by Fred Leebron
Excerpted from The New Said It Was by Fred Leebron.
How to explain the distractions of the last few weeks, the fact that I don’t want to be here anymore? That when the earth trembles, I am afraid. That when I wake every morning after interrupted sleep, I have a gnawing headache, as if in sleep I had tried to escape something that would not let me go. Recently arrived, now I am held here, against my will. The bridge is out, the highways are broken, the steps to the mountaintop are buckled and gaping.
None of us are going anywhere. We are prisoners of the earth.
My lover Malaga, a native, the woman I moved here for, insists that I calm down. “You’re an alarmist,” she says. “Have you no dignity?” But a few weeks ago I was writing all of you—my friends, my parents, my other lover—that you had to come out here, come be here where the ocean meets the bay and the mountains descend to the sea. Now I must tell you all, Stay away. It’s not worth it. And we still have no electricity, no phone, no running water, no gas. Nothing, we have nothing.
Yet, remarkably, the visitors keep arriving. They come on planes, trains, mountain burros, foot—yes, on foot. Of course they are mostly journalists, sweat-stained and transparent like flypaper. But the tourists are also coming, in Bermuda shorts and short-sleeved shirts as if they are guests at the same garden party. They’re harmless enough—thermoses of soup and coffee, flashlights, portable radios, batteries strapped to the bottom of their daypacks. I want to make friends with them, ask them when they are leaving and if, perhaps, I can catch a ride with them—a seat on the special planes and trains that have brought them, a place among the trekking groups that have hiked their way over the ravenous open earth to our crumbling and crooked city.
I am no survivor, no witness. I have nothing to say that could possibly add to your perceptions from far away. Stay where you are. Host dinner parties, go to the theater, take long showers, do your laundry.
Already Malaga is in the cracked hallway, packing her bags, leaving me. “Your hysteria bores me,” she says. “I want to revel in our unique situation, you want to wallow in it.”
She goes out the doorless foyer. In the street children are placing straws in the jagged fissures while the tourists take their pictures. I stand at my disaster station—a desk in the kitchen doorway that I can fit under—looking out at them. I could have them all to dinner. We could eat liquid rancid ice cream spread on slices of moldy crusted bread and pick pieces of shattered plates from our teeth.
Outside, Malaga bends over the children, stroking their hair, playing the earthmother. Then she starts on her way down the hill, into the heart of the city. She crosses lawns where the grass and soil have separated from the clay, and the clay from the water, and the water from—
“—Good luck,” I call after my Malaga. She’ll need it, the shrew.
I’ve decided to try to seduce a few of the tourists, to get inside those Bermuda shorts and unlock the secret of their self-sufficiency. Freeze-dried foods, clean changes of clothes, vitamin capsules. How long will they stay with us? How long can they last?
Our chief industry, entrepot trading, lies listing in the harbor. Our mayor parades through the streets, shaking hands and promoting the new sports stadium. Half our population is trapped in a tunnel beneath the bay, caught in the middle of that last commute, while the other half is restless, bored, uneasy on the surface. Impromptu therapy groups jam the sidewalks, strangers sitting cross-legged in circles on the pavement. “I’m most afraid of falling down a deep stairwell into space,” says a woman. “Maybe we already have,” they reassure her.
I imagine such a dialogue from Malaga, that desire to announce that what you fear the most has already occurred, so live in it. She makes me so ashamed, I cannot bring myself to chase after the tourists, even if they would let me catch them.
But alarums, alarums. The earth has opened up to reveal that we are indeed the oldest city in the world. Not Karnak, not Athens, not Istanbul Constantinople, not any place Asian. From beneath our silt and water, hidden in our solid core, has sprung an ancient gourd. Alarums, alarums. Let us drink the tainted water and consume the rotted meat. Alarums, alarums. How to defend ourselves against the trumpeted charges of impropriety, exploitation, counterfeit antiquity? Our abyss is deeper than we suspected, and now we must await the invasion of geologists, archaeologists and neologists, who will join the throngs of structural engineers and disaster worshippers that already crowd our mobbed hotels. Alarums, alarums.
I can’t go anywhere, experience anything without thinking of you who are so far away. For instance, if I sit in the sun when evening hits and the fog begins to roll down to the waterside, I think of your weather, and wonder what it is like. Or if I go to the bathhouse and stand in line for ten hours waiting for those two magic minutes under the thinnest rivulet of impurity, I wonder idiotically what you are drinking right then, at that very moment. Perhaps it is a glass of our famous water, bottled and shipped to you months before our disaster, which you have saved so perspicaciously in your massive refrigerator. But I don’t envy you. I am experiencing that once-in-a-lifetime event which I will be able to comprehend only after years of introspection and mathematical analysis. How long will I have lived? What fraction of my life will this aftermath have occupied? For isn’t this what Malaga is saying? How we must revel in it? I must find a journalist and tell him what I have discovered about myself, how I have changed in these weeks, what kind of study I will make for some sociologist down the way. I must surrender and immerse myself in that which I’ve been trying to transcend. I must stop being a tourist to my own catastrophe.
I work in the streets, I shovel for the Sanitation Department, I don’t think of being away. I don’t write you. .
I am mugged, my house is pillaged, thieves pry open the cracks in my hallway as if expecting to find a hidden wealth. I have nothing. Sometimes, on the street I think I see you all—my beautiful other lover (or perhaps now you are simply my lover, since there is no lover beyond or before you) gliding past an open window; my father and mother scavenging in the black foundation of a gone building; my brother with binoculars peering out into the ocean, looking for whales; and my friends eating food we would fight over if we knew you had it. And then I approach you, to ask why you have not come by to see me, not left a note tacked to the scrap of my apartment, not merely slipped in to wait under the remains of my stifling disaster station. Yet it is not you I touch, after all, but a stranger, or several strangers, or some deceptive combination of cloth and air whirling through the street.
Quietly, I wish for Malaga, for that lover who deserted because I could not embrace our grim catastrophe, because I was new and free and determined to deny that I had to flourish in it. Now my colleagues in Sanitation, all natives, think I’m doing fine. “You’re getting over it,” they say. “And then-who knows?” But unlike me they believe we are employed by archaeologists, bound to be famous, digging for another gourd.
I saw Malaga today—finally. “Where are your clothes?” she asked me.
“ I donated them to the Red Cross.”
“You’re a fool.”
She walked away. I ran after her.
“You must tell me how you are!” I screamed.
“I’m fine.” She looked bored. “I eat pine cones from the hills, drink water from the bay. What could be more cosmopolitan?”
I let her go, I couldn’t believe my ears, that she herself was insisting on escapism. Bewildered, I walked to the Park Troubadour, where the homosexuals were constructing a mock village of papier-mache.
“It’s symbolic,” one of them said. “For the homeless.”
“The new homeless or the old homeless?”
“Don’t be daft.”
I walked amid the soaking newspaper, touched the fragile walls. The grass was turning brown-gold, the natives called it, but being an immigrant I knew it was brown.
“You could sleep here,” the homosexual said, lagging along beside me. “It would be very symbolic.”
Quickly, I hiked out of the park and up over the many hills. I was sweating. I looked back and had a view. A great smear of black clouds spread over the city, cars lay hobbled ·in the streets, a human din redounded within the valleys. I spread out my hands and felt the voices on my fingertips. My head throbbed. A smell bolted up from the city of waste and decay, rotted produce, unspeakable indigence. .
Yesterday the officials posted a list of what is not allowed: candles, running water, public defecation, fruit and vegetables, sex.
Don’t come out here, is what I’m trying to say. We’re not doing fine. And It won’t ever be the same.
Fred Leebron has published novels, stories and essays. He has also co-edited two anthologies and co-authored a textbook. “Turismo” is excerpt from his collection, The News Said It Was, in bookstores now.