Surreal [ suh-ree-uh l, -reel ]
1. having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream;
When I was a child and could not fall asleep on my own, I’d close my eyes and use the pads of my fingertips to push down on my lids. In that darkness, I’d see the vestiges of storm clouds filling the back of my head, and, if I could tolerate the dull ache of pressure, these clouds would dissipate and reveal a birds-eye view of a complex and colorful city landscape, almost like a circuit board. If I lost concentration, I’d be pulled back into the clouds, and then, finally, into the mediocre absence of both mirages. Each time I did this, I felt like I was on the precipice of a grand discovery. I was certain that there was a secret universe hidden within my sockets that I would never access. It was a source of infinite frustration and entertainment, but I never told anyone of these quiet adventures because, even at the age of four, a part of me understood that there was no place for impermeable circuit board cities in this world.
There, an early dissatisfaction with normality was born.
- If I held
to the cold glass pane of my parents’ bedroom window I could hear string music emanating from the street below, as if an invisible band was perpetually serenading our modest apartment.
- A stalky sunflower with short petals and pitch black disk florets appeared in our kitchen and I refused to go near it or cross its line of sight because I understood that its seeds were hundreds of insects plotting to evacuate their pods and attack.
Beneath every concrete structure of my life was an undercurrent of inexplicable and splintered occurrences. Over time, the structures became more fortified. The pavement thicker. The “woosh” of the river shoehorned into fiction and Harry Potter films until the murky, sand-through-fingers nature of it all became completely obscured. There is simply more company in reality and fantasy; It’s the in-between that stands apart.
Surreal [ suh-ree-uh l, -reel ]
the low hum of a refrigerator that reveals itself after the dinner party is over
it expands in the cavities of my ears, like eye socket storm clouds
It’s more soft than hard, and more water than solid
I’m sitting in 1369 and a man in a full velour sweatsuit enters the cafe. He seems like he knows what he wants. He does. He charges towards a piece of artwork hanging on one of the walls. Without breaking his forward stare, he digs around in his pocket. Then– full pivot to the cashier– hands her a crisp $100 bill.
She leaves the counter with a “sold” sticker, which she then slaps over the price tag. I crane my neck to see what the hubbub is about. It’s a good, unremarkable watercolor of the 1336 Massachusetts Ave. building. It’s agreeable but I’m struggling to understand what grabbed this man from the bowels of Central Square and placed him, with intense determination, in the middle of a confident purchase.
He secures a table right beneath the 12 x 12 inch painting and eats a bagel, pausing every so often to look up and admire it. When he finishes, he takes the wax pastry sheet, now smeared with grape jelly, and holds it up to the frame. He adjusts its position multiple times until it’s *just* right. I only know this because an expression of absolute contentedness appears on his face before he finally lowers the wax pastry sheet and disappears to wherever he came from, leaving the painting behind.
crepi il lupo
“The fascists have been burning places down left and right,” warned Berna, an elderly Canadian woman who moved to Italy in the 1970s for softball-related reasons. “So let me just show you an alternative exit, just in case.”
Instead of playing softball, she ended up falling in with post-Partisano anarchists and helped found a farmhouse squat on the outskirts of Centocelle, a working class neighborhood in Rome. She led us upstairs, opened the window of a makeshift bedroom, and pointed to a corrugated roof that led to another corrugated roof that led to a fig tree.
We nodded. The three of us staying at the squat were all North American musicians who had traveled to Rome to play a bare-bones international festival of activist marching bands. Just a day before, we had trudged along the ocean road of a mafioso beach town where posters advertising our parade had been defaced with red crosshairs. Now, we were nursing hangovers and planning escapes from political arsonists.
“Or you can just blow your horn really loud,” she laughed, outlining the shape of a tuba to the sousaphone player. The idea of a world in which fascists could be repelled like black bears was oddly soothing.
When she left, we took position on the terrace to nurse a hashish spliff and escape the night heat. I let my mind glaze over into scenes of the last week and watched two lizards catch mosquitos beneath the flickering porch lamp. I, too, wished to remain statuesque beneath a bulb, waiting for my food source, body held up by friction.
The fascists never came. I did wake up to the front gate door being thrashed back and forth in its metal frame, but it turned out to be the percussionist of my roommates’ band. I showed him the alternative escape route and the lizards, and I smoked another spliff in the company of a semi-stranger before falling asleep again.
The next day, everyone left.
The never-ending cacophony of voices and instruments and stories suddenly ceased and melted into the sound of passing cars and bird calls. I woke up and scavenged the fridgeless kitchen for unspoiled food: canned sardines, espresso, an overripe cantaloupe. I gave the fish to the squat cat and tried to entertain myself; I wanted nothing more than to exchange my snare drum for a guitar. Berna was skeptical about my lingering presence and, to be fair, so was I. I had to make it back to Czech Republic for work, but my feet were failing me. Simply, I had become attached to the Roman beat and did not know how to proceed.
My hermit day dragged on. I would scan flights back to Prague and then give up, pop a couple of ibuprofen for menstrual cramps, and listlessly scan the Italian syndicalist posters hanging throughout the house, which I couldn’t understand but knew I identified with. Sometimes I’d venture out into a nearby park, tip toeing over discarded condoms before reaching a suitably clean bench, where I would switch between reading and people-watching. I browsed the instruments of a small music shop that housed ouds and old violins, and pecked through bags of fresh figs, which provided some relief from the beating sun. I could not tell if I was wasting time or cherishing it. One can never be so sure.
I returned to the roost at dusk. Berna was sitting on the terrace, drinking a glass of wine. She invited me to drink with her, so I did.
“One of the founders of this place died today,” she told me. “And tomorrow we’ll be holding an open casket funeral here.”
He was an important organizer in the area, and had been battling brain cancer for many years. I did not know him, but I had a sense of what he created. After all, it was less than twenty-four hours ago that I clutched a kitchen knife, ready to fight off fascists from burning down the stronghold of his life’s work. I knew what he sought to achieve, for the squat was steeped in the love and aspirations of liberation that echo throughout all leftist dreams. It is a feeling of transcontinental solidarity. So, upon hearing the news, I also mourned the loss of a comrade. I was welcome to attend the wake, Berna said, but I’d have to leave afterwards since they needed to host guests who were traveling from out of town.
I was relieved to hear this.
I needed to move on.
The next day, before I left, I ceremoniously scrubbed the whole squat clean. I swept the floors and fed the cat the rest of the perishable food. I opened every window and placed red roses on the sills. I poured the cigarette ash down the drain and remade the makeshift beds that had been generously laid out for us musicians. I did not wish to see this person’s dead body or draw attention to myself, so I slipped away quietly and suddenly at sunset, hoping to convey my condolences through the language of white toilet bowls and dusted bookshelves.
I took a bus from the intersection of two main streets and rode it into the heart of the city to meet with my bandmates. They had just returned to Rome from a wander around Tuscany. We had only been apart for a handful of days, but I wondered if I would be able to verbalize my time at the squat. The death, the fascists, the lizards, the loneliness; How I, too, wished to remain statuesque beneath a bulb, waiting for my food source, body held up by friction. So often I keep these universes in my rib cage, only calling upon myself as a witness.
Lizards & Virgins
“So, I was at a friend’s house and we were hanging all night. You know, just playing music and drinking. In the morning we decided to score some coke to keep it all going, so my buddy calls up a friend of a friend and we put some rap on and just wait until he arrives. I’m the only one who can stay awake. You know me– total insomniac. The doorbell rings, so, I go down and let this dude into the apartment and we go back upstairs. I don’t know… we hit it off for some reason, so we drank a couple of beers together. We both live in the same neighborhood but have never seen each other, which is weird. I’m counting out the money for an eight ball, and he says he likes the music because it told the real truth. It was La Organización, more specifically Mustafa Yoda. You ever listen to him? You should. Write it down. Anyways, I look up at him and– I’m being completely serious– he had his sunglasses off and his eyes looked like serpent eyes, you know, with those vertical slits? And he’s so pale, like all of the blood left his head. I’m not kidding. I was dead sober, too, and this was all in the light of day. He starts telling me that he is a reptilian and that his people live underground and have been here much longer than us. They’re much more advanced than us. The hate in his voice when he described the human race… I mean, no joke, it was murderous. He was shaking. I thought he was going to lay me out, right there and then. I didn’t want to ask any questions, so I just listened. I knew he was powerful. He talked about how he knew when bad cataclysmic things were going to happen and he told me that I was a ‘good one’ but had some decisions to make. Then he took my money, left the coke, and told me to tell my friends to never hit him up again. Hang on one sec — ”
I lit up a cigarette as Maximillion reset the stovetop timer. He insisted on making a stew that the gouchos would make on the side of the road. Each cowboy brought an individual ingredient, which worked out well since everyone had limited budgets and loads, and they’d combine everything in a communal pot over an open fire.
“Okay, so, anyways, I never told anyone because they’d think I’m crazy. You must think I’m totally nuts, right? But that’s not my only encounter with the supernatural. Before my wife and I broke up, she had been indoctrinated into a Brazilian cult. She started going casually, but they requested more and more of her time. They were satanic, really, they were. I gave her an ultimatum because I couldn’t stand these people. It went like this: you choose me or your cult friends. Well, I got home one night and she and my kid were gone. I tried to get in touch with them but the cult prevented her from communicating with me. I’m not lying, she even told me that this was the case after. She’s not with them anymore (gracias a dios). In the middle of all this shit, I went for a walk to clear my head. I passed a Virgin Mary statue on my way to the grocery store and prayed at her. I said ‘please, God, release my wife from the grip of these fucking Brazilian fucks’ and kept walking. I was crying the whole way. Tears streaming down my face. Shit, hang on — ”
The soup was bubbling over its rim. Maxi placed his cigarette in the tray and skipped across the kitchen to turn the flame down. I cupped my hands around my tea mug. The southern winter was really getting to me.
“But, listen, when I walked back home, I looked at the virgin Mary and her hands were opened instead of closed. Opened instead of closed. Do you understand me?”
He tried to formulate the words in English but couldn’t, so he mimicked the motion with his own hands.
“Let me know if you need me to slow down, though. Anyways, not only had she changed position, but there was a single tear flowing down her cheek. There wasn’t a rain cloud in the sky. There was no logical explanation, grosa, just magic.”
Maxi ladled out a couple of servings of the soup and poured salt over his, in typical Porteño fashion. He asked if I wanted to eat in the bedroom. I declined and then we finished our food in silence. I could hear tango seeping through the cracked door of the landlord’s apartment. His wife was apparently on her deathbed, so the only time we ever saw him was on rent day. One time Maxi asked me if I thought the boarding house was haunted. I never replied, but if I did it would have been to say that this place was so heavy with the misery of current tenants that no ghost would ever waste it’s time here.
“You think I’m crazy,” he laughed.
“No,” I responded, getting ready to leave and never come back. “I think I’m depressed.”
I’m standing with nanny in the laundry room of my mom’s childhood home. There are three ways to get to the laundry room: through nanny and papa’s bedroom, through the second floor bathroom, or from the kitchen and up the pantry closet stairs. There are more ways to get to this laundry room than any other room in the house, yet somehow it feels impossibly far away. It is commonly referred to as the “attic” even though it is not an attic. That’s how far away it feels.
The laundry room smells of detergent, moth balls, and antique wood. In this two-hundred-year-old house, it is perhaps the only space that seems unexplored. Nanny casually beckons me in and, though I can’t remember what I was doing before this moment, I no longer have any interest in anything else.
There’s one window at the back of the room that overlooks the wooded acreage behind the house. I know it’s the late afternoon, because that’s when the sun pours in and washes all of the dust and flung sheets in a vibrant yellow, but I don’t know why we’re here. We stand side by side in brief silence. She points to a door that I’ve hardly noticed before and begins to speak about how this home used to be a schoolhouse. She goes into great detail about the old structure of the building; how a balcony used to overlook the driveway; how her bedroom didn’t exist. She then tells me something that I already know: there was a terrible fire. No one died, but the integrity of the house was damaged.
When I was little, my aunt would lead me and my cousins on treasure hunts. We’d march to the perimeters of the forest with shovels and dig until dusk. It didn’t take much effort to find artifacts. Beneath the surface of the soft earth was a sea of scale weights, china plates, porcelain doll heads, and old coins. Much had been discarded by previous occupants. I imagined the house’s spilled contents being held by the tendrils of sediment– us children valiantly reclaiming these objects back from the throws of nature, on behalf of their original keepers.
Nanny draws my attention towards the door again. She opens it, revealing an odd scene: three descending steps and then a wall.
“This used to go to the balcony,” she tells me. “When the fire happened, it collapsed, so they just sealed it off.” Nanny then points to the charred edges of the doorframe.
“See?” she asks tenderly.