Good Looking

When I realize you’re staring at me, I return the attention. Then I look at your direction every other minute, to see if you’ve remained fascinated by my appearance. To know that I’m being considered, however temporarily, fills me with an intense feeling of worth. Perhaps, after all, I am good looking.

 

Happiness

I consider myself an occasionally happy person. It is likely you see me sad-looking, the corner of my mouth tweaked to reveal my irritability, or criticality. It is also likely my joke is half-genuine when we meet for the first time. For, although I am generally polite, and will try to make you feel in good company, politeness scarcely reveals a state of mind.

The daily happiness to which I aspire is attainable. I am most happy when I turn off my reading lamp and lie on my bed. My solitariness, the enshrouding darkness, the stuporous feeling I get from thoughts receding to the base of my mind, and the knowledge that I am momentarily disaffected by the hibernating world—makes me happy.

 

Fame

Sometimes I think I have until I’m 28 to become famous. Otherwise I’ll die obscure.

I once read that fame is like a shiny linen suit you always wanted. Yet when you’re given you become over-protective, wearing it less and less until it can only be found in your wardrobe.

I still want the suit though, because I have a wardrobe. I mean this literally and figuratively.

 

Appearances

It is very important I keep up appearances. Yesterday, waiting for the train door to open, I stood beside a young woman, black like me, only perhaps a few years older. I looked up at the same time she did. We locked eyes. I tried to pretend I was angry, or slightly irritated, so I could seem mysterious. When we entered the train, and sat, we were a few feet apart. I pulled out Widow Basquiat from my bag. I tilted the book cover so she could see it if she looked my way. I didn’t want her to think I am without suave, or unintelligent: Widow Basquiat is the rave-book of the summer. And when, suddenly struck by the exultation in Patrick Watson’s voice, I wanted to pull out my phone to confirm what song from Love Songs For Robots was playing, it occurred to me that if I did, she would see that I didn’t have an iPhone (although I do, but the screen is now broken), and think I am not fashionable, or worse, impoverished.

For the sake of others, I am always watching myself from outside, and making slight modifications.

 

My Angel, Carry Me

An Angel

 

The first thing he said, once he sat in a train full of people, was: Fuck me. Those words were whispered, but not tentative, quite limpid, like unchallenged truth, like an axiom. So I heard him. And I remembered a story, which I copied into my notebook, to retell in a book I’m writing.

Gustavo, the shoemaker, is old and dies. He dies in his shop whilst repairing a pair of sandals. An angel accompanies him to heaven. At one moment the angel speaks: If you want to, you can now look down, and you’ll see the footprints of your life. The old man does so – and he sees the long trail of his steps. Why is it, he asks, that two or three times, for quite a long way, my footprints stopped, as if my life had ended and I had died? How is it possible? And the angel laughs and replies: Those were the times I carried you.1

The storyteller tells us: All stories are also the stories of hands – picking up, balancing, pointing, joining, kneading, threading, caressing, abandoned in sleep, cutting, eating, wiping, playing music, scratching, grasping, peeling, clenching, pulling a trigger, folding.2

I now attach a copy of a card I was given, days earlier, by a woman. She said she was deaf. She walked around the subway car, requesting the kindness of strangers, handing out cards. One side read: Hello! I am a deaf person. I am selling this…Deaf Education System Card…to make my living and to support my family. Would you kindly buy one? Pay any price you wish. Thank you! (Over)

Over, on the other side, alphabetized fingers and palms – pointed, bent, rounded, firm, held, triangulated, askew. Most importantly, some of the fingers, held together, resembled the gesture anyone makes when lifting a thing, or attempting to lift a person.

  1. John Berger, From A to X, London: Verso, 2008), p. 151 []
  2. Ibid., p. 68 []

A Dream

In the movie I watched before I fell asleep, a corrupt policeman was bribed with a gold wristwatch. He held it uncertainly, as though contemplating the worth of his soul, while being driven in a taxi. He slipped out his cheap silver wristwatch and handed it to the man driving him, a gift.

When I woke the next morning, forgetting the movie, I thought I had worn a wristwatch in my dream.

The last wristwatch I had worn, given as a gift by my lover, had fallen from my wrist several months earlier. I kept it in an old suitcase. When I last checked, it worked despite its shattered screen, telling the wrong time.

I read about a dream, also. The dream was recounted in a book I bought at a bookstore crumbling with used books, where the shelves were shaped as a fortress, the light dim, and the sensuous smell was of worn paper. The bookseller was young and unsmiling, I suppose in his late thirties. The dazzle in his eyes like that of a far older man—acknowledging all the ways books make us overage.

The book is also a gift from a previous owner, who underlined words and scribbled on the margins. There are long unmarked passages, like fallow territory, indicating incomprehension, or disdain. Or, perhaps, knowing the book would be disposed, the first reader bequeathed those passages to a future inheritor.

In another book, one I bought after wandering for an hour in a bigger bookstore, where the shelves are mock ramparts, another dream is recounted. A lover is writing her lover in prison. She tells him: “The word recently has altered since they took you. Tonight I don’t want to write how long ago that was. The word recently now covers all that time. Once it meant a few weeks or the day before yesterday. Recently I had a dream.”1

In my dream we have surpassed distance.

 

  1. John Berger, From A to X (London: Verso, 2008), p. 10. []

A Pair of Presence

Tidiani Shitou, Deux amies au téléphone (1979)
Tidiani Shitou, Deux amies au téléphone (1979)

 

When I saw twin sisters for the first time in New York, I couldn’t take my eyes away. They had short, dark hair, and wore black shirts; one wore a jean, the  other a skirt. What I noticed immediately after their style of clothing were the tattoos on their chest. I couldn’t tell how far down it went, if it covered more than their collarbones and the edge of their necks, if it left its trail on protuberant flesh. One tattoo, the one I saw clearly, resembled a giant mothy creature, crowned.

A regal bug? Was she—were they—royalty? What monarchical dreams attended their sleep?

(On the Caucasian skin, tattoos are of special quality: the black ink appears mixed in silver. The tone of any color imposed on such skin acquires an extra variation. It is not fully black. The skin is a muddier hue of white,  the black is grey.)

And when, fifteen minutes later, I was alone, walking, I noticed the fly of my trouser was open. (Earlier, looking at their skin, I thought my trousers were of the same shade.) What embarrassed me about my fly wasn’t the knowledge of how long it remained open, but the realization that, perhaps, they returned my stare because they noticed the absurd composition of my trousers.

In mid-May my friend told me a story about twin sisters.

The sisters attended middle school with her, different classes. She never spoke to them, but admired the way they cut their hair, uniformly, a pair.

While in college at Barnard, several years later, she saw one of the twins, walking alone. Hours later she saw the other twin, also walking alone. Their hairstyles were now dissimilar.

Sometime in May she saw both girls again, co-passengers of a moving train. In all this time she hadn’t spoken to the girls, only seeing them in periphery, and recognizing who they were. Yet all three girls had, as a matter of fact, and of metaphor, grown up together, sharing an entwined existence in their chance encounters. It has become clear what you say about intimate strangers, my friend said.

The selfsame star is preserved.

Replicas

“Tonight, the two waiters from the Café de Flore go to the Café Bonaparte for their aperitif; one has his ‘lady’ with him, the other has forgotten to take his flu pills; they are served…by the young waiter of the Café Bonaparte, who unlike them is on duty…A thousand examples of this reverberation, which is always fascinating: barber getting a haircut, shoeshine boy (in Morocco) having his shoes shined, a cook making herself dinner, an actor going to the theater on the night his own play is off, a screenwriter who sees films, a writer who reads books; Mlle M., an elderly secretary, cannot write the word ‘erasure’ without having to erase…”1

My friend tells me a story, from back home in Zimbabwe.

Her mother has a Mazda truck. It is old and beat-up, frequently requiring repair. Every now and then she calls a mechanic. She works outside the city, using the Mazda each time she travels. The mechanic can only work on the truck when she is in the city, and in her city house there is a maid. One day the maid tells my friend’s mother she is pregnant, and the mechanic is responsible. They are going to get married, the maid says. Everyone is happy; the maid moves out of the house, pregnant, married to the mechanic.

Time passes, a new maid is employed. The Mazda truck needs repair, and again a mechanic is hired, different from the first. The new maid again tells my friend’s mother she is pregnant. The second mechanic is responsible. Everyone, again, is happy. The new maid moves out of the house, pregnant, married to the second mechanic. When the Mazda is in need of repair again, my friend’s father says to my friend’s mother: Warn your mechanics!

A thousand examples of this reverberation.

  1. Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes (California: University of California Press, 1994), p.49 []

Seeing the Dead

IMG_3334

1

Rora said: Rambo particularly liked me to take pictures with the dead and then look at them later. It turned him on—that was his big dick, his absolute power: being alive in the middle of death. That was all that it boiled down to: the dead were wrong, the living were right.

He said: The thing is, everybody who has ever been photographed is either dead or will die. That’s why nobody photographs me. I want to stay on this side of the picture.

In Sarajevo, the young man who emptied seven bullets into Rora grabbed his camera and walked calmly away. Thankfully, the negatives were at home.1

2

Your photograph has survived you, as if through it we consider the arcane meaning of your absence.

For example: I went to a memorial service. Beside the coffin I placed photographs of the once-living person. In one she was alone, in front of what seemed like a waterfall. In another, she was with her sister, smiling lovingly, as if aware of times when the photograph would be looked at without her. In the third, she was with her father. They were sitting. He held her from behind. My little girl; I will never let you go.

3

Those days, they said, after we took over a town, he would take exhaustive photos of the fallen terrorists. In their state of repose, each photographed body would still bear the evidence of life: sometimes, you could see the black of the eye receding into the socket, or the fingers recoiling at the outset of rigor mortis. I asked them how they always managed to allow him take those photographs. Weren’t they pressed for time? No, we weren’t. When you win a war you are free to do what you want with the enemy’s body.

4

When we still believed in having children, we disagreed on what sort of bedtime videos we’ll let them watch.

5

Until I told Nurya, there was no way to know how sickening it was. It was okay for you, and okay for me. The videos of dying black men appeared online from time to time, and when either of us heard of a new one, we waited until the other was home to watch, full screen, on the desktop computer. Nurya said there was something utterly sadistic about this—how do you sleep with those images in your visual bank?

In Aluu, four boys burning to death, charring in front of your gaze; in South Carolina, Walter Scott shot eight times in the back, running for his life; in New York, Eric Garner stiffening in a chokehold, crying out innocence; in Syria…

The funny thing, I said to Nurya in defense, is that you can now watch the videos vicariously. Online-people will generously tell you what they’ve seen, and their followers will carry the stories in hashtags. She kept glaring at me in revulsion.

6

You wrote: “Some of the ancient reliefs represent one Pharaoh or another with an analogous figure behind him. Perhaps these reliefs are what account for the translation of ka, in early studies, with the Arabic word for ‘double,’ qarin. Khnum, the god of creation, has a rotating wheel like that of a porter, his tool for fashioning human beings. He uses this wheel to create two corresponding forms: the body of the newborn, and his ka, which will accompany him from the day of his birth until after his death. During his life, a person is ‘master of his ka, coming and going with it,’ though it remains unseen. The ka has the characteristics and physical features of the person, with the same height and girth, the same walk and way of laughing, and wears similar clothing.”2

Do you remember how shocked we were to discover, in one of our Google image searches for “selfsame,” the only photograph that survives your grandmother’s youth? How did it get online? Of course you had never scanned it, or uploaded it to any website. Your father didn’t remember the photograph when you asked him, confused by your “alacritous fuss” (those were his exact words). And to make things even eerier, you couldn’t find the physical photograph again.

7

You wrote: “When Ajanaku died in his hometown last year, his church gave the impression that he was abroad. There were reports also that his corpse was brought to Lagos State by traditional cultists who allegedly held traditional rites for seven days in his Ikola home. The controversy that followed was that some of his parts were removed and that he had been hurriedly buried.”

Also: “Many of those who were there didn’t come to pay their last respects to the deceased but to catch a glimpse of the late pastor. As at the time of filing this report, the people were still waiting anxiously for the casket bearing the remains of the dead pastor to be opened. But there was no indication that the casket would be opened.”

8

I swear to you: the tattooed man consoled me after my flaccid visions of Garissa. I guess he is Spanish, or Argentine, or a body once dipped in the Mediterranean, aboard a dinghy. I guess he is a fragmented presence from all the immigrant histories I am now reading. I guess he is a postcard, sent to the hereafter. I guess with him I am going ashore, maybe to a better place. But unlike all others I’ve seen in my visions, all the floating dead and all the massacred dead, he is alive: the armpit hair, chest-hair, eyebrow, short hair, nipples encircled by dark aureole, active eye. Whatever doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger. These are the words of the tattoo. The inscription will remain on his body even in death.

 

Image: “Micah, 2009,” (c) Benjamin Fredrickson, photo of postcard courtesy E. Iduma.

  1. Retold from: Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), pp. 189, 284 []
  2. Radwa Ashour, Specters, trans. by Barbara Romaine (Northampton: Interlink Books, 2011), p. 193 []

Alternative Lives

“Repetition. Things had begun to double. There must be a term for it. Is it a natural process or an historical one? Should it be encouraged or suppressed? Or simply endured? Perhaps every gesture will beget its twin, every action find an echo, every insight become a catechism, like some chain reaction that can never be halted. The concatenated universe.”1

 

In the moving train there was a man with a hood over his head. He was sitting by the window. I saw him looking at his reflection. And then he smiled—every inch of his mouth seemed to show how deliberate this smile was, and how purposeful. I was curious. Had nostalgic happiness erupted, as is sometimes the case, from the past? Then I saw another train speeding past on the opposite track, which I perceived the man was also watching. I could now guess another reason for his smile: Someone sitting by the window of the parallel train, someone he loved, with whom he exchanged a conversational glance. Yet the improbability of this wasn’t lost on me.

When I turned away I noticed my own reflection. My lips were firmly pursed. The expression on my face could have been mistaken for an unhappy one, or the demeanor of a man who wasn’t remotely considering a smile.

Again I sought the hooded man’s face. He was now looking towards me. I could claim, that, at the moment our eyes met, the look on his face become similar to mine.

But faces aren’t mirrors. Supposing we can look long enough at others to discover their secret impulses, could we understand ours in the process?

  1. Ivan Vladislavic, Double Negative (London: And Other Stories, 2013), p.77 []