Robert the Haitian Voodoo Secretary
As a pill is pinched from its pocket
one or the other of them climbs into her
bag each morning, prepared
with adequate humor and crazy
to face the bureaucracy of poverty,
free clinics, and men who like that,
woman. I stop noticing the difference
between plastic and skin when I am young,
before baby can be parsed from mother or doll.
Crack Baby’s Nurse
Bad Little Myrtle
When a day is good I hear the clucking
of polyethylene bodies and cotton minds
come from within her cave down the hall.
On bad days they are quiet and she is loud.
On bad days we require many more purses,
satchels and miniature accoutrements of power
to leave the apartment; we travel
in swaths of meldola blue and cigarettes
scotch-taped to immutable, yellowing hands.
Vladimir Anasthasious Schwartz / Volo / Vo
In January Mo, Vo and I pass Willem Dafoe
on Canal Street. He looks from the nappy head
and placid smile of Mo’s purse to her face.
His wink, woman, is not-unpleasant dejà-vu.
I try to mimic him later on the L when Vo wants
to pose for a photo. If I can capture the genus of celebrity
will I belong in this family portrait? The plastic
of Mo’s skin when she sleeps sweats the American
Cheese of real doll. Steady us, long train.
Notes to “Family of Four”:
The Italian word for doll is bambola. Bambola was adopted from an outdoor market in Naples. Bad Baby is approximately 3 inches in height. He wears a crown of golden laurel as a sign of his affinity with the authoritarian grandeur of the Roman Empire. The inspiration for Crack Baby’s personality was taken, in part, from Diane Arbus’ “Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park,” NYC 1962. The Spy is a Barbie jointed at the knees and elbow, with a video camera installed in her forehead that projects footage out through her stomach. For further information on Volo: https://www.facebook.com/volo.theking?ref=ts&fref=ts
At 10:30 my sister and I were pulled out of school.
My mother stopped at Shop Rite to get water, in case
of another attack. In the backseat, I hesitated to take
my book out of my backpack. I thought I should
be thinking about the people who were dead and dying
that very minute. I opened a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt anyway
and my sister said Laura you shouldn’t be reading right now.
I was already prepared to be ashamed. Years later
I recognize my chronically guilted boredom and Allegra was careful
about appearances, even then. There was no water left in Shop-Rite.
We didn’t leave the house for the rest of the bright blue day.
After midnight my father came home from lower Manhattan,
where he’d been reporting for Telemundo. On the back porch
he took off his clothes, caked in carcinogenic white ash.
The three of us were already in his bed, excluding him,
which was not unusual. We are inescapably ourselves.
My father has flown back from the funeral in Spain because his brother has died in exile. There was a service in an old church in Valencia.
In an email my father said it looked like a church for rich people, and we were happy
with the line. A few days later he returns with the ashes of Enrique,
a plastic bag inside his leather carry-on. Some of the ashes were sunk
into the Mediterranean, some remained with the family in Spain.
He was lucky the last two years of his life were peaceful.
If you call him lucky, it isn’t meant to be ironic. You think of luck as reprieve from something imminent and worse. Luck is always edged on misfortune.
Lucky that the son he abandoned came to rescue him. Lucas is a very good person, my father and Marie de Enrique keep saying.
Enrique was killing himself in Argentina, drinking on top of his meds, and starting bar fights with the provocation You live in a third-world country; this is fucking Africa.
Lucas is a very good person. Enrique left him at two, came to America to stay forever, and did not call or write to him.
Lucas became a cop. He flew to Buenos Aires and rescued his father, so that he could die in a country he did not hate.
In Spain, Lucas’s mother, Maria Jose took him back after thirty years and was satisfied.
The only women they would love were named Marie.
When the abuelos were alive, Christmas presents were marked Marie de Enrique (my aunt) y Marie de Esteban (my mother).
For the memorial in New York we meet his wife in the West Village.
My father drives like an asshole through the Christmas week traffic.
It is my sister’s car and in the backseat, she clenches her palms against
the idea of a crash.
I tell him to slow down and my sister is angry. The decorations on lawns
are misplaced. I hate the warmth of a world not yet green.
We meet Marie de Enrique at Our Lady of Pompeii on Carmine Street, around the corner
from where she and Qui Que once lived.
The happiest years of his life were in that apartment, they say.
We are waiting on my other uncle; my father and Marie de Enrique smoke cigarettes.
My sister and I are full of sympathetic faces and deep pauses, because we
are impersonally sad. When Enrique was deported in 2002 we were twelve and nine.
Marie says she would tell him we don’t like this city, this country anymore. You aren’t missing anything, baby. New York isn’t the same.
But if New York isn’t the place, than the world isn’t. Not wanting to live
in New York sounds like not wanting to live.
This was Qui Que’s church, Marie says. Even after we broke up he liked to come here.
He wasn’t religious, my father qualifies, lest we think badly of him.
Oh he was open to everything, my mother says, he wanted all the help he could get.
His wife asks is he here? Do you have him? She sounds choked when my father pulls out the plastic bag.
She tells us that Jim Carroll’s funeral was in this church, and Patti Smith comes in to pray sometimes. Marie gives walking tours of the village.
I am shocked at the beauty of the church. $1 is the suggested donation for an electric candle. For a dollar my sister and I light fifteen.
It is gorgeous, the illusion of fire.
They sit down to pray, a rare event but sincere. I walk around the back, where little alcoves house the iconography.
I remember from long ago Mass the smell of incense or candles, the red-electric of it,
the Virgin-blue of it.
I hated church until I was allowed to quit, then when I was older I hated it more.
The stained glass windows are saturated in color, with round figures, cartoonish.
Beneath the altar there is a Jesus baby doll wearing a crown and lit by white lights strung along the bassinet.
His arms are supplicant, not a laid aside toy, but a set piece, a dollar store baby doll.
I dip my hand in the holy water then wipe it on my coat.
In a Tibetan shop across the street from the church Marie de Enrique wanted something pretty.
She buys a soft cloth blue box to keep Enrique on her shelf.
My sister and I buy mittens, to encourage the idea of winter.
A warm December is wrong, the breeze not insistent. Our coats were open
even at the mouth of the river, where we went to leave Enrique.
Qui Que was 51. Qui Que had a hard life. If it is his own fault for dying, it was never
After the coup d’etat, when Enrique was in the prison camp at 16, they sat him and another
Qui Que at a table.
A confusion of identity: the older Qui Que was shot in the head a foot away from him.
Lucky then, to be the wrong Qui Que.
On the night the military entered the apartment they were looking for Qui Que’s father, a leftist playwright, who had already fled to Spain.
The soldiers put a bag over Qui Que’s head, taking his children as game.
His sister was in the camp with him, but she was 20 and stronger. She grew beyond trauma. She lived in Argentina as an adult,
until she died of breast cancer in 2007. Alicia was the only sibling without
a drinking problem.
The mind and body can heal. She forgave Argentina, but blamed her father for putting her there.
The luckier Qui Que escaped death twice. Deported back to Argentina, he moved into the old apartment, with the stain on the wall from the firebomb.
He had not been back since the night they were kidnapped.
There was no record of him after the dirty war and when they erected a monument to the desaparecidos of the town, his full four names were on it.
He made phone calls but they never got around to effacing the name.
The second time was in America. In the early 90s he tested positive for HIV: a false positive, not uncommon in the cautious face of epidemic.
He resigned himself to fate, and drank heavily, stopped taking care of himself.
After years with no symptoms he realized he must not have it. Escaped death twice.
But the weight of that sentence, the positive – it might have all gone differently, we say now.
The monument was a gesture missing the mark. A living man’s name carved into the public gravestone.
It might remind him of his good luck, that he survived when 30,000 others did not. But he looked at the stone and thought of the inevitable.
He survived the episode but would not survive his life.
The body was burned and dissembled. There is no stone. A portion of Enrique
already spooned into the blue box, the rest pours into the Hudson.
In a rush it empties, coughing a pile of him onto the edge of the pier, behind the railing beyond our reach.
Marie de Enrique looks younger than the rest of them. She is happy and she believes in everything; God, spirits, palm-readers, reincarnation.
On the pier she touches the white pebbles of bone, and says urgently
“You’re back, you’re back, you came back” –
triumph of the material return to New York.
She had not touched him in eight years. Now he will sit on her bookshelf in a smooth Tibetan blue box.
My father got on a plane when Lucas called, said he was losing consciousness.
If Enrique would last one day more, he would see him alive.
From Mexico, he landed in Newark to make the next flight. A few hours to spare, he came home to wait.
I was making him a ham sandwich when he got the phone call.
Enrique loved to sing, and drink, and sometimes there were drugs.
If he was self-destructive it was only accidental.
He would croon to the cat, I’m sorry baby, your mother rejects you.
The cat’s mother was crazy and they took her babies away from her immediately. This cat, Oscar, was crazy too.
We drink Johnnie Walker and my father splashes a swallow into the Hudson.
She churns fully, darkly. There must be fish we can’t imagine it because of the proximity to the city. You stop thinking of pigeons as alive.
Enrique’s body will meet the fragments of things once-alive down there.
He will conglomerate to the sand or dirt bed.
If grass is the uncut hair of graves, then what of the ashes?
Why do some choose earth and others fire? Choosing melt the flesh, are you afraid of claustrophobia , being broken down by time?
In fire you are violated only once.
CIGARETTE – a woman of twenty, bone to pick with “life”
SYLVIE – a woman of twenty, hasn’t done much thinking
GINA – a woman of twenty, thinks she’s over it, isn’t
CUSTOMER – a man of forty, edgy dad with morals
(CIGARETTE and GINA are both behind the counter of a Barnes and Noble working.)
He’s bored with me, I can tell. It’s insulting.
You’re bored with him, though.
(pause because it’s not different, CIGARETTE indicates the stupidity of this with her face)
Rip off the band-aid.
I should do it before he does. I don’t think my self-confidence can handle being dumped right
(takes a breath)
He’s just so critical, like I’ll say something about how I feel—not fishing for a compliment or anything, just sharing—I’ll say ‘I probably shouldn’t eat these onion rings,’ and he’ll just say something like, ‘yeah they aren’t very good for you’.
It’s hard to come up with a good example, but it happens all the time.
Look whose back from break.
I think I’m a little lightheaded. It isn’t too bad though.
You should lie down.
We’re on the clock I can’t just lie down.
Why not? Cigarette and I never care when we are on the clock, we just do whatever.
We’re getting paid to do a job, though.
Stop being so hyper-ethical. There’s a reason nuns don’t have friends.
My Mom is a nun, you shouldn’t say things like that.
Nuns don’t have kids.
I was lying.
Have some water.
(does not have water)
Wanna know why I’m lightheaded?
I smoked a cigarette. It’s something I’ve been doing pretty often lately. When I’m stressed, usually, but also just whenever.
That’s great Sylvie.
Why do they call you cigarette?
Because it’s my name. My parents named me that. Virginia Cigarette Slim.
What’s it to you, Sylvie?
It’s also a word with beautiful aesthetics: cig-a-rette.
(oddly aggressive, perhaps sarcastic)
Why are you called Sylvie?
My actual name is Sylvia, it’s a nickname. Can I call you Virginia? That’s a beautiful word too.
No, but I’m going to call you Sylvia from now on.
Yeah that’s totally fine.
GINA (to CIGARETTE)
Do you even smoke?
I used to but East coast weed doesn’t do it for me anymore. Not after I had some of that medical
grade Frisco shit. Why, you got a spliff?
You go by Cigarette and you don’t smoke!?
Oh, you mean ciggs. When I’m drunk sometimes or if I’m in need of inspiration.
And you still go by cigarette?
Maybe if you had a cool name your boyfriend wouldn’t be bored.
Gina is a cool name. You aren’t supposed to say things like that, you’re my friend.
SYLVIE (to CIGARETTE)
I always forget you do art.
Cigarette, can I see some of your art?
(CIGARETTE silently walks over to her bag, takes out a computer, sets it down where they can both observe, opens it up.)
Art isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. At a certain moment. No, all the time. You
can’t slip it on and off like a glove. If you’re an artist then you’re always an artist and everything you do is art. Understand?
No, not really.
You’re not saying you’re an artist, you’re saying you’re art. That’s dumb. We’re all just people.
No we aren’t, we’re stylistic choices. All of us are stylistic choices. The people who
acknowledge it, they are artists.
I don’t know about that.
My stylistic choice would be...like, casual prep with hints of something lurking underneath: a
I really don’t see you that way.
Is it lunch yet, I want to call Zack.
Just call him.
(GINA distances herself a little bit, dials her cell)
Are we going to look at your art?
(into her phone)
Hey Zack. I just wanted to call and say hi. No, no, nothings’ really going on; well, just that one of the girls here was being kinda mean. How are you?
This is my dog when she was a puppy. I know you don't like pets. But I don't care.
This is a dress I wanted but it got sold.
These are shoes I want. They are 300 dollars. They will never be mine.
That sucks, listen: am I boring? It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. Also, why don’t
you have a petname for me. Like, everyone else is off calling each other ‘honey’ or ‘sweetie’ or ‘ladycakes’ and you’re always just like: ‘Gina, hand me the remote.’
Woah, those are COOL.
This is Julie and her cat.
This is Mason and me.
That's my sister's boyfriend and his cat. Gulliver. This is France.
I’ve always wanted to see France.
No, no, I don’t want you to call me ladycakes, I want something that’s heartfelt. And maybe edgy. You know how I call you ‘Zee-Zee’ sometimes? I think you should have something like that for me.
This is four goats in a bucket.
This is me when I looked like a lesbian.
You’d be a great lesbian!
They’ve been trying to recruit me for a while now.
This is two sheep sitting on a sheep. I don't know what that is.
That's Julie's cat again. With me.
Excuse me, Miss?
What about ‘G & T’?
One sec, can’t you see I’m on the phone?
(Back to the phone)
'G & T'.
Like the first drink we had together and it also /sounds like Gina, so.
/I don’t mean to interrupt, but.
I can be—I am edgy.
This is kind of the tattoo I want. Sort of.
This is hello kitty but she's a Scorpio. This is a dog wolf.
Miss, I just would like
Ask them. Okay? They work here too. God.
(into the phone)
You know what? I called you to feel better about this whole thing and you just make me feel worse.
(the CUSTOMER moseys over to CIGARETTE and SYLVIE)
There are times when I don’t want to hear the truth, Zack. No. I said that wrong. When the truth is not the right thing to say. That’s what I meant.
(to CIGARETTE and SYLVIE)
Excuse me, could one of you help me?
There is a self check-out, you know.
This is a pink chicken with long eyelashes.
This is more sheep.
Um, Cigarette, I think we should help him.
Can I speak with your manager?
I am the manager.
No you aren’t.
Yes I am. And he needs to wait for one more minute.
Well, this has been great for my self confidence, Zack.
That’s not fair, when have I ever said I think that this relationship is all about me? I would never say that. I don’t get why you can’t just validate me right now. You know what, just: bye, Zack.
This is France again.
This is the birth of Venus.
This is a cat in a car, this is a cat with a hat. And everything else is boring.
Cigg, you’re so cool.
Don’t call me Cigg.
What is it.
(puts book on counter)
Jane Austen, how original. Read some Foucault or something.
It’s for my daughter.
Do her a favor, get some Bukowski.
I don’t think that would be appropriate. I would just like to purchase this book.
(Walking toward them)
Is he giving you a hard time too?
He’s buying his daughter Pride and Prejudice. Now she’s gonna be one of those girls.
I bet your family is, like, perfect. Not even any secrets lurking underneath. Little suburban dream.
Yeah, and I bet you all eat dinner together.
Sir, maybe I can help you.
No, Sylvie, this guy is being mean to us. Sylvie, what do you think his name is?
Yeah, Sylvie, what’s his name?
Oh my God!
Let me ask you something, Philip, how would you describe yourself?
Just answer this question and we’ll help you check out.
Yeah, just answer the question.
I am an optometrist.
(Starting to help CUSTOMER, scanning the books, etc.)
Definitely not an artist.
Typical regular guy. Not living like an artist for sure. No stylistic choices.
Haha, no, not like you, Cigarette. With your sheep in a bucket or cool pictures of cats.
(GINA finishes helping him. He exits.)
Have a nice day!
What a loser.
Is it just me, or did he seem pretty unaffected by that?
Yeah on the surface, but there’s probably something lurking underneath.
A cow lies in a paddock,
a dead eucalyptus.
A cow lies in a paddock,
dead, beside the fence.
A sheep scratches its wooly side
on the fence, brown.
A cow and a horse share a paddock,
the paddock is not yet burning.
There I am on the cliffside
above the stone water,
above the dam on the cliff rock.
On the bus, questioning the authenticity
of this experience.
A girl has drowned in France
and at evening, the body on the bank
bloats white, the skin blues.
In the morning
a dog finds her but does not whimper.
In the afternoon
the same dog herds wooly sheep
through matchstick trees.
The eucalyptus peels her own skin off
in downward pinkish curls.
A farmer skins the dead cow by hand.
The meat is pinkish, soft and heavy,
much like the milk. Intestines
bloat white, blue-veined.
Atop the beehive boxes passers by
place towers of rock totems.
Or tie their boots by the laces
to barbed wire fences.
For six weeks I carried the unopened envelope with me, from the Israel-Syria border in the Golan Heights to the foot of the Dead Sea, from the Western Wall in Jerusalem to the brilliantly loud Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. I kept it in the hidden pocket at the back of my notebook. I forgot it was there.
I had packed my bags so scrupulously that bringing the envelope seemed an unpardonable luxury. I brought only black clothes so that dirt would not show and assembling outfits would be easy; I did laundry in the bathtub every week. My only indulgences, three books of poetry, sat mostly untouched at my bedside. I was in Israel to study dance and spent most of the time that I was not in class wandering around Tel Aviv. The date of my return flight crept up impossibly quickly until I injured my knee and skipped class on the eve of my departure to slowly explore.
I wandered alone through the neighborhoods of Neve Tzedek and Lev HaIr, pausing to photograph the fountain outside Independence Hall and the patches of graffiti in Hebrew I’d admired on my daily walk to class. My dusty leather boots clicked down Rehov Daniel as I followed the sun on its nosedive into the Mediterranean, the din of the artisan’s market on Nachalat Binyamin buffeting me gently forward. Back in my apartment my small suitcase was tightly packed with gifts and my belongings, and the number for a cab company to take me to the airport in the morning was scrawled on a post-it note on the kitchen table.
The shoreline was peppered with sunset-gazers: black hats, young couples, businessmen unbuttoning their wool jackets. A thickset black and white cat turned his back to the horizon and watched me as I approached a rocky outcrop. I murmured nondescript prayers for the safety of my family, stepping up onto a low boulder. This habit of prayer had begun after I visited the Western Wall and experienced a release of deep tension while pressing my forehead to the stone, awkwardly whispering pleas for divine intervention in what then seemed to be an insurmountable mourning. The cat blinked lazily as I snapped a picture of him before turning to the water.
The Mediterranean Sea has an average depth of 4,900 feet and the deepest recorded point is 17,280 feet in the Calypso Deep. It covers an approximate area of 965,000 square miles, but its connection to the Atlantic (the Strait of Gibraltar) is only 8.7 miles wide. Twenty-three states have a coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. On February 12, 2013 at 3:30, an earthquake that measured 2.8 on the Richter scale occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Two hours later, the sun was setting while I watched, and the waves had calmed.
I did not remember putting the notebook into my bag but as I turned to leave I felt it bump against my hip. Without thinking I took it out and turned to the very end, where only a few blank pages remained. I planned to finish the notebook on the flight back to New York, which seemed a fitting capstone. I drew from the hidden pocket the small envelope and tore the seal open.
The ring had come to me through the mail, in a small box inside a padded envelope inside a medium box inside a big box. It stood for an engagement that was already agreed upon and there was no ceremony involved in its acquisition, just trembling hands that held my trembling hands in my room at Bennington and unwrapped absurd packaging to reveal what I had chosen myself and paid for myself. I wore it for a few months, admiring my own taste. Unfortunately, the ring suited me better than the proposed future it bound me to. I hung it from a string around my neck for several weeks after removing it, as if to wean myself slowly from its allure, but before long took it off entirely.
Two weeks after I had taken off the ring, I discovered a quarry. I was in residence with a dance company at a festival in Western Massachusetts and due to the minimal rehearsal schedule and stifling July heat, my colleagues and I spent most mornings flinging ourselves into this still water. Along the path leading to the quarry were a selection of rusted-out old cars and we presumed that there must be more hidden beneath depths where our lungs could not reach. I remembered a drowned squirrel I’d found in my wading pool as a child and knew there must be skeletons nestled into steering wheels, perhaps an ursine skull tucked under an aqueous glove compartment. I left the ring inside my boot and floated into nooks and crannies around the edge of the basin, turning over onto my back to stare up at the stone ceiling. I felt the pull of distance below me but relinquished nothing; my loss was still too fresh to compound.
The artifacts we imbue with our love and desire are worth no more than the feelings themselves. They are pieces of earth molded into significant forms, beautiful and rare, but their value is ultimately sentimental. Supply and demand, limited resources; no economic principle explains the simmering glow of adoration or the searing agony of heartbreak, just as there is no logical reason why a wispy-thin silver band worn on my left ring finger for a matter of months came to feel like a Sisyphean boulder. There did not seem to be an obvious answer to the question of what to do with the ring, since it had not been given to me so much as permitted me and therefore there was no one to whom I might have returned it. I took up the task of carrying it wherever I went in case an opportunity presented itself through which I might be rid of it.
Crumpling the envelope into my pocket, I held the ring out towards the water between my thumb and forefinger. I peered through it, imagining that I could see in this tiny frame a glimpse of the life I had decided was not for me. Then I wound up and threw it as far as I could.
The Mediterranean Sea is considered a small-scale ocean with high environmental variability and steep physicochemical gradients within a relatively restricted region, with salinity, temperature, stratification and alkalinity all increasing towards the east. Acidification is an additional pressure on Mediterranean Sea ecosystems, already suffering from overfishing, increasing sea surface temperatures, and invasions of alien species. With their relatively short residence times, Mediterranean Sea deep waters are likely to lag changes in surface waters by a few decades at most. What I think this means is that an object that rests at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea will be jostled around more often than it might in a different ocean, and also that it will be eaten away by acid.
Months have passed since I turned my back on the sea and let it devour the bond of a relationship that I do not miss. Mine is not the last ring it has taken. I believe beyond the shadow of a doubt that among the sediment and refuse that prevented my ancestors from eating the animals that dwell on the ocean floor, there are fields of diamonds, relics from thousands of men and women who awoke one day and thought, this cannot go on. I am certain that at the very moment that I was drawing back my shoulder for a mighty pitch, somewhere along the shore, someone else was doing the same. I imagine that at the bottom of every body of water, there is a layer of grief.
A week after I left Israel there was another, larger earthquake in the Mediterranean, one that I imagine might have cleaved the earth beneath my little ring and pulled it even further out of reach. Now and then I still feel it on me like a ghostly caress and I catch myself reflexively reaching to touch it with my other hand. I like to think of it being slowly pulled down through the ocean floor, into rock and lava. I imagine great, romantic adventures for it, a fantastic love that lasts for a thousand years, burning away at the core of the world.