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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

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Frank in all directions

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Entries in leah buckley (2)

Thursday
Jan042018

In Which We Follow Him To The Ocean Floor

The Well

by LEAH BUCKLEY

A storyteller relies on deception, depends on the secrets of his characters and coddles their depth, their small lies and their great fears. It is easy to forget that they share your own blood. 

The immigration line in the Mexico City airport was already a tangle of confused Japanese tourists, and adding the passengers from our JFK flight turned chaos to panic. Rodrigo pulled me into a much shorter line tucked off to the side. “But this is for citizens...” I turned and looked longingly at the angry New Yorkers commanding order from the Japanese tour guide. “I don’t even speak Spanish.” An official looking man with white rubber gloves raised his eyebrows at me. He had a look, like, "caught you, you mother fucker. You don’t belong here.

“Hola,” I smile. I wanted desperately to go back in the other line.

+

The whole family picked us up from the airport, a welcome wagon waiting with cab drivers and lovers holding flowers. We piled into his uncle’s little four door like it was a clown car, knocking knees on the speed bumps out of the garage. Traveling gives the visitor a beguiling sense of wonder—even airport parking lots have an exotic smell, like the water you can brush your teeth with but can’t drink. They passed around hand sanitizer disguised as a Despicable Me minion toy. “Take some of the minion,” Rodrigo urged. I shook my head — my hands were cautiously tucked under my legs. “No seriously. It’s dirty here.”

+

That night I took a walk alone in the just dusk and looked for shadow shapes to remember.

There was a woman in front of me in a tight dress, her gait labored as she navigated cracked pavement in high heel sandals.

The night was empty of sound and her sensuality felt unnatural as we passed looming construction vehicles abandoned for the night.

I sped up to pass her. 

Just as I leveled with her she gasped, falling off her strappy platform

We were so close that I had to say something. "I won't tell," I smiled. 

Relived she laughed back, out of breath. "Me novio…supposed to pick me up, cabron," she whined.

I wondered if she felt very aloneThere was heartache behind her effort, and I feared my resemblance to her.

+

I wandered back from the supermarket, backlit now. 

Dark corners lurched out at me and played at the uneasiness in my stomach.

Fingers found comfort in concentric circles around the crispy pastry in my bag, and the crunch in my head drowned out any possibility of danger.

+

The next morning Rodrigo’s abuelo arrived.

His slow steps down the skinny spiral staircase quieted the room.

He wasn’t particularly tall, but he bore the authority of a much larger man. He had the belly characteristic of an epicurean, someone who swam in the ocean despite — or because of — the height of the waves, and ate all the ceviche he wanted. Dignified black hair slicked across his head and shone with lacquered glittering profusion. I noticed thick muscular hands of a younger life, tan from summers in the hot dessert.

+

In private, Abuelo commanded the same awe as he did in Mexico City's presidential palace.

But now, the living room was peppered with uncertainty.

Since the stroke his speech had gotten better, but the great labor in his voice was a quiet secret the family shared.

With each opening line he took an enormous risk.

+

There is a room in the house where Rodrigo's uncle works. Scattered across the big desk are books and magazines, Spanish, English.

Only standing behind the desk did I notice his uncle had taped photos of thinkers and artists. I had trouble recognizing them  one was Locke, maybe.

Was it lonely to look up and only see strangers?

 

That morning his uncle was working in the garden on the roof. His two little boys played noiselessly about the deck, occasionally hopping off their tricycles to examine the roots of some exotic plant their father was working on, one tucking a head under his father’s shoulder, the other throwing two arms around his neck in an impetuous embrace. He took the opportunity to smooth out hair and brush dirt off faces with the tender quieting hands of a gardener. 

+

The boys told me they had a joke for me, a Spanish language learner.

Había un zorro caminando por el desierto. Estaba solo hasta que se encontró con un burro. El zorro chocó con el burro y dijo

"I'm sorry"

y el burro contestó

"I'm burry"

I didn’t get it. That night, alone, I googled “Spanish English Burro joke translation.”  

+

Not too far from where we were staying in Mexico City, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo's house sits on an unassuming plot.

There are two buildings surrounded by a cactus fence, one blue for Diego, and Frida's red. They are connected by the slimmest of bridges. 

I wondered if Frida ever lay awake alone in her house thinking about what her art would look like if she had had children. But only because I imagined her as me.

I stopped thinking about it, and just felt like a cliché.

Abuelo stood wringing his hands in the living room until doorbell sounded sharply. He took stock of the dimly lit room, his suitcase in the corner. “What was the name of the town where the beach house was?” he asked, smiling. A facetious question  he has owned that beach house for 30 odd years.

+

Was it his fortitude of character that made him so majestic? I felt that he was very different from all the strong men I have known, as the land is different from the sea.  

+

The next day Rodrigo and I escaped to that beach house and for a few days it's just the two of us.

Rodrigo shakes his head at me. "If we are here, I think we are here for a reason."

I wondered how forgiveness works as I kneaded my toes into the sand. 

Time began to feel like a trap.

But how could we be afraid when the sky met the water and all around us waves pulled and pushed?

+

Rodrigo plucked an eyelash from my cheek. My face felt changed under his hands, slightly sad at the edges. I thought of what I looked like in that moment, to him. 

Years distanced me from the image in the black mirror pupils. 

“Up or down?”

“Down.”

He opened his fingers and there was nothing there, only sandy skin. I had forgotten to make a wish anyway.

+

Mornings on the beach were mine until about 10:30.

The sand was hot enough that if you wanted to swim you had to sprint to the ocean break. 

A man with a factitious tan, maybe 60, tip-toe ran down the beach, boogie board under his arm. 

Hair slicked back with salt water, I watched him get tousled by the waves, guffaw like a child. 

I imagined him tumbling under a big crest, the water piling and piling on top of him as he fought for a breath.

But he doesn’t drown, as big as the waves are.

Beaten and exhausted, he trudges up the beach around 11.

He has a hitch in his step like a broken toy. 

The woman, equally tan (so the bronze skin was for her liking then?) was splayed out on a lawn chair. 

Silently they gathered their towels and shifted to the pool deck. 

+

I know those people. Unnatural tans, discomfort in the waves. Ignoble people like us are swept along by ocean streams kicking and gasping, or nervously hover about the edge of its great force.

+

We were sitting outside for lunch.

The tan couple already put in an order of quesadillas at their usual spot next to us.

“Where you folks from?” I placed the accent in an instant.

"We are coming from New York," I replied, not sure if I should get into it. 

"...But I'm originally from Minnesota."

"Ah, we are from across the lake! Wisconsin, Hayward actually." Her eyes lit up, while the rest of her face remained impossibly tan and fixed in place. 

"Wow New York. Real busy there," the boogie-boarder chimed in. I knew it was coming. "I could never live there, I’m afraid of that many people."

"Yep, it gets pretty busy..." I waited for one of them to ask me when I was moving home, or how my mother feels, me being so far away and all. 

"We've been to Times Square. I don't know how you do it. All those people." 

I felt strangely comforted by their predictability, and immediately guilty for not fearing it.

+

But the image of that tan man staggering up the beach haunts me. He bears no resemblance to the strength in Abuelo’s calm hands.

I want that control. 

"I’m ready. I don't care if you believe me," I say to Rodrigo, but I care more than anything right now.

I ache for him.

I’m throwing my fears into the sea and jumping with them.

When I do fall, I want to fall slowly.

 

He moves with the water, rising and falling, his tall form dwarfed by the sweeping swells. When I try to follow him I meet the ocean floor and gritty sand between my teeth. He was born in the waves, and will die there — fearless in the infinite blue. I dream of that ocean.

+

The next day there is a lightness in my feet. I can feel the strength of my arms, and warm blood pumping in my brain. A mercurial feeling of weightlessness rises in my chest. Wave after wave it frees me.

Leah Buckley is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. Photographs by the author.

Thursday
Dec212017

In Which We Pack Everything Away

photo by thomas bollier

Before It Went Cold

by LEAH BUCKLEY

I’m not telling the whole story. There are intentions to which I am blind, which have almost certainly dictated that certain parts of the truth have been be occluded. I can’t tell you which parts, because I am engaged in hiding them from myself. So I’ll tell a story as if it were true, and hopefully it will hold together by some mutual tensions of its component parts.

Pete and I met early in the school year at a party. It was cold for October, but the room was so warm that the windows dripped with condensation like the walls of a shower. I can remember noticing his body first, seductive with a drumming energy.

“Good evening.” His teeth were surprisingly white for a musician, and square. His hooded drunk eyes slipped open and closed around the room until they landed on me.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I know you,” I replied. It was a lie; I saw him almost everyday in the back of the library. McGill had a strict no-shoes policy to protect the library’s wooden floors, and I blushed, realizing that I even recognized the socks he was standing in now.  “And what’s the story with the dog tags? Are you planning on dying in battle?”

“If I die, it will be doing my duty, baby.” He swung a leg over the top of the grubby couch and climbed down next to me. The corroding leather sagged and our bodies edged together. I breathed in his smell –  nicotine and old spice.

“I’ll tell you what though,” he smiled at me with those big white teeth. “I’m bored to death here.”

That night I felt so alive I could barely breathe. We left the party together and he kissed me hard in the bitter winter cold. I wanted more of him, and had to fight a compulsion to scream. As he unlocked his door I tried to slow my breathing. Entering the tight stairwell, a wave of heat rose from his body in front of me on the stairs. Shadows fell over us as we wrestled in the darkness. Mystery made me hungry and my hands reached for every torrid part of him, felt the weight of him, untamed and rapacious. His dog tags swung from his neck and the cold metal hit my lips. I grabbed a hold of them, pulling him closer. My sense of time and space refracted, and everything collapsed into this minute.

photo by thomas bollier

I woke up to the taste of metal in my mouth. I was jarringly sober and naked, breathing in the unfamiliar smell of his apartment, moist, sultry and far from fresh. He stirred and I slowed my breathing, allowing only my eyes to slit back and forth. Who was this man? His bedroom didn't tell much. A basement apartment, it was claustrophobic and sunken, with a tiny window above the bed that looked out onto the ankles of passersby. His bedside table hosted an array of things and I began to conjure up an idea of him. This was a man who chewed spearmint gum, and had a sewing kit. He owned an antique portrait of a woman propped up on the floor next to crumpled up athletic shorts. He read Descartes in French, and bookmarked passages with guitar pics. He was also a heavy sleeper, indifferent as I slunk out of the bottom of the bed against the wall. As I tiptoed up the stairs, giddy from my escape, I began to piece together the night. Unwittingly, I’d already started crafting a story.

I woke up beside him the next night, and the night after. Everything about this romance felt novel, and Pete glistened with newness. I was obsessed with the way that I must look to him, and would glance at myself in windows as we walked together to try and see what he saw. I loved the way he said my name. His voice had an exotic color, not the flat metallic tone of the Great Lakes, with it’s clear hard r’s and absence of theatricality.

It was cold out now, the bitter cold of a Montreal winter. I stood in his doorway peeling off layers covered in snow, and dumped my boots in the corner. Pete strode over and pulled out a clear plastic baggie. “You wanna?” He placed two white pills onto my palm. Asking what they were would only reveal my innocence, so instead I looked into his beautiful bright eyes and swallowed them down without hesitating. He laughed and kissed me. “You have to come see our new strobe light.”

photo by thomas bollier

I sprawled out upside down on his roommate's bed, my arms cactused out and blood rushing to my head. Blue pink and purple lights rushed across the ceiling. I had started to feel a great pull on my heart, as though gravity had taken a hold of it, but didn't stop with a gentle downward force. It pulled in all directions, leaving me paralyzed. Where was Pete? He’d disappeared and I needed him. I was starting to panic, and even with my eyes squeezed closed I couldn't turn off the swirling lights. I opened my eyes and watched their pattern unfold above me, trying to make out voices above the booming techno. Then his face appeared above me. He sat down cross legged and cradled my head upside down in his lap. From this angle, I noticed a nick under his chin from a razor, and could smell the cigarettes on his worn in jeans. “Kiss me,” he said, and I flipped over onto my belly. I closed my eyes and pressed my lips to his. They felt so perfect, so smooth, I almost couldn't stand it. This was an impossible world I’d entered, in which I could give everything I had to him, but lost nothing of myself.

It was a winter of firsts: first high, first quiet come down, first pull of addiction, first love, first impassioned goodbye. Falling in love is spectacular, so much so that it necessitates a rapt consciousness. I was so busy jumping, falling, diving into Pete that I forgot to notice him, his lifetime of sorrows and beautiful triumphs. My memories of those months exist inside a teacup amusement ride; I’m sitting on the ride in focus, and he’s somewhere out there, a blur.

I think I remember the moment when things started to go south, but I can’t be sure. 

“I know how to tell a joke,” Pete says absentmindedly. “You can’t telegraph the laugh.”

“What’s the joke?” I ask.

“That was the joke. You didn't get it?”

“What was?”

He sighs.

Years later, I have a longing for truth. If only, for a moment, I’d thought to step off the roller coaster. As irony would have it, it is far too late in the story for that sort of transience. Instead, I’m left with the worn out stories I've reimagined too many times. What would the first layer of the palimpsest look like, before time and fantasy pressed out the creases?  There are the things I definitely remember. These are usually brought on by something sensual, and I’m transported through a perception time-warp. Late for work, eating eggs over the frying pan in my kitchen, I recall the morning we went out for breakfast at 2 p.m. after staying up all night.  I wanted to leap across the table and push my face hard into his, consume him. Instead, I piled both my eggs onto a piece of toast and shoved them into my mouth. I can still call to mind the feeling of the yolks breaking open in my mouth. Memory is like that – it conceals with a great nonchalance until suddenly, standing over a hot skillet, you are struck with deep loss.

Then, there are things that I think I remember, like the way his wallet fit in his back pocket, or the sheen of sweat across his brow that gave him a look of aliveness. I sort of remember how I used to try and walk on the lower side of the sidewalk so that he would be slightly taller than me. Did Pete actually like Mark Lanegan, or am I confused because it is on a playlist I titled “Thinking of Pete.” I think I remember that we had a beautiful thing, whatever it was, before it went cold and I was alone again.

Finally, there are things that I can’t remember at all. Squeezing my eyes closed, I try to picture him. Colors swirl and expand on the backs of my lids, muddling the outline. I can’t stretch out a face shape, or the perfect fine hairs that caught the sun as they turned. When we lose someone we lose the color of their lips, the way lashes curl around bright curious eyes. I feel my memories jumbling, thickening, my mind sagging with the effort, growing old by the second. I look down at my hands as I ride the subway. They curl in my lap like empty flower pots. I think about how they once held his broad shoulders, felt the blood pump in his temples as I drew him closer.

When we tell stories, do we agree to trade fictions that both of us know – with a strategically suspended knowledge – to be fictions; and is that enough? If histories are built on distortions and lapses, accounts of the past that we pack away without the messiness, are we destined to step into the same river twice? The great irony, of course, that in this sea of fictions there is only one ending we can rely on: death. It is the only thing in this world that is objectively true.

Leah Buckley is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York.

Photographs by Thomas Bollier.

photo by thomas bollier