Issues Archives

2010

All issues from 2010.

Mistakes Were Made, Errors Happened

I came to Tokyo summers, when I was a boy, with my mother, hot August weeks, shimmer rising with cicada buzz. We stayed with her brothers and sisters in the suburbs on the Den-en-toshi-line.

I caught frogs and kept them in the clear plastic bubbles that encased toy cars bought from vending machines till they suffocated. My cousins and I set off hanabe. We ate dango ice creams. We raced little sailboats in the man-made stream at Sendagaya Park.
For me, the exotic freedom was intoxicating, though I now realize my mother was running from something, from my American father, from her life in San Diego. She was hoping, probably, that her family in Japan would say, Come back, come home. But Tokyo wasn’t her home anymore. And I loved it because it wasn’t home.

I learned my rudimentary Japanese. I slurped up soba and onigiri. I felt Japanese, at least during those summers.

When I returned a year after I graduated from high school, I didn’t feel Japanese or American, just stuck in the middle.

2.
I arrived with $800, which I put down as key money for an apartment in Nishi Azabu. I was looking for a soft future and didn’t see any reason why a good-looking kid like me wouldn’t find his way in another Tokyo summer.

There were girls—foreign girls, Japanese girls—and I was hot-blooded and eager, but I couldn’t get my words out—in English or Japanese. I hung out in gaijin bars with the other foreigners. My sweaty shirt stuck to my chest. I played dumb, and sometimes, amazingly, it worked, and a girl would warm to me or take pity on me, and bring me home. My tongue-tiedness soon disappointed each of them, however. I never knew what to say in English or in Japanese. They quickly tired of me.

I joined a pickup soccer game in Yoyogi Park most afternoons. I had played for Mission High, where, sometimes, I was mistaken for Mexican, because of my black hair and usefulness as a midfielder. Here, they had trouble even making a guess.

And I was soon broke.

3.
I got a job as a messenger for a company that designed brochures. I didn’t know my way around Tokyo outside of Minato-ku and had to rely on Masa, another messenger, who struck me as diabolically brilliant. He usually steered me right. He had good ideas, most of them criminal.

One of his best ideas was to steal computers from the office and sell them to a fence who ran a used machine shop just a few blocks away.

This would have been a great heist, but our boss walked by the storefront one day and recognized his Macs in the window because they still had our company logo.

Masa, who had found the fence, had taken less than a tenth of what they were worth.

4.
We were both fired.

5.
A short, middle-aged Japanese man in a bomber jacket had recognized me in a little pub shaped like a railroad car. He was an associate of my former employer. As this bomber-jacket fellow went on about my immorality, I stayed quiet and unresponsive. We were standing side by side, as if we were staging our little conversation as a play for fellow drinkers.

He poked a finger at my shoulder and called me scum. When I ignored him, he shoved me.

This escalation caught me by surprise. I was left with two courses: retreat or hand-to-hand combat. Neither appealed.

Then, an almost miraculous intervention: a woman with short blonde hair that was swept up and away from her freckled face by a headband approached me, smiled, kissed me on both cheeks, and said, in a French accent, that she was so happy to see me.
I told her I was likewise delighted.

The angry man attempted to intervene: “You’re a dirty half-breed.”

I ignored him, turning my full attention to this blonde French woman. Her presence—her interest in me—caused the angry man to break off his challenge.

She played with the buttons on my shirt. “You missed me?”

“Of course,” I told her.

I had never seen her before.

6.
Delphine said she had mistaken me for someone else, for another half-Japanese, half-American guy with long hair. I was grateful for her rescuing me and for her acquaintance. I bought her a drink. It turned out that she lived nearby, just on the other side of Gaien Nishi Dori, the main street in my neighborhood.

The next day, she faxed me a map, and I rode my bicycle over to her apartment.

She lived on the third floor, in a Western-style apartment with carpeted living room. By day, the glamour of her nocturnal appearance was wiped away, and her features now appeared more flattened—as if someone had changed the aspect ratio on her face. Her round eyes, flat nose, and full cheeks put me in mind of a koala bear, but a sexy koala bear. She wore a tank top revealing fleshy, freckled arms and sweat pants that rode up between her haunches.

When she lay down on the floor beside her sofa and stretched, lifting those arms over her head so that I could see her short, curly, sand-colored armpit hair and then arched her stomach and hips upward, I couldn’t resist: I got down next to her and began to give her a massage—this was my standard move, a little shoulder and neck rub, and then a repositioning of the hands, and then lips on neck. She closed her eyes, seemed to enjoy my touch, but when I tried to kiss her, turned away.

“I’m a call girl,” Delphine explained.

“So what?”

“So I’m not for free.”

7.
Masa telephoned and asked what I was doing. He was with Mr. Saito, and they were downstairs. When I got in the car, Masa was smiling through his fake tortoise shell glasses, obviously pleased that he was riding around in a Mercedes Benz 500. Mr. Saito nodded when I greeted him.

We rode north, past Nishi Azabu, through the tunnel, and then along the park to Yotsuya, where we idled next to a Lawson’s convenience store. Masa looked at me and nodded.

Mr. Saito led us down some stairs and into a darkened apartment with an open kitchen opposite a red upholstered booth in which four women in towels sat drinking cold oolong tea, while two men in headphones ate soba. In the middle of the table, a video camera lay on its side.

Mr. Saito and a large man with sweaty forehead and a beer company towel wrapped around his neck had a conversation that went like this:

“On or behind?” Saito asked.

“We’re late.”

“Why?”

“Late girl.”

“Catch up?”

“Yes.”

“Today?”

“—”

“Tonight?”

“Yes.”

“Is he here?”

“No.”

“Him?” Saito pointed at me.

The sweaty man looked at me. “Show us your penis.”

I pulled down my jeans and my underwear.

Both Mr. Saito and the sweaty man made disappointed grunts.

“You said you were half foreign.”

Mr. Saito didn’t give us a ride back to Nishi Azabu.

8.
There was an Australian girl, Cheryl, who liked me. She was an English teacher who lived in Yokohama and sometimes came up to Tokyo to see me. She brought groceries and cooked me meals. She took some pleasure in feeding me, worried, as she was, that I was becoming too skinny. (Cheryl herself was not at risk.) She told her friends I was her boyfriend.

Cheryl wore a gray skirt and a white blouse—her teaching outfit—while she cooked me a hamburger steak, potatoes, and peas and carrots.

Delphine called me. “You are free?”

“Not really.”

“You are with someone?”

“Sort of.”

“Girlfriend?”

“No.”

“Can you do something for me?”

“O.K.”

She wanted me to get her five grams. She would pay.

“And then we’ll hang out, do the speed.” Delphine said. “You can fuck me a lot. I love that. On shabu.”

Cheryl was stuffing herself with hamburger.

9.
Masa and I were kicking a soccer ball back and forth in a parking lot where a soufflé restaurant used to be. It had been a fantastic soufflé place. I really wasn’t a big soufflé guy—is there such a guy?—but they had all kinds of flavors—chocolate, strawberry, kiwi, passion fruit—each little soufflé coming in its own porcelain cup and the texture was exquisite, a soft, steady melting that seemed more like the memory of a flavor rather than the flavor itself. They tore the place down to put up a parking lot. Which wasn’t bad, because now we had a place to have a little kickaround.

We drew a chalk goal on the retaining wall and dragged two pylons to make a goal on the other side of the lot. Late afternoons, a few of the local kids came out, and we’d run threes or fours until the parking lot owner showed up and shut us down.

Twice that afternoon, our game was interrupted, once by a male model we knew from California who was selling Ecstasy and another time by Sampson, a heroin dealer from Canada. Neither of them had what I needed.

Later, while we were drinking canned iced coffee and sitting on a parking block, I told Masa about my plan: I wanted to go back to America. Tokyo was killing me. I needed enough for a plane ticket, maybe a few hundred dollars more. I could crash at my mom’s trailer in San Diego for a while. With the money I would make from Delphine, I would be halfway there.

Masa thought it was crazy to go just when things were going so well.

10.
Masa had found Kimi, a Korean guy we knew who wore leather pants and wandered around Tokyo like a forest ranger through the wilderness. He was up in Asakusa, all the way across Tokyo, and I would have to go up there later today to meet him, give him the money, and then wait around a coffee shop while Kimi went to score. I didn’t like the plan. It meant giving a large amount of money to a guy who was famously unreliable and had no fixed address and no real attachments and frequently vanished for weeks at a time. And waiting for him in a godforsaken part of town.

Masa pointed out that it wasn’t my money. It was Delphine’s.

11.
Here’s what my day looked like after I gave Kimi the money, waited around, and then went to look for him:

X=medium-sized trip, XXX=long trip

NK=not finding Kimi, K=finding Kimi:

XXX NK
XXX NK
XXX NK
XXX NK
XXX NK

I never found Kimi and ended up returning home without Delphine’s speed or her money.

12.
I rode the Toyoko line to Yokohama with Cheryl, because she told me I could make some money modeling for this lady who ran her English school. They had actually used Cheryl as a model and she was kind of fat, so I thought for sure they would use me.

We had lunch with the lady, a slender, short Japanese woman with glasses who spoke weird English—“you don’t say,” “dressed to the nines and tens,” “good grief”—and while we never talked about the modeling job, I could tell she was a little disappointed. I must have looked too Japanese. I have found that when people envision their archetype of what a good-looking half Japanese dude looks like, they are actually imagining a quarter Japanese dude.

I went back to Cheryl’s place above this pachinko parlor, and she cooked us packet beef curry.

After a while, her new Australian roommate came home. Nadine had on a blue cocktail dress and had this great brown hair that was teased and sprayed to sort of rise up around her head like a lion’s mane. I believed it was because Cheryl had told her I was her boyfriend that Nadine didn’t pay any attention to me.

While we smoked some hash, I told Cheryl I wanted to go back to America. Maybe she could loan me the money? Just a hundred thousand? She reminded me she was saving for her own trip around the world.

Cheryl went to bed. I lay down for a while and then slid open the shoji screen like I was going to the bathroom, but instead crossed the kitchen and slid open the shoji to the living room, where Nadine was lying down in her futon. I sat down beside her. She was sleeping with her arms out of the kagebuton, the room dimly illuminated by the street lamps and signage outside. I wanted to slide my hand across her upper arms where the flesh was a little goose bumped.

She suddenly turned over. Her eyes were wide open.

“What the fuck are you doing, you Jap?”

13.
When Delphine finally reached me, she surprised me by not sounding angry.

“My pussy is so wet,” she told me.

I could have fucked the phone.

“All you have to do is get my five grams.”

14.
A soccer team I played with called and told me to show up at Sacred Heart with my spikes. I had played pickup soccer with a few of the members of The New Era Gauchos in Yoyogi Park so they knew I was useful. New Era was a recruiting firm that played in a corporate league, and they called me whenever they had a game.

We destroyed their rival recruiting agency — I scored two goals.

Later, while we were having drinks at an izekaya, the coach — yes, they actually had a coach — slid me an envelope with 25,000 yen. He told me they needed me again next Saturday. They were playing an English school, and, if they won that game, they would make the cup playoffs. He said I was better than other gaijin players because I didn’t look like a gaijin, but played better than most of them.

15.
My aunt and uncle had moved since I used to visit them when I was a kid. They lived out in Machida now. They invited me over to see my grandmother, my obaasan. She sometimes gave me envelopes with money, so I rode the train out and then walked the kilometer from the station up the hill to their house. It was warm out, so I wore a T-shirt and jeans and was sweating a little when I got there.

They had divided the already tiny house in two so that my cousin, his wife, and their two kids could live in this little in-law apartment that was now next door. They were all sitting around, watching a women’s marathon race on television. My grandmother seemed happy to see me and asked me about my job.

I told her I quit.

“Why?”

“Mistakes were made,” I said, using the passive Japanese conjugations. “Errors happened.”

My uncle asked me what I was going to do now. He helped manage the repair and servicing garage for a Subaru dealership. He already employed my cousin and had offered me a job in the past. I would have to start at the bottom, doing oil changes and spray cleaning engines.

I told him I was going to go back to America. Maybe get a job there.

Before I left, my grandma gave me an envelope with ten thousand yen, about a hundred dollars.

16.
Cheryl called and told me she was breaking up with me. That what I had done to her roommate was creepy. And I wouldn’t get to model for the English school catalog. “Too bad, because Chino-san wanted to hire you.”

17.
Masa, to make his rent, sublet his Azabu Juban apartment to a pair of Japanese girls who worked at Uehara boutiques. What they found out after they moved in was that he also intended to continue living in the ten-mat apartment. They took the six-mat bedroom and Masa spread out a futon in the hallway. They had to step over him to use the bathroom.

If we had drugs, Masa and I would sit inside the bathroom, Masa in the square tub and me on the toilet seat, and lock the door so the girls could sleep.

Both the girls were saving up for plastic surgery. Sometimes, Rie-chan, the less attractive of the two, would have sex with Masa if the other roommate was out. He used to record their sessions on a tape recorder and listen to them through headphones while he rode around on his scooter. He said this made him feel like Warren Beatty in Shampoo. I pointed out that Warren Beatty had a motorcycle, a 500cc Triumph Tiger, and rode without a helmet, while Masa was riding a 50cc Yamaha scooter and wore a Nippon Ham Fighters batting helmet.

18.
“Do you want to buy my refrigerator?” I asked my cousin. In the summers when we were kids, he and I had done everything together. Since moving back to Tokyo, I hardly ever saw him.

“What kind?”

“Panasonic.”

He said he would come by to see it.

It was one of those half-sized refrigerators with a little interior freezer that looked like it could be the miniature refrigerator for a race of tiny people who lived inside the refrigerator.

My cousin showed up with a friend of his, and they lifted it out of my kitchen and down the stairs and managed to wedge it into the trunk of the friend’s Cressida. I was waiting for them upstairs, but then heard the car start and my cousin drive off without paying me.

It had actually belonged to my landlord.

19.
When I was three, I went with my grandmother and two of my uncles to one of those pay-by-the-hour fishing holes where old men sit in front of coffin-sized squares dangling their lines. There were pools of varying sizes into which you could cast for a selection of farm-raised trout, perch, and bass. Obaasan held me against her rough cotton dress, the fabric scratchy against my face, as my uncles gave money to a man in an apron who stood inside a booth. Just behind and to the right of his head, there was a bright, bluish tube of light surrounded by wire mesh with gaps the size of checkerboard squares. It was hot and buggy and I watched mosquitoes and flies swarm around this mesmerizing light before they turned fatally toward the blue glow, where they fried in a crisp sizzle. This is my first memory.

20.
Masa had found a little black case. It was cardboard, but with fake leather coating so that it looked almost like a real briefcase. He took to carrying it around with him everywhere, placing it on the running board between his legs when he rode his scooter. He didn’t really have anything in there—a few CDs, a pack of cigarettes, empty cough syrup bottles, some unpaid bills—but he said it made him look more professional. He would come to my apartment, sit down on the floor with his black case on his lap, and then click open the snaps, as if he were a salesman about to launch a demonstration. Then he would pull out, like, a banana and peel it and start eating it, and he would have no idea how ridiculous he looked.

After finishing his banana, he announced that Mr. Saito had a new project. We wouldn’t be gay, technically, because these were transsexuals.

“Do they have penises?” I asked.

“Yeah, but they also have tits.”

I thought about that. That would be O.K.

We rode the subway up there and then killed time reading comic books in a convenience store before Mr. Saito showed up. He led us downstairs, where a bunch of guys sat around in towels reading comic books and drinking tea from cans, while a cameraman sat smoking a cigarette with his video camera on the table in front of him.

“These are guys,” I pointed out to Masa, “not chicks with dicks.”

Masa shrugged. “Look, they’re going to suck you. Not you them.”

“What about you?”

Masa shook his head. “I’m not into guys.”

“Neither am I.”

I was still short Delphine’s money.

Mr. Saito told the guys to take off their towels and told me to pull down my pants. The camera man lazily got up, put out his cigarette, and flipped over the screen on his camera.

The guy who sucked me off was a wiry little guy with a fat tongue. He didn’t seem into it, either. I thought of Delphine, her fleshy arms, her short bobbed hair. I could imagine her smell —

This guy was really good at sucking cock, and I came way too fast.

Mr. Saito refused to pay me because he said he couldn’t use the footage.

21.
“Enough with my pussy talk,” Delphine told me. “Now I am going to have you thrown from a moving vehicle.”

22.
I drank a can of corn soup and trotted up to the pitch, where I began stretching and then loosened up by running around the field. The rest of the New Era Gauchos were shooting on our goalie, and I joined them, launching a few into the top left corner. The English teaching school had brought a squad of Japanese and Brazilians. The team logo, a big white hand holding a pink rose, looked familiar. It was Cheryl’s English school. And there was Cheryl on the sideline in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. I had to admit she looked pretty good, but when I went over to say hi she just nodded and didn’t say anything.

“Why do they have so many Brazilians?” I asked one our players.

“They are half Japanese, half Brazilians.”

“No, they’re not,” I pointed out. “Look at them. They’re Brazilians.”

My teammate just looked at me funny, like, who the fuck can tell a half-breed from a Brazilian? But I know half-breeds, and these were no half-breeds.

Just before kickoff, while I was standing on the center line waiting for my teammate to roll the ball toward me, I looked over at the sideline and saw Masa, standing there with his black case and next to him was…Delphine?

What the fuck, I thought, why did he bring her?

The English school players really were Brazilians and kept the ball in our half of the field for most of the game. At one point, I went and stood near Masa and asked him in Japanese why he had brought Delphine, of all people.

“She’s so hot,” he explained. “I ran into her and she said she wanted to see you.”

She was wearing expensive-looking sunglasses, a navy blue short jacket with a fur hood, and jeans.

“She wants to kill me,” I told him.

“Yeah,” Masa agreed.

Delphine waved. Then ran a finger across her throat.

I spent the rest of the game as far from Delphine as possible, twice picking up stupid off-sides calls because I was reluctant to run back for the ball past where she was standing.

With about 20 minutes left in the game, I saw two Nigerian men walking toward the touchline. Delphine’s friends.

I ran off the pitch and down the ivy embankment toward the shopping street, my spikes catching where there were chain link squares laid over the earth to help the vines grow.

I heard we lost 4-0.

23.
Masa came over that night.

He had fucked Delphine.

“She made me promise I would get her money back,” he explained. He was sitting in my apartment, on my floor. We were sorting through videotapes he had found in the big garbage to see if there were any we could sell.

How was he going to do that?

“I’m gonna show her where you live. But don’t worry, I told her I don’t know you very well, so—”

There was a loud banging on my hollow, metal door and a sound like an animal breathing.

“They followed you,” I whispered.

Masa nodded and did an exaggerated gesture of being out-foxed, shaking his head sadly.

The men outside the door said calmly in surprisingly polite Japanese. “Come, sir, open up.”

I told Masa I was going to hide in my kitchen, in the little gap next to the sink and below the water heater where the refrigerator used to be. From outside the kitchen, you would never know there was a space there.

Masa said he would tell them I wasn’t here.

I listened to Masa open the door, tell the Nigerians I was gone. Somehow they knew immediately to walk to the kitchen and order me out of my hiding place. They couldn’t fit through the narrow galley entrance without turning sideways.

“I’m gonna pay her,” I promised. I gave them the few thousand yen I already had.

In the meantime, they explained, they were going to take my television and CD player. Then the larger of the two, a man with broad shoulders and a neck as thick as a scooter tire, told me to come closer. I hesitated and he walked over to me and took me in his arms. He smelled sweet, of talcum powder and some sort of cheap cologne. He began squeezing, and kept squeezing, until the air was expelled from my lungs and my rib cage contracted and I felt a sharp pain in my two lower ribs and my lungs were forcibly prevented from expanding. He was suffocating me, from the outside, like a boa constrictor. I could see his expression, a slowly broadening smile. He had black marks across his teeth where he seemed to be struggling with tooth decay. I passed out.

24.
I had never seen a suit like this, where the jacket came with shirt cuffs, shirt collar, and a tie, all sewn in, dickey-style, so that all you had to do was button the jacket and you looked like you were wearing a full suit. You didn’t even need to wear a T-shirt underneath it. They charged me 50,000 for that purple suit and said I could repay it with my first month’s salary. Then they charged me another 20,000 to feather my hair and bronze me up in a tanning booth. By the time I was done, I looked like all the other punk touts who stand outside Almond trying to convince guys to come to a club.

I had to stand out there from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m. and tout the hostess bar. Whoever walked into the club with one of my cards in his hand meant I would be paid one thousand yen. For every ten, there was a one thousand yen bonus. I figured I would be able to convince at least 20 guys a night to visit the club. I would make enough to pay back Delphine in four nights. In a week, I would make a 100,000; in a month, enough to fly back to San Diego where I could play pickup soccer at the local high school, maybe even enroll in community college and play my way onto the team.

The first night, I made zero yen.

25.
I figured out that the bottles of wine at the Meidi-ya near Hiroo Station had price tags that could be peeled off and switched for cheaper ones. The wine cooler room was located just behind the cashiers, but if you stood in there long enough, as if you were appraising the vintages, then they would forget you were there and you could switch the labels on a ten thousand or twenty thousand yen bottle for a five hundred yen bottle and then walk up to the teenaged cashier, pay the price on the tag, and stroll.
After a few days, I had all these fancy bottles back home in my apartment—I didn’t know anything about wine, but this stuff retailed for $200, $300 a bottle, classy stuff. This had to be a couple thousand dollars worth of wine. I was giddy, it was the first time one of my schemes had actually worked, and so easy.

Masa brought Mr. Saito over to look at my collection. He told me that he would pay me ten thousand yen, about a hundred bucks, for all of it.

“No,” I told him, “it’s worth twenty times that.”

“What do you know about wine?”

Nothing. But I wasn’t going to give this away for that cheap.

Mr. Saito looked at his watch and said, “Fine, I’ll give you twenty thousand.”

I shook my head. I was tired of being cheated, tired of every plan running aground, every scheme falling apart, of guys threatening me and squeezing me and ripping me off. Look at all these beautiful bottles. Dom Perignon—I’d heard of that one. Chateau Haut-Brion. Chateau Brane-Cantenac. This was real fancy stuff. Pure shit. Why should I sell it for cheap?

Masa wanted to make a deal, but I told them no way. No more. I’m tired of always being the guy who makes the crap deals, who gets the bad jobs and the lousy breaks. I told them to get out. Both of them.

Then I gathered up the wine and champagne, the best stuff, in two big plastic bags and lugged it up to Delphine’s. I figured she was French, she would love all this stuff. I was just going to leave it in front of her door with a note saying this was to pay her back, to erase that debt. But after I set the bottles down, I knocked on her door.

She was wearing a short, belted bathrobe that showed off her lightly freckled legs.

I could smell her.

“What’s this?”

I held up a bottle of 15-year-old Margaux. “Here,” I said, “It’s good wine. Fancy.”

She looked at the bottle. Nodded. “O.K. Is it all Grand Cru?”

“It’s all like that,” I told her. “And champagne, too. You can have it all. Let’s just call it even.”

She bent down and began going through the bags, apparently pleased with what she saw there.

“D’accord.” She smiled. “Would you like to come in?”

26.
“I just wanted to pay you back.” I told her when we were finished.

“We’re equal now.” She smiled.

27.
I walked back down to Meidi-ya, thinking all I had to do was switch the labels on some more wine and then find someone to buy the drink, just a few bottles at a time, and, gradually, over days and even weeks, I would make enough for airfare back home. It would be like a little job for me, just take a bottle or two a day, sell that, and swipe a couple more.

For the first time in months, I was optimistic about my prospects. I could see how I would get out of here. I could give back that stupid suit; I wouldn’t have to show my dick in any more gay porn videos. I could go back to San Diego, enroll in community college, play soccer, and learn something. Maybe business, since I seemed suddenly to be developing an aptitude for that.

I thought about calling my mom to tell her the good news.

28.
When I got to Meidi-ya, I headed straight for the wine cooler and almost smushed my face against the newly installed, locked glass door to the wine room.

29.
Obaasan came through for me, giving me enough for my ticket to California. She felt guilty, probably, about the way they had all turned their backs on my mother when she had a baby with a gaijin. When she had me.

30.
It’s hot here, and dry, and I miss that Tokyo mugginess. I’m sleeping on a futon in my mother’s living room. In the afternoons, I practice with the Miracosta junior college soccer team. The coach told me that if I keep my grades above 2.0, next season I can join the team.

I look forward to practice, but sometimes, while I’m making my runs, I think about Tokyo. I think about Delphine, of all people, or I think about Tokyo and Delphine, all of it somehow mixed up in my mind and, instead of desperate and frightening, it all seems fun and enlivening, and I stop midplay and look around—like I’m stuck—until the coach yells at me, “Where’s your pace? Pace!”

Around me, the field is empty; the game has moved past me. I look like this:

_______________I_____________

So I run.

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Frida & Diego, or Among Musicians Only

E, antes de ser uma história de espectros,
é uma história escrita por um deles.
Sergio Sant’ Anna, O Voo da Madrugada

I know we were notorious for our wicked cha-cha groove, but this is no funky cha-cha no more, I should warn everybody. Cha-chas, no matter how twisted, aren’t suited for this kind of darkness. This is a tango macabro. Carlos Gardel meets Poe in a dark and stinky alley. This is when the bolero gets drunk, the blues turn upside down, and the ballad collapses under the weight of its own pathos. This is a song too ghastly for words. That’s why I don’t have to worry about singing it (and secretly wish I didn’t have to write about it). This is a tune, at least in theory, ideally suited for Rosie in her Evita La Desaparecida mode, so she could blow her most noir trombone licks, although it would probably be Cuautemoc’s sax, as usual, leading, making sure “the lament is juicy, warm yet desolate, like Miles, man.”

Of all instruments, however, the bass with its grave, low voice is ideal to carry the burden of highlighting the crucial silences and breaks (let’s call them musical events) in this tango, which means that we are in Brendan’s hands. His chubby fingers have always moved fiercely up and down his contrabass with the overt intention to rule over the rest of us (his appetite for power only matched by his appetite for burritos). Fortunately for us, we had Ali, unafraid of dissonance or a power struggle, ever ready to harmonize anything that came his way with his light, sensible yet swingy piano style.

As for Jesús, our “guitar matador,” this would be his chance to go deeply flamenco and play “dark and tough como los cojones de un burro,” while Alberto would most likely leave the congas aside and opt for the cajón, “cause el cajón, mi hermano, is the king del silencio.”

So, yes, it is in principle an impossible tune, a forbidden dance (if there is such a thing), a censored-in-the-Mission-District story based on a series of improbable events that we have sworn to keep as secretive as we can — although writers are always selling somebody out, I tell myself, quoting Joan Didion, as if to remind myself that I might be a traitor but can’t really be blamed for that, or for being a hack, dangerous and ridiculous as a virtuous man in an imperfect and corrupt world. This is my chance to play the villain, I suppose, so all of us could play the victims of our own ethos, the blind leading the blind and guided only, at least in the beginning, by the unremarkable yet unforgiving rattle of a rusted Safeway cart rolling down the empty streets of a sleeping city lost in the fog.

For it all started with that metallic and repetitive sound in the middle of the night. It all started, actually, with Jesús feeling not quite responsible for his actions. He had been hit hard by the Spanish Blues, a seasonal affliction that rendered him cantankerously at odds with his surroundings: “Coño, tell me if there is anything more depressing than San Francisco after midnight. At least with the fog I don’t have to see that I live in a fucking cemetery de la hostia.”

He knew what he was talking about, since almost every night (and never before two in the morning), he had to face the streets of San Francisco as he walked home after closing Café La Michon.

“I mean, where are the fucking hipsters, the beats, the ex-hippies, the diehard punks de los cojones, the weirdos, the artists de la hostia, the so-called bohemians del coño de su madre, the dotcomers with their baby faces and all their fucking money? Where are the pimps, the whores, those classical creatures of the night? Where is the music and all the fucking hip and multi-culti San Francisco youth? Why aren’t they flooding the streets of this supposedly world-class city, me cago en Dios? Why isn’t everybody enjoying the night como gente civilizada, hostias? Where is life, por los cojones de mi abuela?”

Needless to say, once Jesús felt this “deeply flamenco,” there was no turning back. He had to go to Manolo’s studio on Virgin Alley and share a joint with him as he listened to Manolo’s unpolluted Madrilenian accent despite almost a lifetime in San Francisco. And since I can never go to bed before sunrise anyway, and that night I certainly didn’t feel like going home to write, I decided to walk with him. On foggy nights like this one, in any case, it wasn’t that unusual for us to keep each other company on our way home from La Michon. We lived two blocks away. So there we were, walking down Valencia Street practically blind and Jesús, next to me, going on and on about what “an insipid city de los cojones San Francisco is,” when we first heard that monotonous rattle hammering against the night’s slippery frog-like skin.

Then, upon crossing “the border” and remembering how much Alberto liked to call Mission Street “Tijuana” and Valencia Street “San Diego,” and not before Jesus added that “the distance between the two can’t be measured in blocks, coño,” we noticed the rattle got awfully close to us, close enough, in fact, to give us a first glance of the floating wake of her white dress as she pushed the cart away with a desperate sense of purpose, like a homeless bride late for her midnight wedding.

 

That was it, really. Or maybe I should say that was all it should have been. But then came a wet, cold, sticky urge to follow her as one pursues a ghost, an urban legend, a myth that had already left its fragile yet immortal mark on the most inhospitable alleys and hours of the Mission. It was about time, we told each other, as we ran into La Llorona, The Boogie Man’s Bride, Frida La Loca (condemned to push her cart full of brushes and paint cans in penance for our sins).

It could be argued, of course, that maybe all we wanted was to watch her paint something on a wall or a garage door; all we cared about was to witness the almost miraculous fact that madness had somehow not been able to take everything away from her, especially what she loved most; all we needed was to have a chance to mourn and come to terms with the death of the Amanda we knew and our death inside her impermeable world. And considering that in a city big on murals, Amanda Vargas was (is) one of its biggest stars (“The Joan Baez of the Bay Area muralists,” the local press called her), it could never be overstated what a monumental tragedy her nervous breakdown had been (“An artist in a constant state of revolution,” as she preferred to call herself). So given the fact that it was (and it is) simply impossible to walk the streets of the Mission without running into her murals, I guess it was only to be expected that after that night, we would began to take late-night walks “chasing Frida.”

 

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Things Lost in Translation

Tell me something I haven’t heard before
How bridges in Paris are rusting bolt by bolt
and rivers are tired of their secrets
How night loves to wash your body

Empty the words from your pockets
rearrange the stars if you have to,
but tell me something untold before

How your desire never sleeps
How your heart shatters like glass
when you break bread with your father

Tell me how you invite transgressions
and slip knots around the waist of afternoon
so twilight never leaves your side

Weave syllables into a net that stretches
from the flea market on the outskirts of this city
all the way to the back alleys of your childhood

then speak to me in your native tongue
so I may grasp things lost in translation
and hold them like saltless tears
or small fires burning in wilderness

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