Think about losing things when you are a child, and how losing things thrusts you into a state of absolute despair, even if what you lost is relatively unimportant: toothbrush, sweater, homework folder.
Adults. We are like balloons inflated to their largest capacity and then thrown into the air, unknotted: darting, hissing, flying, farting through the room to the delight of children who will step on them when they finally fall—deflated, useless.
If time in our lives could be shuffled—if it were sectioned into discrete events and recombined—would the story add up? Or does there need to be some kind of order, even if it’s not chronological, for the pieces to form a narrative?
Nuestros hijos llevan todo el día rascándose tan fervorosamente la cabeza que uno de ellos se había sacado ya sangre y ahora daba alaridos de pavor al ver que en su dedo índice titilaba una gotita rosa.
Nos sentamos en una banca y me dispuse a espulgarle la cabellera. Me entretuve aniquilando colonias enteras de piojos y liendres.
The light of the desert, where we are headed—I imagine it very different from this one. I imagine it a brutal, empty, future light.
Where is the heart of the United States?
It’s somewhere in the border.
The girl is leafing through one of my books, pretending to read it. Out loud she says: This is the story of Janis Joplin! And I’m worried and proud of her in equal measure.
There are many types of documents that need to be collected prior to the documentary process. Collecting these early documents does not amount to research, necessarily, but fixes together a kind of scaffolding that enables a first entry into, or contact with, the process. Collecting allows a materialization of early intuitions—some of which are followed, some of which are abandoned; all of which lead nowhere in particular, nowhere certain, but perhaps, eventually, somewhere. Collecting is similar to digging holes in the ground, hoping to find significant traces, evidence, remains of something that will later on be studied, pondered, and perhaps possessed: collecting as a form of fruitful procrastination, of inactivity pregnant with possibility.
Mama, I don’t know this, Daddy doesn’t know this ’cause I asked him, you probably don’t know this, but who might know: Where does the word “fire” come from? And the word “person,” and maybe even the word “word”?
It’s a long story, baby.
So wait before you tell it, because I have to pee first.
She takes just a few steps from the fire we’ve managed to make and keep alive, pulls down her skirt instead of up, and lets a string of pee trickle into the dry sandy ground. Okay, I’m back, she says, as if she’d ever left.
A long time ago, humans lived in small groups called tribes. They didn’t call themselves tribes, but that’s what we call them now, in English at least.
And in Spanish?
Tribus. Nosotros somos una tribu chiquita. These tribes hunted and gathered food, and as they developed better ways of hunting, they needed words to make better plans, and have better forms of organizing the hunt. Like “Now, throw your spear!” or “Careful, there’s a tiger!”
Really? That’s a lie, Mama.
Why do you say that?
Because if they were hunting a tiger, they would have to keep quiet.
Okay, good point. But maybe back in the campsite, where the women were cooking and the children were playing or helping out, people started needing words, because pointing at things was confusing and misleading. Maybe the children needed words to explain their feelings to the grownups. How would you say, without words, that you’re sad, for example?
She stands up and represents sadness without putting too much effort into it. Phony acting: a symbol of anger, a gesture pointing toward it, rather than anger summoned in her. Are cartoons already blurring her real personality? What does that even mean?
Okay, I say, but how would you explain something more difficult, like that you’re sad because your brother threw your favorite toy into the fire?
She acts the scene out, rather accurately in fact. But still I say:
I didn’t quite understand you, you see. I need more than that. You have to use words.
Okay, so children invented words, she concludes.
This lesser metaphorical thought, for example: You hate the man or woman you love so much that you kill them inside you. And even then, once you’ve decided to kill that person (inside you), she or he does not vanish from your heart. Big problem.
Like my grandmother who, whenever she saw the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion roaring inside the television screen, would say “I’ve already seen this one,” and leave the room—I, whenever I hear my husband breathing a certain way, know I’ve already seen all of it, the rest of it. But I don’t leave. I stay. I am drawn in, inevitably. Anger does not radiate, it absorbs. It sucks up everything and everyone around it. We cater to it, first bringing it little tokens of our appreciation, then, eventually, giving ourselves up to it completely, like lunatic virgins into a firepit. I draw him in, too. We go round and round, like dancing a clumsy waltz. The steps are familiar enough, our every movement is predictable to the other.
I dress the girl in the mornings, and then dress myself. Today, I slip on a pair of pants that I haven’t worn in many years; pants that belong to another body. They are black dance pants—the loose sort, which used to be in fashion more than a decade ago, when I first arrived in New York. I’d arrived to study contemporary dance and ended up, twelve years later, working as an interpreter. Nothing ever falls into place the way you imagine it. The pants don’t fit well anymore. I say to her:
These feel terrible. Do they look terrible?
If we could only be inside our bodies, instead of outside, we would never be itchy or uncomfortable, she says to me.
So you think we’re outside our bodies?
Her line of reasoning begins with skin, then veins, then bones, then quickly diverts into bugs, and rocks, and whales. I lose her in her muddled threads.
Maybe we are sometimes inside and sometimes outside our bodies, she says.
I phone my sister from a gas station. Her tragedies are always so much bigger, so much better told than my own small, daily renunciations. I like to call her just to listen to her stories.
As heard from the front seat of the car:
No, Siri, we’re not looking for parking lots near spiders, we want to know if pumpkin spiders are poisonous.
My childhood friend had a mother. A mother who was tall, pale, and aloof. She had an inclination for horrible facts. She would share these facts with us. Perhaps because she had no sense of self-restraint. One day she took us on an outing to a remote town. She drove us to a cemetery and shared this fact: Here are buried twenty-two kids. Then she told us the kids had gone on a school trip to a nearby farm. As their bus was crossing a bridge over a river, the bus driver fell asleep, and the vehicle plunged into the river. All of them drowned. Why did she tell us this? Perhaps because she could not bear the lonely burden of a troubled inner life. There is a word in German that might translate like: harmjoy. Perhaps she felt harmjoy. I wonder if my childhood friend also thinks of this story whenever she crosses bridges over rivers.
Todas mis ideas son como luces de otros coches que vienen hacia el mío en la carretera.
The only time I’ve ever really fallen in love with a complete stranger was in a dance class at St. Mark’s Church, in 2001. The class lasted two hours; my infatuation with her about a week. It was a class in which we were exploring the kinetic possibilities of our trochanters—a very 1980s kind of exploration, trochanters, but everyone was, in any case, in good disposition to feel their own trochanters silently rotating in their hip bones. I was having trouble, though, imagining the rounded upper edges of my femurs. The thought of them made me wince somehow, like thinking about touching your eyeballs with your fingertips, or imagining biting into tinfoil.
Then the instructor paired us up, and I was put with a beautiful woman, wild curly hair and feet wide and strong with tight skin between the toes like an amphibian. She stood in front of me and held the flanks of my hip bones. I half closed my eyes and felt her firm hands on me. I was shy, embarrassed, so I looked down at her feet, which were full of old scars and burns from the studio’s linoleum floors. She had a birthmark on her inner ankle the color of coffee with milk. At first I thought it was a tattoo, but I studied it more carefully as we moved sideways, front, back, around, trochanters always initiating each phrase, always the center of our particular gravity. The mark had the shape of a feather, with darker freckles inside of it. I was slightly ashamed, then, at finding an appeal in this particular shape, so predictably sexy. And then it was my turn to hold her. It was difficult to concentrate on helping her concentrate on her trochanters with my face so close to her neck—her discreet clavicles (one single freckle there), her chest rising and falling, calm, humid.
Perhaps children need to rehear stories, because that’s the only way they can start organizing the beautiful, terrifying chaos that surrounds them.
One of my favorite entries in Sontag’s journals is one in which she, away from her two-year-old son during a sojourn in Paris, says she’s dreamt of him. In her dream, he is eight years old, beautiful and mature. She talks to him—of her own “emotional stalemates,” she says—and he understands her, tells her that he sympathizes. I don’t imagine being away from my children, but perhaps the decision to leave one’s child or children, for any reason, if there is a reason, is easier to take than it seems from here—sitting comfortably in the passenger seat, listening to the radio as we cross this battered, beautiful country.
My mother left my sister and me in 1985, to go work with rescue squads after the big earthquake in Mexico City. And then she left again, in 1994, to live in the jungle, in Chiapas, with the Zapatista insurgence. She explained her reasons later, in 1999. Perhaps she, too, had suffered a loss of personality in marriage and spent years looking for whatever she had lost. And when she found it, she found herself alone. I must have reacted like Sontag’s son did in her dream, because for years my mother was convinced I, unlike my sister, was mature and beautiful and could sympathize with her. But of course I didn’t sympathize at all, I just nodded and said: Of course I understand.
If I were to disappear one day, and let my own children and their father continue on this journey southwest, would I expect anyone to understand? I think perhaps I would. I wonder: Would my reasons be political, or personal, or would there be a way to tell the two categories apart? Everything personal can be claimed political. But the other way around?
Mountains of gravel outside mines.
The homeless man’s fingers were swollen and he slept. Perhaps he only pretended to sleep. He was occupying a table and its four chairs in the waiting area at the train station, surrounded by red plastic bags.
Burying insects and holding a solemn funeral for them.
Today, after getting a haircut twice—two consecutive unsuccessful bobs—I walked down a street in Tucumcari and called my sister on FaceTime. I showed her my hair—the ends on both sides arching conspicuously upward—and first she said I looked like a librarian, which I liked. Then, upon closer inspection, she said I looked like an upside-down croissant.
The girl asks if Woody Guthrie was a good person.
My family sleeps. I read a single sentence that moves along like a slow march of many feet in the desert. The story is told by a multiplicity of children’s voices, weaving in and out from the third to the first person, shifting perspectives, without ever disrupting the slow heavy rhythm of the march.
Whatever you do as a foreigner in America, no matter how independent your spirit, how adventurous and free-roaming your past, once you are in America, the country, you forget that America is the name of a greater continent. You will end up trying to stay in America, the country, as if it were a denser space than all the others—its gravitational pull irresistible. You begin to imagine the rest of the world as a backyard might look from a high window in the deep of winter: a space impossible to resuscitate, a past filled with objects obsolete and out of place. You will end up wanting to play a part in the great theater of belonging. You will unlearn the universal metric system so you can buy a pound and a half of cooked ham, drive or fly the many miles it takes to get from any city to another, accept that thirty-two, and not zero degrees, is where the line falls that divides cold and freezing. You will give everything up— for what?
You will not give up smoking, no, even though the only other people who smoke in public are the derelicts, the recent arrivals, and the old white widows who mount the city buses so slowly, so in pain or high on legal drugs, so very sad in their threadbare coats, their daily routines, their brittle hair, their aching heel callouses. Sometimes, only sometimes, your friends smoke with you, drunk, but the next day they write apologetic messages saying why they might have dared to. Smoking, a bastion here—against the pull of the immaculate moral slate. A slate everyone guards like a hungry watchdog.
Perhaps you will give up smoking, too, eventually, along with everything else: your passport, your past, your own language. You will never know what for, but you will close your eyes and hold your hands in a fist and ride the buses and the subways and drink the acidic coffee and trick or treat and accept playdates with mothers who make perfect cakes and complicated braids but have no way into a good conversation. You will learn to fear your students, and your neighbors, and yourself. You will convince yourself to believe that it is only a matter of time before you can be yourself again, in America or elsewhere, despite the added layers of its otherness, already so well adhered to your skin. But perhaps you will never want to be your former self again. Because there is more to it. There is a woman standing by the subway stop every morning who hands out free newspapers and says “git up git down” while she extends her arm and gives you a smile, and though it’s impossible to know what she really means, git up git down, there is a sweetness in her tone and a comforting regularity in her daily presence, which ground you to this life as if it were an inevitable place, a secure and necessary place.
Waves of so-fucking-tired coming at us like slow demons.
But “even the most broken lives,” I read in some poem, “can be restored into its moments.”
Riding trains backward. Backs turned to the future of the journey. The unforeseeable future. But also concretely: The children migrating north ride backwards because, like this, they protect their face from the wind, from branches.
The documentarist rehearses a retrospective gaze, and looks back into history to discern the present—not necessarily because history repeats itself enough for anyone to learn from it, but because the language or discourse that exists in the present, sifted through all the tiny frameworks of past stories and ideas, may come out thinner, lighter, more porous, and therefore more willing to produce new meanings. The documentarist looks for some kind of presentness of the past.
Eighty-year-old park ranger claims to see the ghost of Cochise. Two children at San Carlos Reservation explain geography. Lady in a diner says she is a descendant of Geronimo. Kids skateboarding in San Carlos Reservation.
Wind blowing across dry lake. Dust clouds forming and disappearing.
Eagles whistling in the distance.
Children’s footsteps on desert floor.