Editor’s Note: This essay was a finalist for Best of the Net 2018. Congratulations to the author Mary Margaret Alvarado!
I got tired and let my average slip.
—Gillian Welch, Wrecking Ball
This begins on Platte Avenue, going east. I am nineteen and Elisabeth is twenty-one and we are driving from Colorado to Kentucky in the Peacemobile. Because the Peacemobile continuously blows hot air, no matter what you wish or do, and because it is August, when one wants cool air, we rise in the dark. My sister is going to study midwifery in Harlan County, Kentucky, one of the poorest places in the country. Like our grandmother, she will go to Subway sandwich to “get her vegetables.” She will attend a Holiness Church, where they have learned to be suspicious of outsiders who are suspicious of them and their snakes. She will study with another undergraduate, this one coming to Appalachia by way of a tony, East Coast upbringing, who will be genuinely surprised to learn that fat people have sex. She will say midwives don’t deliver; they catch.
Or this begins three months before that. My first job is fun enough: I wait tables at an Italian restaurant. The second job is terrible: I’m a telemarketer for Verizon. Because the only people who pick up their phones in the United States of America are nice old ladies with unusual last names, and because I’m okay at pronouncing those names, they think maybe they know me, so I keep making sales, which is intolerable, very Faust. Around me are broke Americans. At the end of two weeks of training before we graduate from a small, windowless room to a vast, windowless room, our boss tells us to bring in a photo of the thing we’re working for, and people do. A kid’s fall uniform. A trip to Six Flags. Down payment on a truck. This is motivation: what keeps you going at 4:45 when one of the people who walk around yelling is walking around yelling. A sad woman in my group says her husband is on the internet all night doing stuff, private stuff, and she needs to pay for the service, which has gotten expensive. So she tapes a photo of a computer next to her computer. And that’s my first memory of the internet: somebody’s husband, looking for porn.
I quit that job. Not long before this my father helpfully informed me that not everyone is interested in what I have to say, but still: I think I am making some sort of statement. I think that when I turn from the incessant “now dialing” indicator on my screen, unplug my headset, and stand, that the minor music will turn major; that the camera will slow. I have been contemplating sabotage. For instance, I could inform the old ladies that all of the long-distance packages are basically the same, or launch a letter-writing campaign, or just ask them about their days. But my boss: she doesn’t care. I start in on my scruples, my speech. She cuts me off, takes my headset, and passes it, still warm, to the next guy.
Go ahead and go, she tells me.
And that’s what I do.
The plan is for my sister to drop me off in Lexington, Kentucky, where my boyfriend’s family lives. From the largest airport near there, I will fly to Johannesburg, South Africa.
The Peacemobile is so hot that early on, I commit to making the road trip in a swimsuit. At every gas station, I soak a pile of paper towels, then lay them over my arms, head, and legs. We roll down all the windows for 4×60 A/C. Between the sounds of the road and the many and various sounds of the car, we can no longer hear the gentle folk music that my sister favors on tapes (this was back when: tapes), some of which have melted and make a warbling sound.
On day two, while I am painting my toenails on the dash, a cop pulls us over in the middle of somewhere swampy. On day three, the Peacemobile breaks down a few hours from our destination. We cram into the cab of a tow truck with a man who says he wants to marry me. Or does he say he’s going to? Either way, the proposal’s unwelcome. We hide from him in a convenience store, and he laughs and laughs and laughs.
A week later, when I land in Johannesburg, I will forget the big sketchbook that I’d kept as a journal since I was fourteen. It will fly away on that plane, and perhaps some stranger will read it, but probably not. It probably goes straight into the trash.
I am trying now, half a life later, to remember a time that began then, and ended eight years later in Iowa City, Iowa, when I still had no email in my apartment, and took very few photos with a camera that used film, and left my bike around town, so that I could experience the handy joy of finding it again, and one of my teachers was the last author to receive news, of winning the Pulitzer Prize, by telegram.
It was a headlong time, when I excelled at falling in all the varieties of love, and privileged firsthand experience, and corresponded chiefly by letter, and also suffered repeated bouts of depression, though I did not name them that at the time. I feel fondness for the girl that I was. I also feel that I need to forgive her, though I’m not exactly sure why, or for what.
That fall, in the house that a dozen of us share in Windhoek, Namibia, there is no computer and we don’t have phones. This is in the last year of the 20th century. There is a payphone outside through which my parents call me after reading an op-ed I wrote in praise of hitchhiking. They call to say: Hello. We love you. Stop hitchhiking. I receive articles cut from the pages of magazines. I receive letters, lots of letters. My grandmother writes me uncharacteristically sorrowful notes, as she associates foreign countries with war.
Every few days, someone turns on the computer that is kept in a hut across the yard, like a possibly infectious but not uninteresting weirdo. I have a Hotmail account with a cutesy address. I send my case for hitchhiking through that computer, and sometimes my boyfriend’s mother writes to me this way. My memory of those emails is: huh!—an email! The medium is occasional, optional. The “e” is still hitched to its hyphen, denoting its deviation from the norm.
I wander around with somebody’s Walkman, listening to the only tapes we have in our house: Miriam Makeba, the audiobook of In the Garden of Good and Evil, and Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints. I walk to dance class, where my teacher says, Europeans dance to the sky, Africans dance to the earth; then to the cathedral downtown, where a long line of Namibian nuns are doing just that. I walk to the University of Namibia, and then to the Kentucky Fried Chicken where I feel neocolonial complications about ordering biscuits and a Diet Coke but do so anyway. Then I’ve heard those tapes, so I give them back. I walk or run alone, a little money in my sports bra, high on colors and nothing to do.
One day I walk right out of the city and into the desert. This is fine—no, it’s wonderful. The old fantasy of disappearing returns, the one where I molt, and become eyes, then air. I am feeling like a feather when a yard full of men materializes, and they start calling to me. I try and fail to pay no mind. Along comes a shiny black car, like something from a post-war prop lot. It slows down and I get in.
The driver is an old white man with an Afrikaans accent that sounds British to me. He takes me to his house, a rich person’s house with an automated gate. It’s open in the architectural style of The Brady Bunch, and the floors are cold blue stones. He says I remind him of his dead daughter, and he gives me her binoculars in a velvet-lined case, the ones he taught her to use at Etosha Game Park.
But when does he undress and step into the pool? And why do I stick around for that? He floats beneath the very near sun. He does not look old now. He looks young, with white hair. I muster a sense of caution, as though channeled through my older sister. Really now, should I stay for the swimming?
I do. I did. I wanted to stay for everything. The San girl who was being held domestic captive by the Herero woman, and the sad dirt yard we sat in together. The terrible American mall with its gross, familiar take on Christmas. The friends who were convinced, as I was convinced, that we ought to shave each other’s heads in the dining room. The man in the shebeen, which was a shack held up by dancing, who took me aside by the pool table to tell me Jesus was there. The preschool where I reported each week to drink Three Roses Tea and watch the darling, sticky children, their faces like suns.
The Afrikaaner wants to show me around. We climb a cliff. He cooks a braai. He takes me to the cemetery, without noting the plainest of facts. It is segregated. The side for white Namibians—the five percent—is cajoled into green, with sprinklers perpetually raining on the rows of guilty dead. Around them grow tall cypress trees. The other side, the vastly larger side, is for black Namibians, who are buried in earth the color of earth.
We did not know that before Mein Kampf there was Der Kampf, the official publication of the German general staff, or that in it, before the Holocaust, there were reports of the genocide of the Herero and Nama, and that the earliest concentration camps were death camps: theirs. We did not know that the apartheid in South Africa and Namibia, just nine years gone, was patterned after our own chummily-named hate laws.
History is an erasure. Forgetting is policy.
What learning we do comes about by collision. Two friends and I take a Combi to the Skeleton Coast. We feel that we’ve fallen off the map, for here in the desert is a pastel town, with German memorials and menus, and neat cream-filled pastries for sale. It is near to nothing but the sea. Some Lutherans have conjured green squares of lawn, like the Reformation is ongoing. I wander down a rutted road in the evening, past a shed, and in it I see a man who is making something. Salt gathers on my skin. I remember how I was trying to remember (proof itself of all that one forgets), and cast my findings as if in a story: At the world’s terminus there is a tinkerer.
Mostly I remember telling myself to remember, but the thing itself is gone: the homes made of bedsprings and cardboard, whole cities of them. Or the box canyon impossible in its beauty and how we just happen upon it, adultless as we are, and wade in, getting less dressed as the walls and water rise.
Other scenes stick. We go to Etosha Game Park and it begins to rain. My friends return to the school bus we’re sleeping in, but I stay by the watering hole, beneath the trees, alone. There is nothing in my mind. My mind is a rinsed bowl. Then they appear, from far away. A line that clarifies into a procession of what I begin to see are elephants. Here is the awe of looking at a spot in which there had been nothing, and then there is something, a vanishing point in reverse. The sun has set. The world is purple. What I know about elephants and so much else is wrong. They are not lumbering at all. They caress the dust—it stirs, it settles. These elephants are delivering the grace of God and because I am a bowl, I can get some. The last line of “Sexual Healing” starts repeating in my head, like Marvin Gaye is out there too. I been sanctified, I been sanctified…
Everything is strange, which is to say: beloved. I have pictures of none of it.
What can be read has a beginning and an end. Because it’s finite, it gets re-read. The articles, folded into thirds. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who’s part of our curriculum. Ditto Nadine Gordimer and Rian Milan. But we’re afforded leisure, too, the happiest condition for a certain kind of learning, and there are short stacks of weathered books around the house that we trade. It is in this way that I stretch out under a clear and blameless sky and read M. Scott Peck’s study of evil. And it is in this way that I spend an entire day in a tree reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
We’d left Windhoek and gone to Ovamboland, a vast rural area along the Angolan border; that’s when Sedia gave that book to me. Sedia: the endlessly cool Liberian-American Evergreen State grad who midwifed our most halting History 101 epiphanies. One evening she drove our Combi to a spot in the desert and let me out.
Here, she passed the book to me. I think you’ll like this.
The moon was so big and near, I could feel it breathing on my face. What happiness, then. There was no road, no town. But here was a place: a collection of huts behind a handmade fence. In the morning, I would see them all: the brothers’ hut; the parents’ hut; the hut for threshing millet, with its compacted, clean dirt floor; the open-air kitchen; the corner where you washed; the bathroom in the field. My host mother led me to what must have been the sisters’ hut: a graceful, round room, with a thatched roof and a curtain for the door. Someone had painted President Sam Nujoma’s face on the wall. I lay down in the single bed, and closed my eyes. Later that night a teenaged girl appeared in the doorway, dressed in a bra and skirt.
I am your sister, she said. She crawled into bed with me and we slept.
Roosters woke us, as they would. Days were marked in millet and light: greasy millet porridge for breakfast and, for dinner, gritty millet clumps dipped in goat fat that you gummed but did not bite. When guests came by, there was yeasty millet beer so thick with sediment you had to sift it through your teeth.
People told time like so: an arm outstretched to the sky. This struck me as a masterful and elegant salute. I did not understand why I’d been asked to read Decolonising the Mind, but also bring as a gift a digital watch from Target: future trash, wrapped in present trash, and the sort that embodied an argument, as all technologies do. But I had, and I gave it to my host father, and he loved it.
I followed around the three- and four-year-old girls who were more skilled than I. They had songs for threshing millet and others for pounding it. They gathered firewood; built and tended the fire. In the evening, after the cooking was done, we’d lay down and watch the stars in the coals, those stars repeating in the sky, and the darkness between them, which seemed kind.
Useless, but not unamusing, I made up jobs for myself, like walk all morning to the village restaurant, the only place with a plug, then sit in front of the box fan and eat fried noodles with ketchup. My quieted mind remained colonized in several soft ways, so that in that restaurant, where there was no music, I heard K-Ci and JoJo singing to me.
The Namibians and South Africans we met carried whole canons of song. They would sing to us, the American guests, and then ask for a song in reply. We were embarrassed by what we could scrape together: advertising jingles and TV themes; most of the verses of “Hotel California” (or all of them if someone white was drunk); and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which none of us liked.
It felt better to sing with my host mother, which is what we did, holding hands, while walking the long distances to neighbors or water. We had an “Alleluia” in common, and she taught me its variant with clicks.
No one noticed when I spent a whole day in a tree, the only tree around. I climbed up early in the morning with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, only to find that the tree was owned by squatters’ rights—a great herd of goats soon gathered in its shade. Their strange yellow eyes kept me high up and reading. They milled. They sat. I read and read, climbing down after the sun had set and the goats had dispersed with what felt like new eyes in my head.
I had applied for a leave of absence from college and went to Namibia in part because I was depressed, a sickness that first manifested itself as a kind of mild paralysis. There I was, stuck under a Wu-Tang banner in my freshman-year triplet, listening to Joni Mitchell sing about a river. Perhaps I caught this illness from the upper Midwestern sky: at night it smelled like cereal and did a glorious pink thing, but in the day it was blank and low. Or perhaps I caught it from my blood: my great-grandmother’s secret electroshock therapy; my great aunt’s mental breakdown which began with ironing the curtains all night and ended in catatonia; the amphetamine addiction of the beloved grandmother I just knew as happy; the sadness like a gauze around the other; the summer we drove across several states with my strong mama asleep in the backseat of our station wagon.
It came and went throughout my twenties. It was nothing if not dramatic. I’d be dancing, laughing, mixing sangria by the gallon, running for miles and happy then—bam!—the sky would clamp down and I’d slip out of life. The task of movement itself became monumental. I could no longer see, but I stared. I could no longer think, but my mind looped and looped. I felt hollowed out and perpetually guilty. At the same time, I was terribly self-involved. My vivid life gave way to blanks; my brain got slick and nothing stuck. I spent most of a summer in an intensive seminar that I cannot recall, nor do I recall the people that I sat with for hours, one of whom I couldn’t place, when, years later, she called my name in another city, waving from behind a bakery counter. From that same summer, a summer of blanks, I do recall being mesmerized by the shadow a pop can cast, frozen at a table in my parents’ backyard. I do recall forcing myself to go for a run, to simulate the feeling of being alive, and how, near the end of it, an uncollared dog ran up behind me, lunged, and bit me hard on the calf. I loved that stray immediately; I could have kissed him on the mouth. For there it was: sensation returning. I felt that bite; I could feel. And here I was: suddenly sprinting. And what was that warmth, but blood, red blood, all over my leg, which suggested I wasn’t dead after all.
Other times there was no such help. I wished the plane I was on would fall. Later: I was ready to die. The attending physician asked me, Do you have a plan to die? A friend drove me to the emergency room in Iowa City, and here was this man, not much older than us. He told me there was “no point to his existence either,” and his surliness was weirdly helpful. I do not have a plan, I said. What effort that would take! So I returned to the big, empty house I lived in that year, where I could sit in the living room and watch the shadows of cars as they passed, like I was on the inside of a pinhole camera.
My younger sister said, You’re in a windowless room. Now make a little window. What do you see on the other side? Three things were keeping me alive: the fat, ginger cookies from the grocery co-op that a friend brought over like the medicine they were; my grandmother Atoo; and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Then the cookies ceased to taste at all, but I didn’t want to confuse Atoo by dying, and I did want to read those words.
Depression, the depressed say, is: acedia, black bile, the noonday demon, an unholy ghost, night falling fast, hounds in pursuit, being down in the mouth (not down in the back), madness, being mad. For me, it is an illness of color. The colors leave, usually suddenly, and all at once. That’s when I realize I was breathing them, that I was eating them, that they were my very dear friends.
Come back colors! I flailed, and went under.
And colors were what healed me, again and again. I tried and failed with medicine the first go-round. It amped things up, like chewing on tinfoil. But these things worked: Studying in the reddest rooms. Fake ’n baking. Spending most of a lost day disassembling a cardboard box, then covering each panel in mod podge and bright tissue paper. Painting rooms luxurious gold, bee balm red, jack-in-the-beanstalk, barren plain, bird’s egg, then watching the light move over those colors.
Or just getting under a different sky.
Depression left me the bleakness of a self trapped in self, the blanks of a mind on the fritz. Other blanks are there because memory is set by repetition, but some days are singular.
I can’t quite get back India, where I lived one summer, because it blew my mind. I can’t quite get back running into the sea, or waking at night in a stranger’s car to buy jackfruit from lantern-lit stalls, or the girls who were racing their lice. I can’t quite get back the non-metaphorical leper, left in a pile at the train station; or the carpet salesman who engaged me in a mild, daylong scam. I can’t quite get back my distended belly when I picked up a parasite; or the cloistered nuns who served us mango through a window; or the men sleeping in concrete tubes though I had said to myself: Remember the men sleeping in concrete tubes.
I landed in Chennai at night. When my travelling companion did not appear, I got out my copy of The Lonely Planet and asked a rickshaw driver to take me to the YMCA, thinking of swimming lessons and birthday parties, though I knew that was wrong. The Y was where the girls were racing their lice. They lived in the yard around it, and one day we watched TV together in an outbuilding while they combed the bugs from each other’s hair, the ones they’d line up later on a concrete pad. Inside of the Y, a hostel that was painted two shades of green, I made myself daily schedules; called my older sister on a rotary phone, so someone I knew would know where I was; and read The God of Small Things. One day Texas toast and jam appeared on the buffet, like a nutrient-void love note from my people, and I ate a stack.
A week later I arrived at St. Mary’s School for the Handicapped, Deaf and Blind, outside of a village whose name I don’t recall. What wasn’t lean that summer? The classrooms were bedrooms, and the children slept on mats. The driveway was the dining room. For dinner, we ate rice and pickle, so our bones began to show. The fanciest plates were broad, green leaves. Thin men shimmied up the coconut trees. At night, rats scrabbled on the concrete floor. When we went to the circus, it really was a tent. When we went to the movies, the lusty slow-mo was of a rich woman’s fat folds.
Many afternoons when the heat had gathered into a pulse, I took a bucket bath over a drain, watching a daily game of cricket through the holes in a cinder-block wall. I unwrapped my bar of soap in June and used it until it disappeared in August. This astonished me: to use a thing from beginning to end. At night, when the heat broke, we’d go to the roof, where we could smoke bidis, and hear vespers, and beat our laundry so clean it let the light right through.
Madam! From what are you running? A man yelled after me when I went out for a run, dressed modestly in medical scrubs. He thought there was maybe a lion, so I began to think so too.
I recall these things, but I can’t get them back. How did the old woman on the bus cluck disapprovingly at my bare shoulders? Why did the young one hand me her baby? Who had sent all of those unused books in English, and why did we repeatedly wade into a moldering room of them? That was the Tamil school’s trash: donations from the U.S.A. When I gathered up my own trash to take to the field for burning, it seemed noble to me, as I’d never made so little: a Clearasil container, a travel-sized shampoo bottle, some other odds and ends. But before I could leave the open-air room that I shared with another American, some students stopped me, and took it all. The Clearasil container became a boat, with a bright flap of packaging for its sail.
The deaf students addressed me by my name sign—hands in circles around the eyes for glasses. They spoke a school-specific sign language that was full of slang and free of euphemism. The name sign for a boy who had a squint in place of one eye, and a small knob instead of an ear was this: point one finger on the side of your head and squint the opposite eye. The disabled children did not have crutches, prosthetics, or wheelchairs, though a few had made skateboards for moving their legless bodies. Most of them had mighty arms and calloused hands which they used to swing themselves from place to place. Like the rickshaws in the nearest town, they identified as several religions at once: Mary Jesus Rahma Buddha Love Car.
The children at St. Mary’s were poor. They ate meat one meal that whole summer (a donation of chicken) and erupted into song before they did. I remember how they remembered, how they were building memory palaces in their minds. There wasn’t money for the students to go to the movies, but sometimes one of the young teachers would go. The students would line the broad driveway and outdoor hallways where they ate meals from long benches and wait for her return. The teacher would stand in the middle of them, and teach them the new songs, and dance the new dances, all of which she had already memorized. If they didn’t emulate her just so, she would correct them. The older boys turned the benches into drums, some of the young deaf girls danced, and soon the songs were theirs.
Even when I was there, I knew I would never know where I was. I read and re-read The Bhagavad-Gita, but never understood it. I ran into things, and they astonished me: the dead man who was held aloft and heaped in flowers, then paraded through the streets. Couples in various states of ecstasy carved out of the high walls of the sand-covered temple. The seminarians down the dirt road who sang so beautifully in the dark. I understood so little, I knew that often I shouldn’t even look. I had read of 19th-century arctic explorers who would cover their eyes when approaching glaciers, because they induced such awe, and this seemed right to me. So it was that when I went to a daylong festival in honor of Ganesh, I took off my glasses, and everything blurred. Burning ghee and candlelight moved me through each room; voices, and the sound of bells.
India was the beginning of a leanness of spirit so profound that half a year later I heard a voice. Why will you not be seized? It asked again and again.
As close as I’ve ever gotten, I was still so far.
Towards the end of the time that I’m trying to remember, I began to cut and paste without scissors or glue. I dumped a pen pal. My grandmother Atoo sent her first and last email, which I received as green letters on the black screen of a shared computer. Mary, she wrote, they say this thing works. The world’s computers turned to zero-zero-zero, though there’d been great worry that they wouldn’t and that they’d take with them our memory.
The twin towers fell, and we needed email. People lined up to give blood, so the president told us to go shopping. My mother bought duct tape and plastic sheeting for the windows of the home I’d grown up in. I moved to New York, where I taught a 14-year-old who was the very first person to register the email address email@example.com. I printed out emails and kept them in actual folders. In the Indian restaurant on 1st and 5th that was patched over in blinking lights and wrapping paper, I saw the then-condition of my brain. The boxes I sent got lost in an Anthrax scare and were never found, so I laid in a sleeping bag on the floor of someone else’s apartment in Brooklyn, and memorized poems from the one book I had.
I’d walk slowly past brownstones and gaze in at their pretty lives. There were so many lives. I had to limit the possibilities, which seemed endless, and included men I might have married. When I made my first visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and saw all of my favorite postcards, there and real, I held my hands up like blinders and hurried to just one room to take in just one painting. I ordered split-pea soup in every diner and Greyhounds at every bar, hung nothing on my bedroom walls, and trained myself to listen for tiny things, like the separation of a plastic seal. When a friend and I were arrested as part of an anti-war action, and ended up eating peanut-butter sandwiches in prison, we played a get-to-know-you game with our cellmates, wherein my friend was me, and I was her. My friend said I liked to draw letters, which insulted me, until I realized happily that it was true: I just wanted to draw the alphabet over and over again.
I was forever moving my big suitcase on the subway to a new sublet. My roommate on St. Mark’s Place was an unemployed bike messenger who spent his days drawing his favorite buildings and reading Remembrance of Things Past. A chicken named Barbara moved in with us and fashion photographers used her in shoots. My skin felt noisy. The walls were too blue. My roommate in Park Slope came home elated or dejected after her weekly Tarot reading. In Staten Island, I housesat with a prophet who refused the cancer treatment her doctor prescribed because of its origins in war. On Sunday nights, some old Italian women and I showed up at a bakery in Carroll Gardens to collect the day-old goods. That’s where I sat and read A Farewell to Arms and wept. We were too much in love, my friends and I. I felt crooked when I walked, I was so much in love. Just the sky made me spazz out, just the faces of humans.
When I first saw a man in a suit, speaking with authority into what I mistakenly thought was only air, I pegged him as a high-functioning schizophrenic. Then I saw more of these men, multiplying across the city and I realized: oh, they have phones on their bodies. The whole country was coming into a digital existence, some of us faster than others. But the subway was still full of readers who folded the paper into quarters, and the internet was a thing one had to find. There were maps up in the windows of phone stores which were meant to be impressive illustrations of all the places one could call from, but what I remember now is how few states were covered.
My friends and I got cell phones because they were cheaper than landlines. This move away from the physical meant, initially, that we were in real life more. We only had so many minutes to use each day, or none, so we’d wait until 9, which made life more romantic, and move by the windows, which did the same thing, or climb to the roof, or wander the city, with this one goal: to catch the spot where a voice came through clear.
With the Age of Information came the promise of a new Enlightenment. I worked at Harper’s Magazine, where my primary assignment was to find facts, by which was meant a later definition of that word, one that juxtaposed reality and belief. What was curious about this was how often the final source of a fact was a person, just a person paying attention. Sometimes we’d do the attending. More often we’d start with a popular source; follow it to its scholarly source; pursue a few turns, some hidey-holes; then we’d end up on the phone.
That’s how I confirmed that a brothel in Australia needed to temporarily shut down after docked U.S. servicemen overwhelmed its workers. In The Age, the madam was quoted as saying, “A lot of it was stress, they’d been in the war zone.” When I called her from an afternoon in Manhattan, it was morning in Perth. She sounded tired. There was the noise of many female voices behind her. Yes, she said. We had to close.
Sometimes the origin of a fact was a computer, in the original sense of the word: “A person who makes calculations or computations; a calculator, a reckoner.” And sometimes their work was digital, in the sense of counting on one’s fingers. It was stunning that the number of Afghan civilians that the United States had killed by bombing in 2001 wasn’t a widely known and publicized sum; that, though we were paying for it, there was no ticker tape in Times Square, no Vietnam-era “body count.” Still more stunning was that the man who had this number—the one man in the United States of America who had dedicated himself to culling every source of published information to compile it—all he had was an estimate. His voice on the line from New Hampshire suggested a V-neck sweater, that’s what I remember; he sounded like a deeply weary man in a sweater. 3,950, he said. That was his number of bombed Afghan civilians for the year past.
A marvel came through the slush pile: a woman who was retelling the history of the world from memory; on the jacket was her highly inaccurate and beautiful map. Outside, as part of the International Day Against Video Surveillance, activists were mooning the new little eyes, and also performing Hamlet.
Though the other editorial assistants and I had stacks of books and magazines beside our desks and were often on the phone, we used the internet too. This was the first time I did so and, not knowing otherwise, I approached it like a book. When a question led me to the CIA’s website, I felt wonder, sitting there, thinking about Svalbard, and committed to reading each entry from beginning to end. I’d not yet learned to experience the news as a whiplash of headlines, so when we were assigned one, in a void (the hunger strikers at a for-profit prison, say, who had stitched their mouths closed), I was undone. That same year I would attend a conference on writing for the internet and would be told, essentially, that though everyone would be writing, one shouldn’t expect readers anymore. Fewer words, was the advice, and those “bulleted.” Try captions; make lists.
Because I moved every few months, there was one website I needed: Craigslist. Sometimes a listing would appear for one day only. One billed itself as a party at a co-op in Park Slope. When I arrived the place was already full of übermenschen, including a 22-year-old human rights lawyer who’d hurried over from the rehearsal for a play he’d written and was now directing. The co-op members took Polaroids of us, and we were charming, stat. I returned to the apartment I shared with a gassy alcoholic to find that I’d grown a pimple. A few days passed and one of the co-op members called me. Bad news, he said: we didn’t pick you to be our housemate. Good news, he said: you made the cut to be our friend.
I thought these recollections ended with a sight: A Great Clips, in Iowa City, Iowa, a mother and a child. The child wanted to spin on the chairs, climb on the chairs, stack magazines, watch hair fall, feel the mist from the spray bottle, behave and misbehave; he wanted to be a human in space. The mother wanted something else. Stay, she told him. Sit. She had a new thing with her, a portable DVD player. It was open with a kid show on, and she wanted him to watch. He still had baby thighs and it was on one of them that she left the hard, starry mark of her hand. His eyes welled up. He obeyed her, stopped moving, and watched.
But maybe this ends earlier, with a story: I’m a little drunk walking home from a bar in Manhattan. At this point, I’m living at a Catholic Worker house of hospitality, with some of the most radiant humans I will ever know. But I’m moving to the Midwest, so I went to the bar to say goodbye to friends. They are lovely friends, and I sense that I won’t come by such a group again, which is correct. I continue to not be accustomed to the shedding of people and places and that, plus the late light and Jameson, is too much.
Here is the fortune teller on 3rd Street, which was briefly my street. She dresses her big, tumbling body in white, and reclines on a white wicker couch parked at the window, which is what she’s doing now, sometime after 2 am. Her breasts are so large that I conclude she must indeed have supernatural powers. She waves to me, I turn to her, and I open the door. The fortune teller’s hands are soft and warm. At some point I cry. How she seems to know me, and, at other times, to be full of the vaguest bullshit.
After I pay her, she asks me to return in the morning. She’ll be working on me that night, she says. She needs my name, my nicknames, my places. And could I put them on a piece of paper. I do this. Tilting towards sober, I walk away miffed, almost shocked, thinking: she’s going to Google me. This is a new thought: that we might google each other, but it feels taboo, like rifling through someone’s drawers. The new verb, google, reminds me of an old one: ogle.
Now I do this all the time.
Mary Margaret Alvarado is the author of Hey Folly (Dos Madres), a book of poems. Her nonfiction has appeared recently in VQR, Outside, The Kenyon Review, Off Assignment and The Rumpus. She is the thesis specialist at Colorado College and the mother of three young girls. She goes by Mia.
Cagibi Issue 2