A.M. Rosales

Sociedad Anónima

Nevarez Encinias


Sociedad Anónima

A.M. Rosales

No one was there to greet me at the airport when I finally landed. My sister had died four days earlier. After missing her velorio, I ended up missing her burial as well. I had excused myself with a text message. I told my father that I was sorry, and I was. After missing my connecting flight, I was waiting on standby for the next one. I carefully omitted that I’d had too many drinks before the first one and ignored the announcements over the PA system. It was four in the morning when I finally carried my bags through customs. The Aduana Officer looked at my American passport and stared unceremoniously at my face.

Place of birth?

Cochabamba. I said quietly.

He frowned, but with little fanfare his large forehead and dark eyes nodded me through the line. Another officer began to look in my bag. I had already planned an explanation. On the plane I had memorized and practiced how I would answer uncomfortable questions about the medication in my makeup bag, but he handed it back to me without any discernible expression on his face and I simply moved along.

The same diagnosis that had ended my mother’s life so long ago had also taken my sister. This was something I had given a lot of thought to since I was only a few weeks away from my thirtieth birthday. Like my mother’s death, this trip did not feel like the beginning or the end of something, as much as it felt like more of the same.

I followed the crowd that had left the plane into the terminal where arrivals and departures converged into a large, circular atrium with a dome for a roof. All the shops and boutiques were closed. The only sign of life came from an instant coffee kiosk, where weary travelers haggled with an Aymara boy in charge of dispensing hot water from an electric kettle. A giant analog clock on the wall marked the time. With nothing to do but wait, I stared at it haplessly. The clock’s hands mimicked the sundial moving from the top to the left, then down, then right, then back at the top and instead of sobbing and grinding my sorrow into the ground, I kept my eyes open and managed to contain it. While it was not in the best of circumstances, I had returned without humiliating myself or asking for forgiveness or obliviousness from anyone.

My sister had been hospitalized for a month, but no one had foreseen the complications that would end her life. Or rather, doctors had speculated for too long about their medical opinions before it was too late. I pictured a group of men in white coats arguing among themselves, probably ignoring whatever my sister was trying to say to them.

Unlike some of my aunts and uncles who stopped talking to me and about me entirely, she never questioned the way I was. But when she found out, the tone of our relationship remained muted and distant. During our last conversation, she told me that she was fine, that she was sick of all the tests, and I believed her. Our last call had followed its monthly format, a strange formality born out of obligation, or maybe loneliness. She reminded me of our mother in that way. First, she talked about my father. He had promised again that he was considering retirement. Then she talked about my extended family. My aunt Alecia who was making an addition to her house. Her daughter, my cousin Julia, who had begun medical school and no longer had time for friends or family. She listed my cousins, one by one—many of them had children now—and she told me what they were up to even though I hadn’t asked, and in all honesty, didn’t care. What I wanted to know was about her, but like our mother, she had learned the habit of leaving herself out of her own conversations.

Some military fraternity had invited my dad to a party and for the first time, mostly because of her condition, he had declined. At no point during that call had she mentioned any urgent signs or unusual symptoms. I couldn’t know if the end had come as a surprise for her. Death was such an awkward business. After an hour waiting at the airport, I was recognized by the driver my father had sent.

I am Jacinto, he said. Emiteria’s ahijado. I don’t know if you remember, but I used to drive for your dad’s taxi company. Jacinto was short and thin. His head was kind of triangular, with a sharp jaw, a broad nose, and close-set eyes. He was wearing a striped jersey in support of a local team, the Strongest futbol club. He looked at me in the eye, and said, now I have my own business. As if I were supposed to interpret that, and I did. I knew exactly what he meant.

I think I remember you, I said. Nice to see you, Jacinto.

So, you’re the General’s other daughter, he said.

I am, I said. I expected to hear a mocking tone when he said it, but it didn’t register. I wasn’t used to it. Being called the General’s daughter. My father had left the military so long ago, but those kinds of nicknames stick. He spent most of his time pretending to retire. My sister had put it succinctly with her last breaths. They were just conferences. Meetings. Consultations. Supervisions. He no longer called it a job.

Jacinto offered to take my bag. But I declined. His taxi was a Japanese import. I sat in the back while he got in the driver’s seat. It took me a while to realize that the car had originally been a right-hand model. The steering wheel and the shifting stick had been repositioned; a makeshift speedometer hung from the doorframe, but the dashboard and all the instruments were still on the right side of the cabin.

This is my baby, he said. It’s a work in progress.

We drove thru El Alto on mostly empty streets, Jacinto’s eyes ahead on the road. We drove past la feria 16 de Julio. Even though it was still early morning, vendors were already setting up their post and stalls. Soon after, he began speaking with an ease that can only come from being a taxi driver. He offered his condolences. I was surprised by how well he knew my extended family. He talked about local politics. He complained about the state of the roads in the outskirts of the city. Mis tías. Mis tíos. They had all been at the velorio and some had stayed for the burial, but all had found themselves in buses and planes back to the valley soon after, complaining about the perpetual cold. He talked about my aunt Juana, my father’s youngest sister, who had finished remodeling her house in the lowlands.

From the car, just before daybreak, we could see the city. La Paz, the seed of Bolivian government, a crater high up in the mountains, a hollow basin carved into the rock full of lights shimmering like crystals. The air was crisp and clean. We had caught a brief break in the rainy month of February. La Paz operates on its own timeline. The sun had already risen over La Ceja but downtown remained trapped in darkness. Behind us, I lost myself in the intensity of the blue and yellow horizon. In no time we were on the highway and on the way home.

I found my father on his laptop in the living room. Everything looked exactly as it did after my mother died. All the pictures and the decorations remained the same. Even in old age, my father still woke up on military time.

That’s why you don’t get gringos to build your house, he said. They can’t measure to save their lives. That was the way my father was. He had long become accustomed to abandoning and resuming conversations as if no time had passed in between. He hugged me, but if he had experienced any emotional reaction to his daughter’s death, I honestly couldn’t tell. He moved on to explain that the original deed of the house had listed measurements in yards instead of meters. He had been planning a new addition and had uncovered the error at the city’s real estate office. More square meters meant a new appraisal, forms, red-tape, bureaucracy. The kinds of things that brought out the worst in my father.

Can you believe it? he said.

No, I said. It happened so suddenly.

Changing all the paperwork on the deed of the house is going to be a nightmare, he added. I may have to bribe someone.

I nodded in agreement. In my years away, my body had grown accustomed to living at sea level. I was fatigued and vaguely nauseous. No one ever got sick in La Paz until outsiders started coming here. Then, some gringo doctor had to invent a diagnosis for it. A diagnosis for your body adjusting to the shape of the world. Altitude sickness. I felt like a foreigner, like some strange tourist wandering around the vestiges of my childhood.

After a long nap, my body began to remember itself. I walked around the house looking for changes. Almost everything remained the same. I saw my sister’s picture in the living room along with several flower arrangements. She was prettier than I remembered. Her cheeks were still full, plump. She had dark freckles near her dimples. Her features were soft, and delicate compared to mine. She was the General’s daughter, all right. There was an air of the General in all of us: the same brown eyes, the same forehead, the same birthmark near our left eye. Until recently, she had been living in the lowlands. She was a teacher and hated La Paz like most of my extended family. But my father had been too restless for Quillacollo, the small town in the valley where a shoe factory and a sunflower oil manufacturer had built a series of stables to house their workers. Eventually the Shoe Workers Union came and built actual houses and that gave birth to the town.

My grandfather had been the eleventh attorney licensed to practice law in that rural province. The way my father talked about grandpa; his life had unfolded like a ribbon. Graduated from secondary at fifteen. Completed university by twenty. He was practicing law before he turned twenty-one and became president of the bar association at age thirty. I had never understood the way in which men fuel their ambitions. For all its apparent charm, leather tanning, pastures, and sunflower fields were not good enough for my father. He joined the military, so he could see the country. By the time him and my mom were married he had moved to the city. Cochabamba. But even with a half-million people surrounding him, my dad felt like his home was in the middle of nowhere. He could still smell the dirt. So, this time, dad took his family to the capital, where he could properly fulfill his duty to blood and country.

By the time I was in kindergarten, my father was already an officer in the Engineering Corps of the Bolivian Army. For twenty-six days out of the month, my father, the civil engineer, lived in military camps and slept in trailers, sometimes in tents, sometimes in hotels, while overseeing the construction of Bolivia’s major infrastructure. Highways. Bridges. Bunkers. Prisons. Even office buildings. His division cleaned jungle and laid asphalt. My father was the lead engineer that built the bridge over Rio Branco that crosses onto Brazil. There’s a plaque with his name on the bridge. They were always giving awards to my father. But he always had the good manners not to boast about his accomplishments.

I was born the year after the last military dictatorship fell. My conception must have been one of those celebratory fucks that can only happen right after the last shots have been fired and the dictator has fled the country. I imagine my dad, ever brave, protecting my mother in the living room of our house. He would have pulled the mattress away from the window, and my mom would have checked it for bullet holes. Then they would have made passionate and revolutionary love on it. Or maybe my father was not home when that happened. Maybe he played for the other team, the one that had trained the paracos in Panama, and was later seen driving a windowless van, transporting union leaders from the city to an undisclosed location in the jungle where they would have been put to rest. Or maybe he was part of an elite team trained by the CIA and the Butcher of Lyon himself, the one who had tortured that socialist novelist before ordering his disappearance. The one whose family comes out every year asking the military to release the location of his remains. But every military family has those stories. They’re just that. Stories.

When my father was in the city he would change into civilian clothing. Freshly washed jeans and sweaters that my mother purchased for him, measured, and took to the tailor to have them properly fitted. When he and my mother had to go out at night he often dressed in a suit or a formal military uniform, with a green shirt, a deep green jacket and even a greener tie. These are some of the last memories I have of my mother: she in a sparkly dress, wearing dangling earrings and a shade of lipstick that wasn’t flattering for her. She had spent the afternoon at the salon, her nails were perfect and a hint of the smell from the perm still hung in the air. Mom attached los Gafetes de condecoración on my father’s lapel. Stripes. Bars. Stars. Red. Yellow. Green. A coat of arms with a condor on it. Mi papá, el proveedor. Mi papá, el milico.

Unlike my aunts and uncles in Quillacollo who went through the process of building their homes one floor, or addition at a time, my father went to purchase a home already built by an American businessman who had decided to return to Florida after one of the coalition governments wasn’t able to keep the peace. By the time I started school, we lived in La Zona Sur, in a modest home, if you consider our surroundings. Most of the other houses had guard dogs, and some even had pools and watchmen who patrol their yards with flashlights at night. We didn’t have dogs or guards. But my parents employed a couple from the highland provinces who helped mom with the upkeep of the house, preparing our meals, and timing our departures and arrivals. Emiteria, our domestic worker, and her husband, Domingo, who helped as our driver and our gardener and often did other work when he was not working for my family.

They lived in a tiny house, in the back of our lot, past the water tower and next to the concrete sink where Emiteria washed our clothes for years before we had a washing machine. She and her husband didn’t have children but spent all of their spare time building a house in El Alto, the sister city, past the outskirts of La Paz where the temperature is ten degrees colder at night, and there was no electricity or sewer system then. Domingo drove us to school, and he watched the empty house when we were traveling the country. Sometimes Domingo and Emiteria fought. They never did so in front of my parents. But sometimes, I could see them from the window in my room arguing about money. Domingo would wail his arms and threaten to hit Emiteria who would then threaten to tell my father. My father paid both of their salaries to Domingo because he was the man, and it was his responsibility to manage his family’s finances. They had been working for my parents longer than I had been alive.

My father had paid Jacinto to drive me around while I was in town. Without anything better to do, I decided to make the most of his company. From our neighborhood, we went to Obrajes on Avenida Hernando Siles. I reconciled my sights with memories of my infancy. We drove on Avenida Veinte de Octubre and soon we were in Sopocachi. I saw the cable car system that connected the various boroughs of the city. I saw college students with blue hair hanging out in the cafes near La Universidad Católica. La Paz had not changed, or rather, it had changed in an expected way. The way cities change skylines and morph their character until they look more modern and sinister.

From the Casco Viejo we saw the façade of government buildings, palaces built in the 18th century blocks away from glass high rises on Plaza San Martín. Circular pillars and apartments. Jacinto had wanted to avoid the Public University District, but I insisted that we go there because I wanted to see how the university had changed. Before we even got near it, we saw a group of medical students protesting. They were wearing surgical masks, blocking the street and burning tires. They must have not agreed with the government’s new healthcare policy. In La Paz, civil unrest is the popular sport, and rage is a localized illness. Protests had been organized all over the city, but only the streets near the Public University appeared to be affected. Riot police were assembling nearby to crush protesters.

Jacinto told me about his life. He had been driving since he was sixteen. Without the foundation of a primary education, the schools in the city had proven too difficult for him. This in spite of my parents’ attempts at finding him a good school and paying his tuition. Although her godmother, Emiteria, had been initially disappointed by his decision, she understood that schooling was not something that suited everyone, especially her ahijado, who in spite of having learned Spanish quickly as a boy, had still not learned to read. Jacinto did the next natural thing. He began driving one of the taxis owned by my father. He did this for a few years before finally quitting. Emiteria then allowed him to apprentice with a truck driver who’d come from the same small town.

A few months later, he had found work driving a truck from the Yungas Region into the city. He drove for eight, twelve, sometimes eighteen hours at a time on those narrow, bumpy roads carved into the ridge of the mountain in order to bring fruits, vegetables, and other goods to the city. During summers, he drove to Arequipa and brought back televisions, computers, and other highly coveted items until he had saved enough money to buy his own truck. During the lean times, when no one would hire him, he drove laborers looking for work from the valley and into the city accepting the meager contents of their pockets as payment. Sometimes he transported livestock, like chickens and Guinea pigs. Each day, dozens of men woke up in the wee hours of the morning in towns that laid beyond El Alto and packed themselves like sardines into the back of any truck headed for the city; more than half the men who rode in would not make the trip back.

The city calls to anyone who wants to better themselves. Some of the men, those who spoke rudimentary Spanish, had the good fortune of finding jobs as doormen or janitors. Some were even luckier and were able to apprentice with a carpenter or a mason, who would offer them room and board, a cot and a simple meal. The rest would spend whatever they earned on food and liquor and at the brothels on Calle Figueroa. Yet others were not able to find any work and were stuck in the city and you could see them sleeping in the filthy entrances of downtown buildings and in front of cathedrals. La Paz crushes those who can’t bleed money out of its concrete walls.

Jacinto didn’t earn much, or at least that’s what he told me, but he was very careful with his money. Driving long distances eventually took its toll. He wanted a permanent home in the city instead of the constant coming and going. Jacinto sold his truck in order to buy his first taxi. Then he bought another. Then he finally got this one, a recent-year model that had arrived damaged by a flood in Japan and bought cheap at auction in order to restore it. The car had been painted white with racing stripes. On the back window, a decal reading: Mi Querida Copacabana. Jacinto talked about his small town. About growing up in a fishing village. About how the air felt there during the bitter months of July and August.

Jacinto wanted to show me how El Alto had evolved since the days of my youth back when it had been considered an area too dangerous to visit. Digital modernity had been fully embraced. Where there had been humble dwellings twenty years ago, the new face of indigenous wealth manifested as multi-purpose buildings with shops at the bottom levels and luxury suites at the top. Architectural designs that looked like futuristic robots and flat screens displaying animated advertisements. Crowded cafes where everyone stared at their tablets or laptops. Houses inspired by pre-Columbian designs painted in bright neon colors and lit by environmentally conscious LEDs. By noon, the market had swelled in numbers and Jacinto did his best to avoid the incredibly heavy traffic. Every Thursday and Sunday, more than 10,000 vendors take to the streets of El Alto and form one of the largest street markets in the world. Tens of thousands of shoppers attend the flea market each week. Clothing. Lumber. Livestock. Crafts. Food. Vehicles. Guns. Everything can be had at la feria and there’re no checkout lines or credit checks here, only cold, hard cash.

Why did you stop working for my dad? I asked Jacinto, just for something to say.

Because your old man was ripping me off, he said calmly while avoiding stray dogs and pedestrians alike.

How long did it take you to figure that out?

Too long, Jacinto said, then stayed quiet for a while.

Why do you still drive for him?

I don’t drive for him. He said dryly. We have an agreement. Plus, I own three taxis now. I don’t need to work unless I want to.

I paused to consider the possibilities. Of how else Jacinto could earn money.

I drive the General’s friends around. He knows how to make an impression, your dad. He uses a rental company. But he’ll give me the keys to a Lincoln Town Car if the accionista is American, a Renault if he is European, or a Great Wall if he is Chinese.

And what do you do?

I wear a blazer and act professional. I take them wherever they want to go, no questions asked. Whatever they need, I get. I grew up in your backyard, I know how to keep secrets.

I had never been interested in the family business. When I started school in La Paz, my father received a scholarship to study in Brazil and began to be gone from the house for longer periods of time. He would leave for five or even six months at a time. When dad was away, we would stay home on the weekends. Sunday was Emiteria’s day off and my mom would cook simple meals or order delivery and wait for my father’s weekend phone call. Domingo was no longer working for my parents then, though he still lived with Emiteria in the little house outside. Our lives coincided at meals and mom began taking radio cabs from home to school to pick us up since Domingo had stopped driving for the family. Mom made sure dad talked to each of us on the phone for at least ten minutes. First my sister, who was eight years older than me. She and mom stood next to each other, while mom held the receiver, as if both could speak into the telephone at once. And then me. He would ask about my homework assignments. Or tell me which team had made the next round of La Copa America. On the phone, he would tell us that he was proud of us; we were the reason he worked so hard. This was all for us somehow. He was also proud of himself, although my father wouldn’t say that aloud. Then he would promise us ice cream or a visit to the city center upon his return.

Sometimes mom would leave me alone with my sister. And I’d pile up on top of her because I was still little, and we’d watch the color television from the four-post bed in our parent’s room. We watched cartoon cats. Cartoon dogs. And cartoon dinosaurs. My sister and I used to be able to create explosive laughter just from staring at each other’s faces. Until she began to talk about things that I didn’t understand. That was also around the time that the furniture in the house began to change. Mom had discovered import catalogs. I remember a series of middle-aged women who wore high heels in spite of the cobbled-stoned streets and the steep inclines of the city. They’d come to show her inventory sheets of interesting and desirable furnishings. First, we got the rugs. One under each table, thick and deep burgundy in color and faded gold edges. New sheets. New duvet covers which needed to be dry-cleaned. She also bought rugs to put under each of our beds. Then, one winter when dad was visiting us, we all went to a tropical resort in the lowlands where mom fell in love with the lamps in our hotel suite. Heavy brass bases and wiry arms, with shades of interconnected seashell circles. My father argued with the hotel manager for thirty minutes until they sold him six of them and had them delivered to our house by military parcel.

Our home changed. The furniture and the curtains changed. The cabinets changed. The china and silverware changed. The floor in the kitchen changed. Our clothes changed. My sister began getting her hair done at salons downtown on a regular basis. Mom had the pink tiles in the bathrooms redone with slate tones and added shiny golden fixtures. By the time the carport was built, Domingo, our gardener, had abandoned Emiteria for another woman, and my father, ever generous, doubled Emiteria’s salary. By then all of us had started attending weekly racquetball games with other military families. My father joined charities, fraternities, and even the Free Masons, but even I knew by then it wasn’t a secret society as much as a drinking club for men like my father.

When he eventually returned to the country for good, he was fluent in Portuguese and had brought some of his military friends to spend a couple of days with us. I saw him unload suitcase after suitcase filled with toys and books that he had brought for us. Games that looked like television shows and dolls for my sister, even though she was too old for dolls at the time; a chemistry kit and a play set of metal plates that connected with nuts and bolts that was meant to teach children engineering principles, meant for me. His efforts to show his friends around the city were thwarted, however, as all three of them fell ill with altitude sickness and were confined to the house for days. Red-faced, with their cheeks plump with fatigue, they could barely walk down the street or accomplish the smallest task.

The timing had been perfect, as none of it mattered. When the new administration assembled a cabinet with the mission to shrink the government’s size and expenses, many of the state’s assets were sold at auction. My old man was vivo. He formed his first Sociedad Anónima. They purchased construction gear: cranes, lifts, trucks, and paving equipment. My father closed the deal with a big family meal. But his guests ate almost nothing during their goodbye dinner. Upon my father’s return, he was able to get an office post at one of the military bases in the city and he no longer traveled the country. He also convinced the neighborhood association to set up two guard stations on our street and hired off-duty policemen carrying submachine guns to keep an eye on the neighborhood at night.

I was about to finish middle school when my father called me into his study. He said that I was growing up soft and docile. He blamed it on city life. I knew what he meant. I had known this about myself for a while, but back then, I had already learned to keep secrets. He thought it’d be best for me to see how he had grown up. Although he didn’t say it overtly, I knew what he was getting at; he still expected me to grow into someone that vaguely resembled him. He told me he wanted me to see his old school. It had been set up by a Jesuit Monastery who brought apprentice priests to the country after they had completed their education in Spain. They each taught a different subject at the school while attending seminary. Es un buen arreglo, my father had said. He thought it was innovative to have foreign teachers in a rural school, even though the school had been open for almost a century. This small town had been the birthplace of my grandfather. I was to learn where I was from by living in a town I had not known existed until then.

It was my first year of secondary school when I left the capital for the interior, for a small-town east of the middle of nowhere called Cuatro Esquinas. A town next to big empty lots full of dirt, and roads made of dirt, and houses that were also made of dirt. At least I didn’t have to live in the dormitories. My family had arranged for a room to be furnished at the country estate of one of my father’s wealthy friends. The house was an example of Arquitectura Criolla, an ostentatious nine bed-room colonial revival home that suited a particular kind of businessmen from the valley region. The house was used to throw occasional parties and banquets but remained vacant with all the furniture covered most of the time. It was one of those houses with a gate, with red shingles and white walls, with rose bushes growing out of giant clay pots. Past the courtyard and onto the second patio were the groundskeeper quarters, where my room was. I had seen servant quarters in the city, but out in the country they were somehow even worse. The rooms had been built with adobe bricks and although they had been plastered inside, vinchucas made their nests on the outside, tiny little holes the size of sunflower seeds from which they crawled out at night to feed.

My room was the size of three beds. There was no TV although my father had said that he would send one by military parcel once I got acclimated. My room was the last in the second patio, next to the common bathroom and across the kitchen. Don Isidro, the groundskeeper, was a retired teacher who lived with a Quechua-speaking woman and drove an old pickup truck. He was set to drive me to school every day.

By the time I woke up in the morning, café con leche had already been made and fresh bread had been delivered to the house by a boy from the town on a bicycle. Often, we had fresh cheese and butter because of the milk processing plant that was nearby. During the week, we ate soups and rice dishes. On weekends the woman—who spoke very little Spanish—would cook in clay pots over a propane burner for many hours. Meat turned into guisos in thick, spicy gravy. The smell was enough to fill both patios. Don Isidro mused at himself. He had been a rural schoolteacher for over thirty years. He had taught history and civics and as a result all he did was tell stories about the history of the town in an endless loop. About the shoe factory and the union workers. About the reasons why this avenue was named this. Why that street was named that. He knew the names of many families who had become prosperous and then moved onto bigger and more interesting futures in more interesting places. He spent the rest of his time staring at a small television in the corner of his room. On the way to school, I stared out of the window while the groundskeeper talked about the town, its history, its people. The dust spun into a cloud as we drove on a dirt road lined by eucalyptus trees and empty sunflower fields that had been harvested earlier that year. When he began telling me the same stories three or four times, I finally stopped paying attention.

I had learned pretty early in life that school was not a place to make friends. Most of the students were farm boys who lived in the dormitory. There were several boys from the city who smoked cigarettes to pass the time, trying to make the best of the situation before inevitably being sent to military school after their next fight. Then there were several students who were repeating the grade. Some for a second or third time. It didn’t take long before I heard a whistle, or somebody called me a fairy and a freak. That was to be expected.

There was a giant named Rabbit whose shoulders were wider than the teacher’s. He was taller than everyone in class. He looked like he could strangle you with his bare hands. Rabbit was bad, but the worst of all was a boy named Leo, who walked around intentionally showing a limp wrist and winked at me on my first day of school. This must be the worst place on earth, I thought.

Unlike me, who tried to stay out of harm’s way and let boys be boys, Leo was unnecessarily flamboyant and the perfect definition of obnoxious. Occasionally, he smelled of menthol cigarettes. He referred to all the boys in our class as perrs. And to me, as perra. I disliked him immediately. During our meal breaks, I skipped the mess hall to eat the lunch the Quechua speaking woman had packed for me. Sometimes fruit. Sometimes a sandwich or an empanada. A small bag of frozen chocolate milk that had thawed thru the morning while attending classes. I tried getting to know the son of a Mexican dignitary who was dropped off with great fanfare every morning by a brand-new, all-wheel drive SUV with tinted windows. I asked him where in Mexico he was from. He said that he had never been to Mexico. He had been born in Quillacollo and his mom was a Quechua-speaking woman.

Leo continued to try to start fights every other day. If it wasn’t something they said, it was something they did. Everything was an excuse to start a fight. One day, Rabbit called Leo a faggot during recess.

Well, you’re even a bigger faggot than I am! Leo told him. In spite of all logic, he appeared ready to exchange punches. You’re the biggest faggot of them all! he said, loudly enough for everyone to hear.

An apprentice priest who spoke with a Madrid accent saw the whole thing happen. He calmly reminded Rabbit that beating someone up in school would result in being sent to confession at the chapel. No doubt, such action would further result in having to pray many Ave Marias or Padre Nuestros, which would be of great inconvenience to his plans after school. Worse, Father Cristobal may punish him by making him sweep the chapel and stand the humiliation of having to perform a woman’s job in front of everyone. Rabbit stared at Leo then at the priest. Then he looked me in the eyes and spat on the ground with that look that men get when they don’t know whether they want to fuck you or kill you.

I dealt with my problems a different way. I tried not to confront anyone. If anyone asked for help with schoolwork, I’d help them, even if they had made fun of me before. I paid attention in class, raised my hand often when the teachers asked questions, and kept myself within eyesight of the priests in between class periods. I stayed in the classroom as much as possible and avoided the mess hall. Every day after recess, once all of the students had gone back to our classrooms, the novice nuns would arrive to sweep the courtyards and collect garbage. I saw them countless times from the window. They wore brown habits and white veils; they worked tirelessly and never said a word to each other.

The Madrid priest served as our math teacher. The Barcelona priest served as our science teacher. There were other teachers, too, although I don’t remember them very well. The principal was also our religion teacher who taught us catechism. They took turns coming to our classroom where the whole class had to stand in unison to greet them. In composition class, our teacher was an apprentice priest from a part of Spain that I knew nothing about. He was the one that decided that Leo and I should share a desk and a bench near the front of his desk. He was the only one who treated us kindly.

The writing teacher explained the format of the class. We were to keep two notebooks for the duration of the year. Our cuaderno borrador, in which we were allowed to write with a pencil. This was our notebook to take our daily notes during class, write exercises, and copy lessons from the chalkboard. We were allowed to make spelling errors, and later correct, revise, and change things. This notebook was just for us. It was meant to be rough, unfinished. The writing teacher encouraged us to practice writing every day. Our cuaderno en limpio was a different matter altogether. We had to use an ink pen. Blue was the only acceptable color. These notebooks were supposed to be spotless. Our grammar and orthography were meant to be perfect. We were to condense our lessons, keep only what was absolutely necessary. We were to deploy our best penmanship. He introduced us to the Palmer Method.

The writing teacher would collect our cuadernos en limpio every Monday morning in order to give them to the vice principal. It was Father Cristobal, not our writing teacher, who checked our work for errors. No one knew much about him because he only left his place behind the confessional to lecture us when we did something wrong. When the writing teacher returned our cuadernos en limpio to us on Fridays so we could transcribe that week’s notes over the weekend, we saw all the notes and corrections from Father Cristobal. He crossed out words, sometimes entire paragraphs, and annotated in red ink. He even tore entire pages out if they were not to his standards. He assigned a grade from zero to seven and nobody in class got higher than a six. He always tore at least one of my pages and marked me down for penmanship because I didn’t know how to write in cursive. Even so, I liked writing in my cuaderno borrador.

Leo wrote sporadically and asked how to spell words. He used a drawing pencil with the rubber eraser at the top. He made a lot of mistakes and used his blue and pink rubber eraser often. I used a mechanical pencil and a kneaded bread eraser. Like the ones that my father used when making technical drawings on the drafting table at home. Leo had the sneaky habit of peeking at my notebook. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to copy me or he realized it also served as my journal. Leo wasn’t very good at school; he often asked questions which had obvious answers and missed important details from our lessons, but he wrote in a beautiful, tilted cursive writing that reminded me of my sister’s. That was the only time I felt jealous of him. I had failed calligraphy class long ago and had decided to simply print my letters. I wrote about far-away places where people found every manner and mode of affection. It was silly, but I wrote about love. What I thought it was. How I thought it felt. What I thought it meant. All the while, I wondered how many more years I would have to hear the same dumb jokes about people like me in the classroom.

During my first week at the school, I overheard the Madrid priest talk to Rabbit like a calm and patient father. If you bounce someone’s head on the concrete floor—even if it’s only a few times—you are very likely going to end up hurting them.

Rabbit nodded in agreement.

Later I heard the Madrid priest and the Barcelona priest talking. It would only be a few more months until Rabbit would be off to military service.

I told Jacinto to take me to the cemetery. At the entrance he bumped into an acquaintance and decided to wait outside. El Cementerio General de La Paz, one of the oldest in the country, had originally been built by order of the Supreme Protector Andrés de Santa Cruz, a military hero, and Prefect of Chuquisaca. In the neighborhood that we now call El Tejar, the cemetery takes up fifteen or so blocks walled-off from the city, separated from the commotion by elevation and groves of trees. The cemetery itself is a miniature city made entirely of graves, tombs, and crypts, with pavilions of catacombs arranged like a labyrinth including numerous corridors, passageways, and alleys. My family had a small plot in one of the military blocks, near the Veterans Hall built to honor those who served in Los Acres or the Chaco War.

Inside the cemetery you forgot about the city for a moment. I could hear the wind whirring along those narrow hallways. A haunted whistling tone unlike anything else I have ever heard which muffled the cries of any mourning family. I remember coming here as a child with my aunts and uncles, but never alone. Never by myself. I did come on occasion with my sister to visit my mother. But I don’t remember being scared of this place.

My sister told me the stories of the ghosts who haunted the cemetery. She told me about the ghost of Ana Paredes, an old woman dressed in black who wore an oversized hat that covered her face. In real life, she had opposed the construction of the cemetery because this field had been a sacred site for the Aymara people. Ironically, she became the first person to be buried here. Then there was the ghost of the priest from the mausoleum belonging to the Ascarrunz family. The cemetery is filled with dozens of mausoleums built over hundreds of years, where illustrious paceños including entire families have been interred. Among all these intriguing sepulchers, the most luxurious belongs to the Ascarrunz family which is carved out of Italian marble from top to bottom including baroque features. The ghost is said to have been a corrupt priest who had facilitated the family’s appropriation of marble meant to be used for restoring the

National Cathedral. Finally, she told me about the ghost of the condemned bride. She is known to appear among the common graves. The public pavilions, some built up to four stories tall, where local paceños could keep their family members for ten years before having to find a permanent resting place for their remains. The ghost is said to be wearing a wedding dress in immaculate white with a veil. In life she had been a beauty queen, but she was born into a violent family, and no man dared to come near her. She’s said to have been killed the day of her wedding, at the peak of her youth, which left her wondering aimlessly through the high-rises for the dead looking for a lover. This was when I was still young enough to believe in ghosts. And even so, I was never scared of this place.

My sister was placed next to my mother and the plaques with their names sat next to each other. There were flowers everywhere although some had begun to wilt. Soon, the rain would return and all that would be left will be the one vase. Musicians offered their services to those willing to dedicate a song to the departed. We left soon after and stopped to eat cinnamon sherbet and empanadas in the market stalls behind the cemetery as was traditional after visiting the dead.

This was the most relaxed Jacinto had been all day. He told me about his taxis. About fixing cars even though he’d never gone to school for it. He told me all about the work that went into converting a right-hand vehicle piece by piece. It was as much invention as it was repair. Jacinto was gifted with mechanical intuition; it was a shame that he was illiterate. Afterwards, we sped by on Avenida Costanera while Jacinto listened to hip-hop in Aymara. In the car, Jacinto began to sing. Words that I couldn’t understand, Wara kawara kawara k’ana kawa. Wara kawara kawara k’ana kawa.

What does that mean?

It means, we’re thousands and thousands; we’re millions.

And what does that mean?

It’s about Tupac Katari.

I’ve seen the graffiti.

He led the Aymara rebellion. He had been baptized as Julián Apasa by the bishop of La Paz himself. But when he saw how his people were being treated, he rejected his Christian name and adopted his real name, Tupac Katari. His rebellion killed 20,000 bootlickers. Spaniards and colonizers alike. For this, he was sentenced to be quartered. That’s when they tie you to four horses and whip them until they split you in pieces.

Uh-huh, I agreed.

They asked him if he had any last words. He told them: you will split me in four, but I will return in the millions.

I didn’t say anything for a while. Don’t be too impressed, Jacinto added. The Mapuches killed 40,000 Spaniards. We Aymara only killed half as many. But the Mapuches were warriors. We were workers, herders, and fishermen.

When Rabbit finally got to Leo, I wasn’t with him. I didn’t see it happen. I just saw the aftermath. The missing teeth. The streams of blood. The broken nose and the two black eyes. One of the capillaries in his left eyeball had burst. I didn’t notice any of these details at first, of course. He had emerged from the far end of the field at the end of recess like a tired hiker and it took me a while to recognize what I was seeing. I saw the bloody pulp of his face and ran for help. While I waved my arms crying for someone, the nuns began to sweep the courtyard. It was then that I realized that the nuns were deaf. The priest told me that I was screaming, I screamed myself hoarse before realizing that they were mute as well.

Eventually the Barcelona priest came with help. Leo was taken to the city and did not return to the town for several days. He missed four weeks of school. This was the one and only time I saw Father Cristobal come out from behind the confessional and into the field. He spoke to me. He took me into his private office. He explained that the convent across the farmlands was also a home for deaf and mute girls. Families from all over the state came to drop off their daughters because of their condition. The girls were raised in the convent. They were taught the Hail Mary and the Our Father in sign language. They were entrusted with the upkeep of the parish. They gleaned the fields. They swept the courtyards. They cleaned the convent, the chapel, and the school grounds. I didn’t understand it at first. It was so much to take in. The nuns had no name, and we could only call them “sister.”

I did not mean to begin spending time with Leo. Our writing teacher had asked me if I could take our daily assignments to him while he was still recovering. I only agreed because I didn’t want to disappoint him. No one knew when Rabbit would snap next, and I had no intentions of becoming his next victim. So, I asked Don Isidro to stop by Leo’s house on the way home. Where I expected a well, adobe bricks and lose chickens, Leo’s house was built entirely of brick and had a modern façade. We eventually met up on weekends. This became a routine. It broke the monotony. It was something to do. We sat in his dining room with our notebooks open and did our composition homework. We transcribed sentences. We wrote descriptions. We summarized and analyzed and synthesized. We invented words and discovered forgotten ones. We learned about history and vocabulary and Latin.

This is how I learned about Leo’s life, in which he spent month after month waiting patiently for his father and mother, who had immigrated to the United States, to save enough money to bring him there. His room was built of plain brick with a tin roof, but inside, the entire place had been plastered, carpeted, and even had built-in closets. Leo had his own private bathroom connected to his room. His door opened to a patio with two lemon trees and several rose bushes. His room had obscured glass windows. You couldn’t see from the outside any more than you could see from the inside. Only shapes and silhouettes and the suggestion of movement.

Leo’s nose healed just a tiny bit crooked. But his eyes recovered eventually, and his complexion returned within a few weeks. Leo’s parents lived in Virginia or Minnesota. I don’t remember. Somewhere where it snowed in December. But they sent encomiendas with families returning to the country as often as possible, which was every couple of months. The packages were often carry-on suitcases. Every time they included a bottle of scotch for Leo’s grandfather.

Leo received clothes, candy, and school supplies. Notebooks with pretty cartoon characters on them which the priests didn’t allow at school. Athletic shoes in bright, metallic colors that I had not seen since leaving the city. For his birthday, they had sent him a new video game console, the same kind that I used to have back at home. Leo couldn’t play any games though because the voltage was different in the rural provinces. Leo had to wait a whole week after his birthday until his grandfather could get a ride into the city to buy a power converter.

Don Sebastian, Leo’s grandfather, spent most of his time listening to sporting events on the radio, drinking wine or sometimes scotch, while visiting with his next-door neighbor. The booze was kept in a cabinet in the living room. More than a dozen amber-filled bottles with a red label and golden caps. Leo showed me exactly where they were when I visited his house. The caps were wide and made of metal. They made a scraping noise as he opened them. Leo poured until the cap was almost full. The smell burned at the edge of my palate. Do you want one? He asked curling his lips.

Are you having one?

I’m having three, he said, proud of himself.

I avoided inhaling while he poured the second. The third one was for me and I took it and swallowed it in one go. My throat burned and my eyes watered; the taste was similar to the way that cooking meat smells. Leo had his third, as promised. He flinched a little this time. Then he played video games on a color television in his room.

Do you have another controller? I asked.

Did you know in the United States they have flavored condoms?

So, I said. You don’t have another controller.

You can play when I get bored with this level. We can have more whiskey later.

The game involved a robot that needed to get across the screen without dying. If he did, the character returned to the beginning of the level and there was no way to pause it or save it along the way. He went on for several minutes until he found an obstacle that he couldn’t overcome. I stared at the way Leo held the controller. The way he shook his hands when the character had to jump. Typical of a beginner.

Hey, he said.


Let’s have more whiskey.

I smiled.

He did, too.

I don’t remember if he made the first move. I remember the beeping electronic music of the video game in the background. I remember my hands on his chest. The smell of scotch in his breath. I remember this heavy feeling on my chest, which made me have to take some deep breaths before we resumed kissing. It was me who felt him through his pants and unbuckled his belt. It was me who got down on her knees. I remembered his hands on the back of my head. How it felt to have him alive and moving inside my mouth. It was over quicker than I expected. When he was finished neither of us said much of anything. Leo eventually resumed playing. The robot went on and every time he got farther than ever, he was immediately sent back for the smallest mistake, falling into this pit or that pit, over and over again.

Leo got weird and started avoiding me at school after that. He stopped asking me to come over by his house and got into more fights than ever before. There were times where I was sure that he was drunk at school. I assume he went on playing the same video game until the power converter overheated and the reality of the Bolivian countryside had to be tolerated again. I don’t know what happened to him. Maybe he eventually reunited with his parents. Or maybe he went to barber college and became a hairdresser, or a tailor. More likely, he stayed in that town without work, never to marry, and took care of his grandparents until death. The same way, I presume, the nunnery continued to take in deaf and mute girls, taught them to pray, and how to clean the school.

My memories of Cuatro Esquinas are not foggy. They are simply unhappy. After my grades dropped, my dad had me pulled from the school and transferred me back to the city. It wasn’t because of Leo or Rabbit. It was the nuns. I don’t know what happened to Leo because I never told him that I was leaving. Things went more or less back to normal in La Paz except that I told my father that I wanted to go to university abroad. He nodded in agreement. He stopped giving me a monthly allowance. He said it was an investment. I began attending classes at the Centro Boliviano Americano on Saturdays and every day after-school. That was the year that mom died.

Jacinto and I were stuck in traffic again. There were protests near the San Pedro prison. A group of women covering their faces with purple handkerchiefs protested the brutal killing of a young woman who had been found naked at the bottom of a ravine. Or maybe it was domestic workers who wanted social benefits. Or maybe it was shoeshine boys wearing ski masks, or perhaps some other anonymous collective on the verge of becoming vermin clamoring for an identity.

When we finally made it back to La Zona Sur it was already dark, and there was a luxury car sitting in front of the house. My father must have been talking with one of his business partners. Two men in motorcycles carrying Uzis stood guard by the parked car.

Who are those people? I asked Jacinto.

Those guys? Well, unlike me, those men do in fact work for your father. I only know the one on the right, his name is Enrique.

How do you know him?

Well, during the festival of El Gran Poder, I once made a joke about getting a blowjob from the General’s daughter. I was drunk after the grand entry. He came to see me at the fraternity after the party, he grabbed me by the nuts and told me he would eviscerate me if the General ever heard me say anything like that about your sister again.

Sounds like something my dad would do.

He chuckled nervously for the first time that day.

Inside, the house felt enormous and empty. My father was busy with his business associates in his study. Emiteria had fixed tea and cold cuts in the kitchen’s breakfast nook instead of the dining room. I decided to go to my room because I wasn’t hungry.

My father came to check on me after a while. I was lying in bed, not asleep. This time he hugged me, and he meant it. He told me that he was going golfing the next day. It’s for an old friend. Something to do with business. Then he was gone.

The last memory I have of my sister and my mother together was that Christmas before school started. Mom had new parquet floors installed in the living room that summer. She had Emiteria wax them by hand ahead of the party. My sister had graduated from a woman’s college in the lowlands and was poised to start her job as a chemistry teacher in a private high school. I still remember the dress that she wore to the party. A green formal thing with sets of unnecessary ruffles. I remember the hors d’oeuvres, caviar and lox. I remember the dinner. I remember that night my sister had too much champagne and fell asleep on the couch in the living room and dad had to carry her to her room. The next morning her voice was hoarse, and her hair was lopsided and frizzed up. She and mom watched La Farandula on the television, a show where beautiful women in tailored dresses sat on designer couches in a fake living room to discuss recent gossip from the shiny gloss on their lips. I remember the Christmas tree. I remember what we had for breakfast. But if some peasant boy about my age had come to live with the help, I honestly don’t remember.

I laid in bed waiting for dreams that would not come. I turned on the television, but most of the broadcasts bored me. The sport channels had replays, of replays, and replays. On the national channels the players had names like Gutierrez, Valverde, Galarza, Urzagaste, while the players on the local channels had names like Mamani, Huanca, Condori, Parisaka, and the players on the international channel had names like Müller, Padolski, Gómez, and Kopp. I turned off the television. I brushed my hair for a long while. Then, I took handfuls of coarse hairs from every part of my head and attempted to bring them unity. One by one I shaped the strands into a single braid like the women of these mountains had been doing for thousands of years. Finally, after so much practice, I had gotten the hang of it.

I decided to go into my sister’s room. It looked as if someone was still in the process of moving out. There were jewelry boxes on the dresser although there was nothing inside. There was a bible and some of her old toys. I saw pictures from her childhood taped to the vanity mirror. One was from her First Communion the other from her Quinceañera. I remember feeling jealous of her outfits. I used to sneak into her bedroom to try on her Quinceañera dress when I was younger. The dress was still too large for me then. I wondered what it would have been like if I had figured it out sooner; if it would have been different, had I told her earlier. I imagined what it would have been like to grow up together. To wear matching outfits; to sense each other across great distances. I found the key to her wardrobe hanging from the neck of a porcelain elephant, but when I went to open it, everything was already gone.


Nevarez Encinias

The semester I dropped out of college, I took a dance class called Intro to Modern Dance. The instructor was a small, easily distracted man barely older than most of the students. He had a peculiar body, muscled and soft in alternating zones or bands almost like his body was striped, and he wore shirts that seemed to me far too formal to dance in, over sweatpants that were all falling apart at the seams, one pair at the crotch. He wore thick, dark-rimmed glasses he often forgot he was wearing, until they were flung from his body in motion, at which point he would proceed through the rest of the class in what he described to be total darkness. I liked him and he liked me, though I suppose we lacked the vocabulary to admit to our shared feeling, because it went unsaid; I also think my poor attendance confused him. The enormous class was full of people who had never danced before, though even before he’d learned all of our names, he could correctly identify who of us had played which sports in high school, who of us had seriously injured ourselves at some point, who of us hadn’t spent enough time crawling as toddlers, and who of us had what he strangely called “a dance background.” His body took an entire, strenuous forty-five minutes to warm-up, at which point he sweated incredibly. His question to us was always why we weren’t, until about three or four weeks in, when we finally learned how and did.

I remember very little of the movement we studied, but I often think back to the first day of class. We sat in a circle, introduced ourselves by name and major, read the syllabus aloud sentence by sentence. Then we walked in a large pack to a blackboard at the far end of the studio. He promised it was the only day we’d suffer through a lecture—a promise he more or less kept—as he reached for a piece of chalk that likely hadn’t been touched in months. He drew a body. A long vertical line he called the plumb line, along which he drew three ovals. Three eggs, he said. He spaced them evenly along the top half or so of the line, then explained that if he were to draw two more bodies, each with an uneven amount of space between their ovals—for instance, with extra space between the top and middle oval (a long neck) or between the middle and bottom oval (a long belly)—we’d be looking at three different people, who’d seem to us to be living vastly different lives. He added two triangles and the body now faced a direction: it had a crude nose and feet. He gave it an ear by drawing a tiny half-moon at the center of the topmost oval; its SKULL, he wrote. Then he drew two dots at the center of the remaining ovals, which he labeled THORAX and PELVIS. Then he labeled the half-moon EAR, and the two dots DIAPHRAGM and PELVIC FLOOR. Next, he drew a tiny star on the plumb line between the thorax and pelvis, and labeled it CENTER OF GRAVITY. Then he turned the plumb line into a real line—by drawing arrowheads at either end—to indicate infinity.

He was covered in chalk by then, as if he had in actuality been drawing all over himself. We all stood there in silence, so I raised my hand. I was raised in the church, I said. I felt everyone’s eyes move up and down my body, but he remained unphased, and began nodding almost too energetically, as if he knew exactly what I was about to say. I looked around to reassure everyone that I was now a nonbeliever, then I recited Isaiah 28:17.

In the King James, I prefaced, I think the word used is plummet, but in the New International it’s something like “I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line; hail will sweep away your refuge, the lie, and water will overflow your hiding place.”

I can’t recite the entire Bible, I qualified for laughs, but this image of righteousness as a plumb line—a weighted cord used before levels to find vertical or to measure depths of water—I had always loved. Or really liked, I amended.

The teacher smiled and asked if I would come to the board. Again, eyes up and down. I reminded everyone that my name was Mary; more eyes. Now that we were performing together, he stilled his compulsive nodding and moved very intentionally, handing me the chalk behind his back as he faced the rest of the class. He lectured on gravity, moral and otherwise.

Mary, he said after some time, is going to draw us a spine on this body.

Mary, he said, there’s no wrong answer. Just draw whatever comes to mind as its spine.

Because he had eliminated the possibility of wrongness, I felt comfortable going for something that seemed to me not quite right: I took the chalk and darkened the plumb line, from ear to pelvic floor. It made that terrible sound chalk makes when you hold it the wrong way, but I turned that body into an upstanding, self-righteous asshole with a stick-straight spine.

Good, he said. Exactly.

Then he took the chalk from my hand, rotated and gently pinched it at its center, holding it not like a writing implement but like a short length of pastel. He wanted to propose to us an alternative. He smudged—along the body’s posterior side—a thick, cloudy fog, hugging the space just underneath its skull, then up and around the backside of its thorax, then down into what would be the small of its back. Finally, the smudge moved up and onto the uppermost curve of the body’s pelvis, where it then hooked to a dramatic finish, penetrating that bottom egg at its width, and becoming the spine’s tail-end. Its COCCYX, he labeled.

She’s a snake. And she couldn’t be straight if she tried, he joked embarrassingly, but the important takeaway, he said, was that our spines take or reflect the shape of these three ovals on a line. But it isn’t the line itself, he nearly shouted. Your spine is more like a smudge! Or a ghost-snake that wiggles through you! Or a cloud of sensation! He looked proud. Our objective that semester would be to study these ovals, he declared, as they exist in relation to our spines, then to practice manipulating them to find movement. And for the next three months or so, he said, this would be our working definition of a body.

We stared at his drawing, which was now covered in schematic arrows and words, and which had been given the title BODYWEIGHTS. Nearby he drew what appeared to be a staircase or a ladder, with fat rungs at its base and delicate rungs at its top. Another view of the spine, he said, this time of our thirty or so vertebrae, which he emphasized are not all the same, but of a range of sizes and shapes and densities. Some are even fused together, he said. He apologized for his enthusiasm, and for going a few minutes past the hour, but he wanted to show us one last thing. He used his sleeve to erase the body’s ear, nose, and feet. He put the nose on the pelvis, and the feet some distance above what used to be the head. He relocated the ear accordingly. This is how you’d find balance upside down, he said, starry-eyed.

We stood there in silence again, staring inertly at his sketchy body, now inverted and dangling on the blackboard from its feet like a bat. Justice—my shitty friend the poet—was taking the class with me and felt moved to make a joke. Righteous, she said, but in the voice of a stoner from the past and he liked that, so we were dismissed.

When I consider, in a single, sweeping view, everything I learned in those three years or so of egregiously overpriced liberal arts education, it is still this drawing that feels most worth it to me—the money and the insufferable socializing and the wasted time. I understand now that this image of our three bodyweights as eggs was more mnemonic than anything else, while implying that—if our major parts are—we too might be seen as rounded and delicate creatures. The eggs also imply that these three parts are equal with each other: in weight, shape, importance, if you choose. Three eggs. Because only once you imagine your head and, say, your pelvis to be, to some extent, interchangeable with one another can you then access almost an entire world of underrated sensation; he was right. Only once you understand yourself to be a segmented creature—made up of three bulbous nodes like an ant, kind of—can you then play with your mass efficiently, without constantly seizing up into a single, useless globule, like a ball of dough, immobile on the hook. I mean that with the right number of its parts in mind, the body is never simply one thing, nor does it ever become a dizzying infinity of things. It remains instead an elegant three things: skull, thorax, pelvis.

Skull, thorax, pelvis. It struck me as oversimplified that day at the blackboard, but now I understand exactly how it works. I get to work today, for instance, and I feel a pole against my spine, and I see that it is not my spine, nor is it like my spine, nor is it a metallic extension of my spine. It’s more like the plumb line. Some strange object indicating the force and direction of gravity, around which I can rearrange my parts, into one of the few versions of a self that has ever felt right to me.

But I don’t want you to feel sorry for me; I want you to understand something. This is how I find balance upside down. It’s also how I find flight: it’s how I stay off the ground for long enough, for instance—hung by my feet kind of, myself twisting around righteousness—until I feel restored to and eventually hungry for the ground again. I stay up there for as long as it takes. Sometimes someone has to come out and remind me that I’m up there, that it’s time to come off it and get down.

I followed the teacher out of the building after we gathered our things. He asked me how he could help. I wanted to know more about going upside down, I said. I now had a strong sense it was why I’d enrolled, but I hadn’t realized it until then, and I wondered if he could say more. Were we going to learn how to go upside down? I asked.

The right way? I added. I was young.

He smiled, like someone who is paid never to appear confused, then nodded and looked down at his watch, where he considered if and where on campus we might safely sit to talk. But we walked instead, every so often finding ourselves where we began—at the beginning of a wide loop, and lost in a conversation that, as I recall it, lasted about an hour. First I introduced myself more fully.

The pole, I told him, is such a strange thing to find sexy, because it really isn’t phallic at all. If penises behaved like poles, I accidentally said, I think we’d fully hate them, so there must be something else going on here, I said. Something altogether more curious or fucked up. The closest I could get to wrapping my mind around it was now his strange drawing of the plumb line, and the eggs, which was so awkward to keep saying that I insisted he eventually try calling it something else instead. In any event, there was something very right to me about his eggs, and though I wanted to apologize—just as he had—for my enthusiasm, I wondered if he’d humor me as I tried to give that rightness a name.

Of course, he said, but first he wondered what I meant by a right way to go upside down. It concerned him: this suggestion that how I’d been going upside down, up until that point in my work, had been somehow wrong. Could I say what I found to be so wrong about it? Did it feel incorrect to me? Or maybe unhealthy? Or, given my upbringing, even something like sinful?

It was the first time anyone had ever called it all my work. I told him so. Later in our conversation, he even called it dance, and still later, my art, and I reacted then, as well. But first I assured him that I didn’t mean morally right or wrong; I meant that the pole now seemed like a crutch. I knew I couldn’t go upside down without it. I couldn’t find balance or stay upside down without it, I amended, and now it was all I could think about: how badly I wanted that.

Inversion, he said, or a handstand practice, often begins with desire, which may be what we call any need or want that, for whatever reason, is hard for us to name or justify. Dance, he ventured, might even be desire in motion. And because we are humans—with such an instinctive sense for what desire satisfied means or looks like—well, he believed that’s pretty much all we watch for in dance. And in each other’s bodies.

Inversion can be particularly tantalizing, he said. On some deep and preverbal level, we all know an upside-down body will eventually return to its feet. The question is when? Even if someone in a handstand achieves perfect equipoise, what they are performing for us is delayed inevitability or time in suspension—they are creating tension. We love a body upside-down, he said, but the real pleasure comes when uprightness is restored. It’s relief.

He remembered himself wanting what I might be describing now: to possess total control over one such dynamic or phenomenon and, what’s more, to stand in and have that self-possession quite literally—in or on one’s own hands. His voice kept trailing off.

Many of the aesthetic shifts in twentieth-century dance-making, it dawned on him, fancied themselves to be stripping dance down to even more fundamental basics. Less theatricality, less balletic vocabulary, less expression, less frill. Eventually, no one was moving anymore, he laughed, but that purification must have been so odd for dancers to perform at first, because dance is already so stripped down. So unmediated, so immediate. There’s no text, he reminded me, no tools. No medium like paint bridging the artist and her art, aside from that artist’s body. What I was noticing now, it seemed to him, was that the dance I’d practiced up until that point did require a tool. Maybe I was curious about a more stripped-down suite of expressive technologies, dancing somewhere inside my own inherent abilities and selfhood, something more like…

Stripping? I asked him.

He had embarrassed himself. He apologized. It was no trouble, I said. I understood what he was getting at, and my curiosity was piqued, though it occurred to me that this might help: had he ever gotten on a pole before?

No, he said. He hadn’t. He imagined it difficult—strenuous, requiring a strength he didn’t possess. A handstand, in his experience, actually required far less strength than you’d think. It’s about stacking your bodyweights, he claimed. Getting used to the wobble, the fear.

We passed a few poles as we walked. He kept wiping his brow. I didn’t want to challenge him any more than I perhaps already had, so I wondered if he might imagine getting on one. Not actually, I said, but using his words. I was curious: could he try verbally instructing me how?

I clarified the assignment: using this idea of the eggs, I said, could he try describing inverting himself on a pole for me? I pointed to a lamppost nearby for reference, assured him there was no wrong answer. Just whatever comes to mind.

We took a few more steps in the lamppost’s direction, and he approached it tentatively. Grab the pole, he whispered. Take your ribcage and put it against the pole, he added. Use your arms and the weight of your ribcage to hoist your pelvis over your ribcage by dropping your head below your ribcage while holding it all tight to the line, he then vomited. He was gaining momentum—increasing in volume, forgetting to breathe.

Look at the base of the pole and kick up, he yelled. But don’t flail your legs as you kick, kick up, until you feel the pole against your feet.

Then wrap, he said, miming something with his arms. He was opening and closing his eyes, as if all the pertinent information was somewhere inside of him. He might have stopped there, but he didn’t.

Sit your pelvis a little, he commanded. Like you’re sitting on the ceiling. And… use your eyes to look over your shoulder. But don’t look at the ground, because now you are moving parallel to the ground, and looking at the ground will point you toward the ground, and you’ll fall, he said.

Keep your pelvis and your ribcage on the pole, he continued. And keep looking over your shoulder so you spin, he said. Should you need more momentum, pull one of your bodyweights off or away from the line. It doesn’t matter which one; displacing any of them will throw you back into motion again. I think, he added. His voice was turning his commands into questions.

And should you need a lot of momentum, he sort of asked me, use a leg? But the legs have more power than you probably need, he was willing to bet. And if you use them only when you need them, that’s probably when it starts to look effortless, he said excitedly.

Like floating.

He looked at me. Somehow both in embarrassment and smugly, as if proud of what he had found, but unfortunately, someplace he knew he wasn’t supposed to go. He waited for me to say something. When it became clear I wasn’t going to, we kept walking, and for a few awkward steps, all I could think to say was A plus. And when I finally, strangely did, he thanked me.

We had totally lost our conversation from earlier. He remained visibly adrenalized so I encouraged him, again, to say what was on his mind. Now every pole we passed on campus was shouting out an invitation to him, he said. Reconsider gravity, they were yelling. Reconsider your relationship with everything you know and sense, he said they said. Every pole was practically screaming touch me, he even said. And he wondered: if he did touch one, would he feel as much of himself as he had felt just now? While simply imagining touching one?

He apologized if he wasn’t making any sense. He felt moved, that’s all, and though he was trying not to make more of it than it probably was, the experience had been a lot for him to process somehow, and he liked that, and he laughed. To an extent he had never really realized, he realized, there were poles everywhere.

My own realizations had been a little softer, I told him kiddingly, but his drawing had made me think along similar lines. I had recognized instantly—earlier at the blackboard, I clarified—that every pole in the world marks the plumb line, and with it, something like a dramatic fall. Like a little monument to gravity. And now, as he had just sort of implied, I understood that falling actually requires no effort at all. It requires, I said, something like allowing your pelvis to win out over your head.

Yes, he exclaimed. And a little relaxation, he added.

And a desire to remember yourself not as something complicated but simple, I interjected. Most people can’t and maybe that’s our problem: that the way we insist on thinking about and remembering things makes them complicated. Even ourselves. He asked me to say more.

This act of remembering yourself, I tried saying in the same manner he said things, always throws you into a category or a mode of personhood that has no space for your actual body, and its simplicity. I had no idea what I was saying.

I don’t like the way that came out, I said. But for instance, bodies don’t remember things, I asserted. And I warned him: don’t trust anyone who says they do. Those people are taking their bodies and writing themselves a poem, as opposed to taking their bodies, and seeing that bodies either create bodies or more body. Bodies make the word memory useless, I said, and to me the point is to start learning to survive on less and not more.

I could feel myself falling. His enthusiasm—his willingness to make no sense, his relaxation even when vulnerable, his tolerance even for his own profuse sweating—had galvanized me to take my own pelvis and more or less wrench it over my head. We were walking on our hands together by then. Or walking blindfolded. Or walking in some direction we claimed to have never walked before, though dishonestly, because in actuality it all felt very familiar. Two dancers walking, maybe. Poles and poles and people passed us by. I wonder what we looked like.

I can remember the sensation of a painful sunburn, for instance, I said. I can either think about the burnt skin, and in thinking about it, forget that the skin is in fact still here with me, and immediately feelable, and now healed. Or I can think about that burnt skin, and remember to take my hand, and actually touch the skin. And see what that does to my day.

I’m not saying that memory isn’t real or doesn’t include something of physical sensation, I said. I’m saying that our bodies are the easiest way out of the nostalgia trap, and if we’re interested in having experiences of ourselves that aren’t like watching a bad movie over and over, I suggest that we get used to our bodies again. Their simplicity, I clarified. And he nodded.

Another example is waking up and feeling sore. Soreness is not a memory of what your body did yesterday; it’s your body today.

Another example is tripping on the sidewalk and falling. I mimed falling. There’s that moment when your body reflexively catches itself, I said, or else a moment when it absorbs the shock of your ass hitting the ground. I sat on the ground.

Nowhere in this experience does your body muscularly remember anything, I said. You either have a body that functions as a body in the moment that it’s called upon to be a body, or you have a body that tomorrow will be sore, reminded all day long that it’s more of a body today because it wasn’t enough of one yesterday.

And thus it learns, I said, not via some memory of yesterday, but via the sensations of today.

Falling is useful in this regard because it tricks your body, I added as I stood up. You fall into that gorgeous state of being a body, right before it starts designating everything it experiences to be pleasure or pain, friend or foe. And in that falling state, it actually knows a hell of a lot more than you do, because you are the one bogged down by memories, I said, and the ceaseless desire to process now always with regards to then, and to feel good all the time.

And maybe the pole is useful, I said. Because as a tool, it kind of allows you to keep falling, over and over again. You can stay suspended in that state of falling, and eventually, maybe your body learns to live there. And it’ll feel no need to remember anything at all.

Wow, he said. We walked in silence for a while. Then he was curious: is there a difference for you between remembering and thinking?

No wrong answer, he said. He looked proud.

I don’t remember giving him one. I think I had somewhere else to be. Then, in the weeks that followed, I began making enough money that my coursework became an exercise in futility, and the college’s insulting healthcare plan, such an embarrassment, that I finally quit. I think I taught myself how to handstand around then. I also remember drafting him an email about dropping out that I never sent.

Then, around what would have been the end of the semester, Justice texted. Our teacher had finally asked about me after class that day, she said. And she’d lied to him so egregiously and theatrically that she’d totally amused him, she said. She added that he’d laughed out loud even. Like in her face, she claimed. And now she was curious: had I already told him the truth?

I think I told her that our lies are a refuge. But I need to stop telling irrelevant stories, so listen: the point is this. Tonight, at work and in action, it’s more like this sensation cloud called my spine isn’t a snake, but indeed something like a woman. A woman who refuses to remember anything whatsoever, but who remains fully alert, fully conscious, fully able to stitch herself into every passing moment, without then assuming all that passes is hers. She can find no straightness, only total-ness: only the certainty that every experience that takes her far eventually brings her back again.

And as I move, she condenses herself onto my backside like dew on the hood of a car. Then she becomes a fog, hung thick in the air, like a blur. Then she is a ghost, which is itself just a blur but with a bit of person trapped inside. A person unwilling to move on or be seen as anything but raw, aggrieved feeling.

And in response to all this sensation, I grab hold of the pole with my thighs like a pair of wire cutters. And I reach out my legs and I reach out my spine. And I am stiff on this pole, like a starched flag at half-mast, flapping around for all the ghosts out there I guess, and my sister, my spine—with no need for past or future—she’s stuck out here too, flying for it all and feeling.

I drop my head then and I slide down the pole, falling and piling at its base, back into a nest of eggs. My holy trinity—skull, thorax, pelvis—has shrunken itself into a person named Mary again, so I look out into the hungry eyes to find Luke’s. Oh so briefly, I sparkle mine as I look for his, and I ripple them and I egg-wash them and I dance them for all the stubbled faces in the crowd for screams. The ground is autumnally covered in money, and I grab it by the fistful because I am dancing for me and Luke tonight, which is strange because he is my baby brother, smiling up at me from the crowd like I just won the Spelling Bee but in my underwear. And we look at each other from across the room with a dripping, unspoken awareness, regardless of all this strangeness. Because now is a moment no one ever wanted for us, so we’ll buy it, we’ll take it, it’s ours. Or I mean, we’re stitched in now, we’re consciously going with it. We claim it with our eyeballs: we’re gone.

A.M. Rosales is an artist, writer, and translator from Cochabamba, Bolivia. They live in Portland, Oregon with their cat and their favorite rodent is the capybara. A Pride Foundation scholar, a collaborating artist at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, and a recipient of the Oregon Literary Fellowship, their work has been supported by the Precipice Fund, Lambda Literary, and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Nevarez Encinias is a Soloist dancer in Yjastros: the American Flamenco Repertory Company, as well as a writer, researcher, dance-maker, and dramaturg, based in Albuquerque, NM. His written work has appeared in Choreographic Practices.

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