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Archive for the ‘3. My Skull is Made with Sugar and Flowers’ Category

Winter break is here and everyone makes excited plans to go home and open gifts and drink cocoa and go sledding and sing jingle bells. Well ho ho ho, I never did that growing up so I am feeling strangely separate from everyone. We went to a big end of the term party. There’s some catchy theme to it, but essentially they are all just variations in which girls get to dress as provocatively as possible and the boys wear whatever will get the most laughs. Kat finally hooked up with Jake and I have a million bad pictures of me online with lazy eyes looking sloppy. Classic. Life goes on.  I think briefly about taking up one of several invites to go home with friends for the holidays, but cringe at the thought of being some family’s poor temporary adopted sibling. So, after a few days of lounging around, I muster some pity for my family and call them. Mamá answers the phone in Spanish and immediately starts an endless stream of chattering and yelling and cooing and scolding. Cuando vas a regresar a la casa, mi’ja? I wince, knowing that she wouldn’t accept just a Feliz Navidad phone call. I make loose plans to come home for just two days, okay? It’s only a two hour drive but I exaggerate the distance and my need to do work. I can hear her smiling through the phone.

I spend the next day at a coffee shop, trying to soak up my urban life as much as possible, reminding myself that I have escaped my past and am just going back to check in and refresh the fact that I am absolutely not a part of that life anymore. Driving down the main avenue in Flores is like seeing two worlds superimposed. Half the stores have words in English, the other half in Spanish. Actually, depending on the cross streets it’s mostly Spanish. Tiny carnecierias with huge animal body parts hanging in windows- their marbled muscles looking stiff and imposing. A man leans in the doorway of his tienda de verduras– noted by a hand painted sign with the letters getting smaller from left to right. Lopsided oranges, browning bananas, flat and de-spined cactus fruit all sit stagnantly in soft-sided boxes gathering tiny fruit flies. And several stores have so much lettering painted on them you can’t even see through the window. Screaming in neon orange and a blinding green: Cartas! Tarjetas! Envios de moneda a Mexico, Columbia, Nicaragua! I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone told me I had accidentally driven too far and crossed the border into Mexico already; except for the fact that I knew where I was. I was home. That word feels very distant from me. That word conjures up images of smiling families with blonde hair and fireplaces and turkeys, even though home was something very different for me growing up. It’s as if the word home and the image of home don’t connect for me: an unbalanced math equation, a lopsided teeter-totter.

As I pull up to my parent’s house, I am at first flooded with memory and emotion, happy to see mom, dad, brothers, a familiar place.  But it quickly fades to irritation at their habits, their disapproval of me and my lifetsyle, my disapproval of them. After a strained dinner, we sit and watch a bad tv show not saying much.  I curl up on the couch (my upstairs bedroom has been given to my brother!), feeling displaced, uncomfortable on the scratchy couch, embarrassed by my slight disgust with the blankets that have dog hair on them.  I don’t sleep well.  In the morning, I help mom cook breakfast. She asks me to help with laundry too (What is this, the 1950s?) but instead I go for a run. I think it will be good to get out of the house, and a little exercise always makes me feel better.  But this run is not like on campus.  Not all the roads are paved.  There are few of the tall, dazzling palms I love.  No well-kept creek.  As I run, I am met with barking dogs, stares from everyone, and a few low whistles from older men on patios.  I cut the run short and head back.   That afternoon we all go to the park.  Kids swim, music blares, people laugh and drink gallons of coca cola. Is it always summer here?  (Yes, is the answer)  The next day we go to church (Dios primero siempre, m’ija.) I sit through it, mind blanks and numb and, frankly, bored. I am about to run away and never come back.  On the walk home,  dad whispers something about how important it is to connect with siblings. I look over at Manuel and Juanito and can hardly imagine they are related to me. Manuel looks a little tired, maybe I will chat with him for a bit about what he is up to. Wasn’t he starting a new business? Maybe he’s working long hours to get it off the ground. But, as soon as we all get back to the house, irritated by another request of mama’s to participate in household chores, I forgo conversation with mi hermanos to head back on the road early. She thinks she notices a shared glance between her brother and father, but ignores this as she closes the car door and waves out the window. Goodbye, she thinks, isn’t always so sad.

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There was a great story I read once about a man who had permanent short term memory loss- he literally could not keep an idea in his head from longer than two minutes. Which meant conversations, going for walks, cooking- anything that lasted longer than two minutes- became impossible because he would forget what he was doing and get confused. In the same story, representing the other extreme, was a woman who could never forget anything. If you mentioned any date or time her mind would paralyze her with memories, overriding her ability to stay focused on the present. I identify with that a lot more. Amnesia seems almost freeing by comparison- like you can’t ever be sad or get bogged down with a memory because it simply flushes away before you have a chance to take responsibility for yourself. But never forgetting…

I went to lunch with some friends a week ago. They all danced and jumped and sang for Mexican food. I rolled my eyes but didn’t want to be the stick in the mud. Carly claimed to have discovered this really authentic place, so we go. And the instant we walk in I am overtaken with memory. The smell of cilantro, the steam rising above a stack of hot tortillas, the over-the-top-cheesy rrrrrradio musica and rapid chatter of commericals en español. Carly is studying spanish so she’s all eager beaver about speaking spanish to everyone- the servers, the old men sitting at the counter. She nudges me to get involved but I smile weakly and order in english and walk to the table. She was right- the food is authentic. Menudo, queso fresco, tamales (only on the menu for special holidays), soda jarro. Memories memories memories. I try and turn the conversation to winter break, but then they all start getting this idea that we should go to Mexico to experience some culture and lay on beaches and eat mexican food all day. I try not to lash out about how dumb that is. Like every day in Mexico is always a party for everyone- no one experiences pain or sickness or loss. “Been there done that,” I say and promptly spill my coke all over the table due to an over-exaggerated sweeping hand motion. Not cool. As we wipe it up, Kat hisses at me, “What the hell is with you today? Just chill. We all know you’re Mexican and nobody cares.” I blush and flick my hair to the side and spend the rest of the afternoon nodding and smiling.

Nobody cares. Words like that never echo in my brain, like they do in movies. In stead they stamp themselves into my thoughts. I can hardly get through thinking a full sentence without being interrupted by nobody cares. I turn back to my research assignment.” The use of hyperbole and foreshadowing in combination—nobody cares—creates a sense for the reader….” The problem with the phrase nobody cares is it can be multi-interpreted. Does it mean they don’t mind who I am? Or does it mean they really don’t have a care for the issue that concerns me? I ask Kat later. She seems irritated- “Luce,” she tells me, (pronounced Loose, as in I should Loosen Up) “you just need to learn to let go of the things that bother you. Who the hell cares about their past? It’s passed. Groovy? Life is about the present moment and right now, life rocks. You’re smart, you’re independent, you’ve got killer dance moves and a sense of adventure. Go with the flow. We are your friends, we love you. The Lucia Gutierrez-Alvala we know is proud of herself and ready to tackle anything. Mmmkay? If you don’t like your family history, erase it and move on. But don’t keep turning your head back and forth like some owl. Owls are ugly.” I sit on her bed as she tells me this, and watch her curl her hair in front of a mirror. She really is the sister I never had. I just had two brothers- complete with strange macho haircuts and an unhealthy obsession with cars and WWF wrestling. So they’ve grown up a little since then. But I’m sure they’re still the same- punching as a way of showing affection, doting on mamá like she’s god because she cooks her chicken with lard. I thank Kat and head back to my laptop, but before I cross the threshold of her room she stops me and makes me take a shot with her. We giggle and she says You don’t find yourself. You create who you are, girl. And she turns up the music and picks up a tube of lipstick.

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Yes!  It’s a celebration that doesn’t really make sense anymore, and  I revel in the senselessness of it- the disconnect from our daily identities, the impossible amounts of sweets, a night when it’s not only acceptable but demanded that we walk the streets in large loud groups, passing through the amber circles of street and porch lights. Finally, we all get together and party, like Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, where neighbors are family and everyone walking by your door is a close friend.  But of course, here it’s much better than there- we’ve got warehouses of costumes and entire buildings devoted to liquor.  Two essential ingredients to my night last weekend.  Actually, I usually find a party is best described by the state of the house the morning after.  
Red plastic cups populate the living room in crumpled quiet.  A light bulb burns hot, forgotten even with the sunlight streaming in. The couch trades a rigid upright posture for sagging tired springs, and a crisp white towel for a limp leopard print bowtie.  It served guests with silent stoicism, but is now generally regarded with disgust.  What is under those cushions and smeared into the material- no one wants to know.  Three high heels, all unmatching, have flung themselves into various corners of the house.  The owners have not searched for them.  The kitchen is devoid of any space on a horizontal plane- the counters, the sink, the stove, even the shelves in the fridge are hidden beneath half-filled cups of mystery liquids, empty bottles of cheap vodka and cheaper beer, pizza slices and cupcakes stripped of their toppings.  A group of us gathers sometime late in the morning and a decision is made: we need food and coffee.  Stat.  So we find something decent to wear (Kat proudly keeps her lion tamer top hat on) and head to the diner.  Robbie’s got the hood of his sweatshirt up, a couple of us have sunglasses on to keep the morning-after headaches at bay, I toss back a few aspirin with my coffee.  And we re-live the night.  Reminding each other of our follies and victories.  Poking fun at connections made, commiserating over drinks lost to belligerence, glorifying the events before they can hardly be considered history.  Dude, it was awesome to watch whatever it was you were doing on the stairs… Did I really say that? … Girl, you looked like a super star wearing those suspenders and I know that Jake noticed…  By the time we are done eating, every single scene from the party has paraded in front of us again, even brighter and more clearly than in actuality.  For a moment, everything is so fun and young and alive, we don’t even think about the work it will take to get the sofa back to normal.  
(Haha! Sounds like college.  So, here’s a question for you: You mention “glorifying the events before they can even be considered history,” and with today’s social networking and picture sharing, it’s easy to re-live events and experience nostalgia at a much faster pace than ever before.  Do you think this affects the way you see your experiences?  Do you think it will ultimately be a good or bad thing?)
Well, for now, I think it’s great.  It’s like intentionally creating permanent memories- you can’t really forget what is fresh in your mind.  So replaying the party in our minds, cemented by the pictures put online the next day, help us maintain a really vivid experience.  It’s like in my English classes, where if you just read something, you get some percentage of the information in your brain.  But after to talk about it in class or ask a question, a higher percentage sticks in there.  Like experience is strengthened by keeping it active in our brains, or something. You know how you look at baby pictures and suddenly you “remember” that day you first rode your bike down the neighborhood sidewalk?  Well, what do you think are the odds you would have remembered that without the aid of the picture? How many details do you remember from college, and how much is just a hazy blend of everything?  I’m not saying that it’s good to remember everything…(We’ve all got memories we’d rather have buried…), and I’m not saying I have any idea of how this will affect us in the long run.  I just think that, for now, it’s pretty awesome.

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There are so many things in life that make me happy.  Margaritas.  Dancing. Love poems, sonnets, and prose.  Walking on a sidewalk with click-clacking high heels.  My best friend, soul sister, the fierce and fabulous Kat. The unnerving glow of neon in a bar with sticky floors and loud conversation.  The feeling of sweat cooling after a good hard soccer game.  The feeling when I’m talking with someone who notices that beyond my breasts is a brain and a personality.  Impromptu splurging.  Looking at the city skyline at night.

(There are people who believe that people, places, objects do not MAKE you happy, but rather that happiness is a state of mind that you create for yourself.  What do you think of that?

Hmm.

While I would be unbelievably sad if I could never play soccer or eat mint chocolate chip ice cream again,  I do think that’s right.  Put someone in the isolation ward in a top security prison, take away everything that makes them happy, and they go insane.   Really, could they still be happy if the sun never shined? If they lost everyone they knew?  Could their soul muster the strength to create a synthetic happiness?  But a big part of me thinks, yes, yes.  If you put me in isolation in prison, I would learn to love singing to myself.   I think people feel unhappy in much less extreme situations, as if the little daily dramas and losses combine into a tsunami wave, drowning any chance to smile truly.  But I personally believe in loving and celebrating the little daily victories and delights.  Even Anne Sexton had a horrible personal life but found happiness in her outlet, the typewriter.

(Please explain more about your connection to poetry, as you’ve referenced it a bit.)

Oh, sure.  I’m currently studying English, with a focus on poetry.  Actually, to be even more specific, I’m really interested in modern feminist love poems.  Shakespeare was great, but you just can’t beat someone trying to explain love with things like trains, refrigerators, push-up bras, roller skates.  I love the effort of trying to explain your emotions in words.  It always leaves a little unsaid, but sometimes there’s a perfect connection between writer and audience, the aha!  I totally get what you’re saying! I thought I was the only one who felt that…. And that to me is more important than the words themselves.  This is by far the most nerdy aspect of my life.  I try to avoid bringing it up at bars because I get too excited, and it’s apparently much more attractive to remain cool and detached about things than to be passionate.  Kat and I have talked about this a little, but it’s easy for her because she’s cool and detached about everything naturally.  One time, she went to a hair salon and they accidentally put green coloring in her highlights.  She didn’t lose an ounce of steam, she just got them to agree to a month of free haircuts; and as we walked out, she said, “Lucy, I don’t care what color my hair is, life’s about fun not being serious.”  And you know what?  She looked awesome with those streaks of green.  Often I forget that she isn’t really my older sister, because I look up to her so much.  Too bad I can’t say that about my real siblings.  Maybe I should dye my hair some crazy color.  Just in time for the big Halloween party coming up.  God I can’t wait to see a hundred people crammed into our house…

 

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