someone to care about something, and most of them even deserve it.’
‘Yeah.’ I looked at the knots in the table. My pose was mirroring hers, our toes nearly touching under the table. I could feel the frown creasing my forehead. It’s been lined hard since I was about twenty-two I’d say. Now that I’m older it looks like a page where the letters have fallen off, leaving only the carves. I turned my coffee cup on its base so that the handle was parallel to the edge of the table. When Maya’s had a rough day, she reminds me of everyone I miss. It’s not like I’m not happy to be back in Mexico City again. That’s twice in my life now that I’ve arrived here under a legal cloud — the second thicker than the first, admittedly, but neither is worth getting into right now.
‘And you,’ she said, ‘now that you’re able to stay here. What do you think you’ll do?’
‘I’m going to try to have a quiet one,’ I said. After I got back here, I had to do some work for a friend of Maya’s. That work meant that I had to spend some time out of the city: I just drove around, really, like when I was reporting, except with no Carlos and no stories and nothing in my head but the numbing drone of the road under my wheels. It was almost like freedom, but it was a lot more like despair. Being back is worse, though. I’ve been reading Humboldt, and that bit when he’s adrift on the Sargasso Sea, watching a great big elliptical mess of weed like a huge cyst wobbling the surface of the water, then seeing a ship drift into view, half-eaten by sea holly, and, afterwards, finding himself transfixed by lightning with no thunder, just these flashes that light up the rain and die away, leaving an awful feeling like something terrible impending and yet also ongoing, although never finally, fully occurring with force enough to destroy everything, stagnating there in “las brisas paradas”, he quotes a crewman calling them, the stopped winds, and, you know, it’s not far off, either, that phrase, for catching the abandoned feeling I get here these days: just unmoored, afloat, without work. Foucault calls madness the absence of the work, and, well, with nothing to do, on these streets of spotty 4G coverage, one stretch after another of rust-spotted TV aerials and juts of rebar and faded shopfronts, spray-painted shutters, yellowish buildings with the whitewash and paint worn off until they look like the naturally occurring rockery of some dull coastline, all of it the same, all of it dull, all of it unchanged since forever, more or less a videogame landscape that repeats by multiplying along the same pattern, to the point where you’d nearly need to get your bearings by sextant, as on the high seas, except I couldn’t do anything by the stars, either, swallowed by counterglow, and so they all look the same, meaning I’m basically locked inside a photograph of old brown streets, the fadeout towards infinity implying nothing more than a repetition of all the ways I’ve already been down, past laundry hanging from dirty windows, windows broken to allow the flues of their little burners out, mud-spattered shopfronts, the shutters down, but also splintered, shop windows taped together, a watchmaker selling three fobs, an old alarm clock, and a grandfather clock emblazoned with a chipped coat of arms, while, across the road, where some Oaxacan anarcho-syndicalists have occupied an old palazzo, their enormous flag covering the windows of the top two floors, through ripped-off bottom half of the door, it’s possible to see ridges of mortar from where tiles had been torn up and presumably sold, and three small children, two boys and a girl, her a little older, are eating desolately from a common bowl.
‘How’re you filling the days?’ Maya said, cutting me out of the knots I was tracing and retracing with my fingertip. I can’t help zoning out that way sometimes. It’s all the acid I used to take. It really burned me down to some kind of frazzled root. You’ll see them, these black stalks sticking out of cracks in the pavement, nodding there in the glare, beside stacks of old magazines fading through the seven print-layers until they’re an empty, faded cyan. That’s me now, especially in these months where it’s parched all day and rain all night, until the walls’ lagging of posters is warped and frilled, like a wrecked book, and it’s worse on days when the light is so rich and pellucid, the streets so sun-scorched and overwhelmed with heat, that I’ll actually see trains of camels walking down the street, just like in the months Victor Serge talks about spending exiled in Kyrgyzstan, weaving in and out among the wires of the trolebus, waiting patiently for the streams of muttering and tsking commuters jostling past one another to make room for them. When I’m indoors, I’ll get hooked on a pattern and end up drifting away from actual rooms, actual talk, actual people.
‘Just trying to stay still, I guess,’ I said. I leaned forward onto my elbows, told her how I was big into Humboldt, how after all his traveling and bouncing around, Humboldt couldn’t take the stillness, so that’s what I’m trying to learn, how to take the stillness, spending days on my roof. It takes me a long way back, that pose, swaying from heel to toe and back again, lost in a flashback set off by the ticking motion of light on palm-fronds, or by heat-shimmer on the vents of the back of the Bodega Aurrera one block away, the roofs of houses turning to waves, or walking to the supermarket through knee-high dust, the street diced into hundreds upon hundreds of scalene triangles of concrete, then walking back the following day and they’ve paved it over, or driving around late in the evening, or into the night, memories breezing through my chest like rags of mist, and then I’m back home, and then I get it it, this feeling like I’m at sea, I think because I live on a rooftop after living by two different seas, perched up there on the azotea, smoking and looking at the cold broken-glass look of the stars against the black velvet of the sky, which gets far too lonely, so I go back in, hit the sack, try again in the morning, me and my coffee and my papaya, mornings, next to a mesh cage that may once have housed doves or pigeons, among the aerials, my head pillowed on the dull roar of the city, successive, uninterrupted noise-clouds like static, or smoke, undifferentiable, undistracting, almost a lull, here on this azotea with its parapet rim, a kind of open-air patio where you're visible but unnoticed, high up in things but not above them, not quite out of this world — the position of Baudelaire in his pastoral poem about the roofs that blur into ocean waves.
I've never been able to see that comparison, especially not here. Because these little boxy rooftop rooms were where the domestic worker lived, living in one has that automatic patina of bohemia, because you're not a worker but you're inhabiting one of the markers. They've been a cliché for about half a century now. Even Bolaño remarks on how much he was aping Kerouac when he'd sit on his rooftop bashing away at a keyboard on a similar enough strain of weed as made no difference. But unlike those two, Bolaño and Kerouac, I was never a weed man, unfortunately. That would have made things straightforward. Now that I’m off everything, this sort of place isn’t quite the same for me now, perhaps because I’ve already lived this way once, and there is no insulation of either novelty or substances against the thin walls and the evening chill. That’s not to say that the room itself isn’t good: I’ve made that cell into a little pod of heat and electric light, snug as an egg, on top of an orange building that’s within sight of the square where my life reached its lowest ebb, reminding me to feel as lucky as I am to be here. This is the same kind of room where I went through withdrawal, too nauseous and head-spinny to make it to the toilet in the opposite corner of the azotea, so I’d go in an empty ten-litre bottle of water. Well, origin is the goal, isn’t it, and this coming full circle back to a kitchenette, bookshelves over a foldout bed, and a ship’s-cabin feeling on rainy season nights is as neat a zero as I have ever managed to trace in my life. It’s not that I don’t like it here. I’ve put in plants, cucharilla and agave and San Pedro and órgano cactus, glass and tile mosaics on their pots, which bring hummingbirds and big yellow-black butterflies skiting low towards me. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the volcanoes, and it almost looks like the photos that brought me here to begin with. But when I wake up too late, it’s usually because I haven’t slept, so all the heat and glare leaves every nerve in my head like a leafless tree gone so dry that the next wind will snap off every twig. There is no dull static roar like before: I can pick out every sound, every camote whistle, every kid’s yelp, every trolley rattle, every battle between every dog, the blurt and wail of the police-sirens, the trumpeters, the cicadas, the clang and clatter of church-bells, peseros blaring, the tick and hiss of their air-brakes, and I have to wait out the yelled question inside me of ‘Why don’t you leave?’ by feeding the answer ‘Where else can I go?’ back to myself, all the while waiting for the rain and the wind and the sputter of hail to soften away the lives whose noises insist so hard to me that they must matter, that I must know of them. I dream of the rain-whitened air until it’s there, and, when it’s finally six o’clock, and the clouds have swirled dark and opaque and ready to dump their load, I see my window as a door or cut in the fog. One step or one breath out and I’ll scatter, be home, gone, nowhere, all at once, an atom scattered among all the happier elsewheres hidden in my head, a lostness so convincing that I can almost believe I’ve exhaled myself into all the other failed or possible selves and places that I could have happened to fall into.
I have a parking space, at least, and I can fall asleep listening to radio documentaries, or watching documentaries that weave so strangely in and out around my sleep that I can’t be sure if they’re real or just extensions of my dream. Lately I can only fall asleep to the bluish flicker of old, Dad-pleasing action films on YouTube. They’re often on a playlist, so I’ll fall asleep at the beginning of one and wake up in the middle of another, my dreams finding illogical joins between them. Once I woke up watching a documentary that I haven’t been able to find since: Mexico City: Capital of Exile, made by some Uruguayans in the mid-‘80s, full of long tracking shots of squares that feel like deserts, the dry arteries of the avenues, rows of crumbling and derelict buildings that go on forever, like cliffs for a long-gone sea, the city so parched and post-apocalyptic as to seem churned up in precise configurations of collapse by some blurt of the earth’s mantle, much as the earthquake spread by Satan falling from heaven wound up making Dante’s Hell. The blurring reminds me of Humboldt witnessing the excavation work on the Templo Mayor, beams and winches quarrying chunks of ruin so huge that he couldn’t tell whether they were the product of natural or historical destructions. Maya sometimes says that Mexico City is a story in stone, told in a vernacular of ruin, so the right language for it must include fricatives harsh enough to divide one’s tongue in two, plosives and glottals as soft as a cough of ash, gurgling liquids like the noise of the floods that threaten but never quite manage to carry everything away. Spanish doesn’t cut it, she said, especially not the way we speak it here, there’s too much of that old undersong from the languages wiped out by the conquest, those soft, endless-sounding sentences with no properly struck consonants, and there is no way I will accept that anything written in English could ever do justice to anything here. In any case, the documentary I woke to one morning — very late, far too late, into the pre-noon bake of heat, when the shadows of starlings falling down the walls of the pink government housing unit next door make me think of bombs dropping in old newsreels — featured Victor Serge speaking in a garden, against a background lush with banana leaves, palm-fronds, and ferns. I could see little red flames of poinsettia flickering in among the green, so it must have been winter, but the footage made the sky behind him seem like a morning in summer. I was confused, because Serge had died in 1947, and yet here I was, looking at Technicolor footage, and hearing the voice of the Uruguayans contextualising him, mentioning the date of his death, yet also talking to him directly, so this couldn’t have been found footage, or colorised footage, although of course that must have been it, yes, the Uruguayans talking over the voice of an interviewer which had been lost for some reason. The authenticity of the video may have been in question, but its grip was inescapable. A kind of tunnel feeling breathed from the screen, deep and alluvial, and I could smell this even in my dream, like I was in a passage of leaves walking over black mud towards this voice of the Russian Revolution.
At first he expressed surprise at being there, craning around in the chair, saying that he had honestly thought this place was destroyed, then correcting himself, saying that he is probably confusing this with the Japanese Garden in Coyoacán. Some Zapatistas camped there, you see, in the nights after their leader’s meeting with Villa, and then, when they had gone, some local opportunists had looted it, sold the plants at the Mercado Jamaïca. I remember a novelist at a dinner-party mourning the loss of that garden, he says. An oasis in the centre of a forest fire, he called it, Serge continued, about some of the fighters trying to section off a kind of chinampa by bursting open the fountain, and then the novelist had sighed, saying how he wanted his books and poems to be like ornamental flower beds, as a resistance against the smoke and the chopped trees of the Ajusco. These were being pulled down at the time we were talking, you see: the loggers had ownership of the land, and a lot of littérateurs and so on seemed to think that the new owners didn’t know what to do with the land. Tina Modotti, the great photographer and revolutionary, had also been at the gathering. Serge laughed, then recalled her saying, You want your books to be a kind of muttering fountain, is that what you’re saying? And then the man had answered, Beautifully — if a little excessively — put. She nodded then, and said, Very good, but I’d far rather read books that are a kind of crowbar pulling those awful decorations apart. Serge brought a pompous, bristling expression to his face, his brow furrowed, his cheeks slack as though to approximate jowls, quoting the novelist: What’s that meant to look like? Next he shrugged, becoming Modotti, and said: Well, I don’t know — you’re the writer, aren’t you? After another burst of laughter, in which he was joined by the interviewers, his gentle, slipped-gear Spanish moved on to the tingle of strangeness he had felt at the backs of his ribs — and here his hands flapped like white birds towards his back, to show the interviewers, and the viewers — he went on to say that this interview was a kind of ration of sociality for him, akin to those days when the students or local writers and organisers get me out to coffee on the park, for example, and I go to these with a sense that it’s as much for calisthenic reasons.
There is a little feeling that we are citizens of an invisible International. But tonight is not one of those nights. There are times, Serge told the interviewers, walking through parks, when I think that the ghost of the lake hovers behind a curtain, and that its time is about to flow back out through the gap. But tonight is not one of those nights. ‘Tonight the rain tips down over the blasted-out laboratory of something we have to believe was once a revolution, but which is now a beggar’s alley where the remnants of revolutions, failed literary careers, and crushed business ambitions gather like charred stubs that catch on a carpet of cinders, all of them sentenced to charming, pious apartments slumbering around the lushness of the park, living inside the safe darkness of the security walls and the barbed wire and the stuck-on triangles of broken glass, skimping together for a Semana Santa holiday to the beach, never buying a book, but patiently tipping everything into a savings account that the left is always trying to steal from them. On the park outside the Ciudadela, people play chess on chalk grids with metal bottle-caps as pieces. Local expat writers whose works as I read them make me daydream of cracked shells, broken glass, sea-glass, driftwood twists, a vodka-bottle sunk past the shoulders in muck-coloured sand: this city is a shipwreck with too many castaways. From the roof the sooty vents look like the inner folds of a huge monster that I’m inside, while the antennae could be that monster’s nervous system. Every other country in the world apart from this one has left its wheel-ruts through here, from the Mexica themselves arriving down out of the north to the Spanish of course and on to various English, French, German, and Austro-Hungarian chancers trying their luck while the whole empire thing held, on through the Lebanese and Egyptian families of carpet-merchants and the children of Chinese miners and railroad-workers in Sonora, to here, to now, to software engineers from Korea and primary and secondary and third-level teachers from the English-speaking parts of West Africa, until it feels as though the city is not a city but a kind of vortex in which everything must appear and repeat in order finally to disappear, a machine for forgetting that must suck in every place and time to ever have existed. Black and dun hummingbirds bomb the pots where I keep my cactus. They look like little flakes of cinders. A gecko skitters among violet flowers with dense centres of yellow spines. My pupils feel as glossy and big as sunken nailheads and I’m seeing before me a huge brass door carved all over with a frieze of Dante’s Commedia, the door rising endlessly into the air until all of the interconnected lines that join all of the characters are revealed to me, while I pray for that door to open and take me into the warm surges of yellow dos of light that shoot through the dark beyond that door. The rain-mutter — untranslatable babble — holds all the killed languages of America.
There aren’t any voiced sounds in that language so if you don’t speak it the sentences sound like they go on forever and ever. The rains got bad here, people say, because the Spanish removed the adorned statues of Tlaloc from the heights and pulled out all of the gold teeth and jade eyes. But those statues had been a kind of isobar in stone: when clouds gathered at a certain height, you’d know when to do what needed to be done in the fields, for example. You’d know when rain was coming. With those statues gone, the sky became illegible again, and the old farms fell out of rhythm. They weren’t even the old farms, anyway: it was all drain and slash and burn by then. The flags on this road hang in slack rags, faded grey, one for each state, all the way from a street of dodgy machine-shops and carparks where the viene-vienes swat the air with rags, restless, spoiling for who knows what, all the way towards the shimmering copper dome of the Monumento a la Revolución. Dirt hills bristle with antennae and the blood-coloured tezontle of the old haciendas have lightning-rods sticking out of them like spears. The pyramid’s crumbled edges are the colour of bone. From above it could be a bombed maze. Keep walking, past a cloister with weeds poking out either side of the cupola that time has left veering out to one side. Rust-coloured lichen stuffs the pores of the stone and flows out of them on all sides. There are days that aren’t this parched shade, there are those days of soaked parks, the river-smell of them, the matutinal light winking back off towers, white flowers everywhere. I get hits of that lake city feeling even on the MetroBus sometimes just through the window near Parque Hundido, or else just breathing slowly and walking through parks in parts of the city that feel like villages not quite swallowed by the growth, just this tingle in the air, a fog-cool on the forearms, as though all that lost water is hovering suspended in the air, about to drop and flood the old channels of before. I see all that blood-stone colour and I just see rivers of human labour flowing in irrigating everything anonymised and all that. Chunks of temple mortared together into those domed churches that look like forts all make me think of the medieval-fort look of the city the Spanish had enslaved locals put together, primitive compared to what was happening back home, dark red stone, battlements, turrets, crenellations, and the sub-grids of the city like a castle-town, the canals turned into moats, all of the colour gone, the dust beginning to blow from the slash-and burn work. So that makes people like Balbuena imagine Neptune surfing on a whale in the lake a kind of translatio imperii, out of the wreck of Troy, towards Rome, and then on across the sea, a justificatory rhyme with the Iliad, some manner of providential narrative, but how ugly it must have been, just these raw blocks glooming over the lakes, smallpox-scarred locals carrying loads of charcoal and sticks from field to hearth, the eaves frowning, the slit-windows like hungry eyes of monsters, it must all have looked like the body of a strange new monster, even while to the conquerors this was a New Zion, due to be discovered by Spanish hands, according to Columbus’ 1501 Book of Prophecies, citing Joachim de Fiores. Even Moctezuma had been swayed by that kind of talk, and, briefly, plotting to join forces with the Spanish and sail east to conquer China together. The only colour now was the flower decked over triumphal arches, vivid spills of lilac and blue fireworks, an icing of baroque fripperies over the top of an essentially military architecture, softened only later, under the first viceroys, building a grid of broad, straight thoroughfares along the old canals, to converge on the square where the Templo Mayor had been razed into a glaring desert flatness, and not even softened all that much, since this design, too, was defensive, since barricades were now as impossible here as they would be in Haussmann’s Paris, after the crushing of the 1870 Commune, none of which is a stretch, given the section of Cervantes de Salazar’s Dialogues where two enthusiastic gachupín and criollo locals wow their recently arrived foreign visitor, Alfaro, with a tour that takes in Spanish palaces and canals that get compared to Venice, with no mention made of the shacks and hovels the displaced locals have to make do with. ‘So solid are these houses,’ says Alfaro, ‘that anyone would call the buildings fortresses, and not houses.’
It’s hard to see all the way back to that: buildings clot the passageways between buildings, with juts of rebar everywhere, as though the concrete and plaster are a natural formation, a kind of mad fungus, but if you walk along Bucareli, and look up at the paintings on enamel of each of the insignias of the country’s states, the ones that decorated a long, blood-coloured former villa that’s a tenement now, it’s possible to feel the acquisitive cool of the time when the city of palaces was also a city of fortresses. In the new iteration of that siege architecture, every Mexican family’s home is their fortress: sub-Barragán barricades, behind tall walls capped with broken glass and winking hoops of barbed wire. There are nights where it rains so hard that the phosphor seethe of it against the flat roof looks like the pashed-ice white of my mother's bathrobe at the hospital, and I realise that the only thing I’m not safe from here is memory, and that’s the most dangerous thing of all for me. I keep thinking about the best way to die, and I keep thinking of Socrates after he’s had the hemlock, watching swans lower over him, nuzzling his forearms with their necks, twining themselves around them, while his gaze drifts past the bodies of his friends and jailors towards stars through the plane trees, until that picture and his eyes cloud over completely. The tart bite of the cigarette I’ve forgotten I’ve been huffing usually stings me back out of all the pasts that did and didn’t happen to me, and I flick the stub in a comet-skitter of orange sparks, the only colour that skizzes through the film-noir monochrome, rain-fog, electric light, alley darkness, the colour palette memory likes to skulk around in, waiting with the knife ready to go between my ribs.
One day I hope every last picture will bleed out, so that I don’t have to see anything again, and I can maybe stop writing these letters to you that you’ll never read, because you’ll never get them, because I’ll never send them, my melodramatic lost love. The amount of things I’ve been through compared to you, and I never went quite so mental as you. You’ve blocked me on everything, but I’m sure you know me well enough by now to know that this isn’t much of a barrier. I’ve found out as much as I’ve wanted, which I’ll admit isn’t much. I saw that you sold the hotel in Uruguay. I saw that you’ve moved to France. I see that you’re a ski-instructor again. I looked at your new profile photo. You’re in the garden of the Grande Mosquée. Someone has taken the picture from an elevated point, while you walk around the blue tiles of the sunken garden, the tines of a palm-tree ticking along the dusting of snow on the shoulder of your long black overcoat, and those lit palm-tines become in my head a set of fingers that pick along the nubs of shoulder-bone that I’d kiss through your skin. In the photo you’re wearing the black overcoat you lent me, the one you team with a mustard-yellow tartan with dark green and red check. I can’t remember if that scarf was mine and I left it behind for you, or if it was yours and I half-stole it while I lived with you, so that I could breathe in your broad gold odour of gardenias as I was walking around the place, so I don’t know how you think of that shared scarf of ours: is it a noose, is it an umbilicus to the remembered good bits of our time together, or is it a zero of cloth meant to stand for the nothing I mean to you now? Not that I mind not knowing, of course: certainty isn’t what I’m after. What I’m after is a kind of filmic blur. I want just enough of you to make a character of you, walking moodily around a noirish Paris in my head, face lowered to the wind, shoulders a little hunched, feeling your shape blur into the shapes of your favourite Cortázar book, while someone looks down on you kindly from above — me, your new love, who cares: all that matters is the warmth of the gaze, and all that matters is that you feel this.