by L. Dani Blue
“…Chilangolandia, El punto ciego de Dios, Guachintón, El Defectuoso, D.F., La Ciudad Milagro, o La Capirucha…” –A selection of popular alternate names for Mexico City (Wikipedia).
I: The City
Diego rarely returned home to D.F. and when he did, he felt foreign, extracted. His lungs would hurt, the noise of the microbuses drove him crazy, and there was the perpetual waiting: for friends to show up, for the muchacho to bring the bill, for the concert to start, then for the plane to take off, to take him back to Chicago.
Still, when Diego tried to project himself forward ten or twenty-five years, he hit a wall. Nada. Jeff would push him, say, “but where do you imagine yourself? Do you imagine yourself here or there? Do you imagine yourself with me? Maybe some little kids running around your ankles? A dog?” The way Jeff said imagine. Stuff like that had once left Diego breathless, how real Jeff could make his desires, as if a saint hovered over his shoulder, taking dictation. Being with Jeff, in fact, was the closest Diego had ever felt to God.
They had met at the Art Institute. Both had been gazing at the same Hopper painting for nearly half an hour—Jeff because he believed in laboring for cultural refinement and Diego because he had a knack for encountering men at such places and knew that staying put was key. The men, who waited to signal their interest, thereafter moved quickly: leading him wordless to hotel rooms or business offices or anonymous bathrooms stained with the pleasures of so many before.
Jeffrey Sigrid was different (for aren’t men of last names always different?): Jeff, who believed in culture, also believed in love.
“Isn’t it funny we should meet this way?” said Jeff. “Beside artwork of such terrible longing?” Golden-haired Jeff had not required an answer. He took Diego by the elbow, by the waist, as if he already belonged to him and, rushed along on borrowed confidence, Diego was escorted to dinner.
“Each fruit is massaged by a Tuscan youth to release its natural yeasts. An educated palate savors the difference, which is quite noticeable. And succulent.”
The Sicilian waiter spoke like his own mouth was massaging grapes.
“I’m sure it does,” murmured Jeff, his gaze never leaving beautiful Diego.
Now is the moment everything begins, that look said. And the warmth of Jeff’s closeness, the wine—as rich and rare as promised—did seem to refine and elide and cancel out, making of Jeff and Diego, a single, solid form. Yes, a fruit. Supple in the hand.
Nighthawks, 1942. Edward Hopper.
Friends of American Art Collection, 1942.51
Green light spilling out onto a city street, empty but for you, the viewer just beyond the frame. A couple of fellas-in-fedoras and a broad sit at intervals along a diner counter. The light in the diner is different, a bright, cold light that diminishes and further separates the figures from one another, and the cavernous yellow interior of the diner from the street outside. Outside where you stand, hidden by shadows and the shuttered urban nighttime. Do you approach, join them? There is no entrance in sight. Nor, for that matter, an exit.
II: El desaparecido
The disappearance, neither planned nor asked for, bloomed on the canvas of Diego’s life like a carmine spill that later defines the artist’s palette, the whole cosmology of his work. How else could it have been? the rapt viewer shrugs. But of course there is, by definition, no viewer for the unseen. Only Diego, running along the edge; smear of color, escapee.
He and Jeff had been walking to the car, headed to Michael’s place for cocktails and a private screening of Goddard’s early work when Diego had started impersonating Mike, cutting off Jeff’s sentences, telling Jeff what he must have meant to say, exactly as Mike would have. Granted, even Diego heard the sour note, knew the joke was not quite funny, but Jeff had to beat him with it. By the time the key was in the ignition, they both had their voices raised.
“Arthur is not a mamón, D.,” This much Spanish Jeff had learned. A handful of Mexico City obscenities, followed by the signature cry of some filmic Latin houseboy. True to form, Jeff smacked his forehead, sighing to the heavens, “¡Ay Jesús!”
Diego didn’t mean to laugh.
“You can be such a snob, D.” Jeff’s eyelids drooped. Whatever had been hovering broke open, rancored the air. The two men held still, testing its toxicity, testing for the line and the urge to cross it. How much to hold back. How heavy the counterweight of possible forfeit.
“Seven years of your shit, Diego, and it’s only gotten worse. You brood all the time, around the house, out. Do you know how alone I feel, oscillating between dead silence and your so-called humor? It’s as if you’re bent on taking the rest of us down with you to that very dark place you choose to inhabit. Like or not, D., I’m the one you’re with, not some fantastic one-night stand from your adolescence, some pedophile who didn’t even bother to learn your name. And like it or not, these people you so disparage are our friends, they’re our family—”
“No, Jeff. They’re your ‘family.’ Yours. Like I’m yours. Right?”
Sheridan merged into Lake Shore Drive and the traffic sped up. Usually, Jeff drove so lawfully it made Diego’s teeth grind, but tonight he was glorious, revving the engine, gliding between lanes on buttered wheels. A purple SUV cut in front of them and Jeff laid into the horn.
“Shithead! Get in your own fucking lane!” he yelled out the window. Silence as they raced forward, the mass of tail lights leaving streaks on the partial, urban darkness. Then the cars began to clot again.
“This evening when you were putting on a show, I asked myself, ‘What does this man have to offer me?’ Might you have a guess, Diego? Because I couldn’t come up with a solitary response.”
Diego leaned back in the seat. Snow had begun to fall, but not collect. It is April, Diego thought, as if knowing the name of the month was important, illuminated the significance of the snow or congestion or the red glow which spilled over Jeff’s face and shoulders, as they sat, waiting to turn onto Belmont.
What made Diego do it was unclear. The cool of the door handle in contrast to the blast of heat from the vents, maybe. Or just the sweet impulse—an artist’s long mastery of the rules in search of the weak spot where they might give way. How one knows to lean into this, with the shoulder, past the point of reason and advisability, rolling with head tucked to chest across ragged pavement to the safety of the curb, while the startled boyfriend’s car streaks away. His cry, a skid mark in the night air: “You stupid fucking faggot!” Gone, as if he’d never been.
Let him be angry, Diego thought, as he crossed into the alleyway, brushing gravel from the ass of his jeans. Punchi punchi beats oozed into the night from the rear entrance of the Mega Club, promising sweaty boys, naked chests, pleasure.
On Halsted, black, snow-scarred windows showed a faded, rainbow-colored sign, a stylized Budweiser can with “5th Street Bar” printed up its side.
The 5th Street. Had he been here before? A lost night of his early twenties? He must have cruised or puked in every Boystown bar at some point, strewing himself over their shit-encrusted bathrooms. Romanced by degradation and the everlasting hum of the present moment. In recent years he’d forgotten about that, how you could be more awake, more alert when you were staggering drunk, letting the tomorrows take care of themselves, leaving the future its right to peace.
The 5th Street was a last-choice party, neglected by all but the hopeless or clueless or fugitive. At the bar, stools were intermittently full: a rugged-looking guy in his forties or fifties, locked in erotic standoff with the bartender; a pair of skinny jotas, trilling uproariously about god-knows-what; a woman with stiff, bleach-blonde hair and her two unkempt companions—slobs who’d be home by midnight to watch their 2-for-1 porn; and a twink on his own flanked by empty stools.
“This seat taken?” The boy did not answer. Maybe he had not heard. Diego reached in front of him for the drinks list. Pabst, Bud Light, Corona. A $2.75 special, “The Rusty Pony.”
“One Sierra Nevada,” Diego called down to the barman, then turned toward the kid. Even younger than Diego had first thought, he was stunningly pretty, with long lashes, red lips; Filipino, maybe. Was he even eighteen? Diego had been about the same age when sex stopped being a thing he fell into and tried not to think about and became a kind of super power that made him larger and stronger than he appeared.
“Hey,” Diego smiled. “How’s your night going?”
The kid held a Corona in his fist so tightly his knuckles had gone pale. He turned slightly when Diego spoke, but then turned just as slightly in the other direction, half-spinning slowly while his sneakered feet dangled. The kid looked so new and freaked out that Diego wanted to spare him the torture of small talk. He imagined reaching over and touching the boy’s perfect skin with his fingertips. He imagined placing his mouth on the boy’s, tenderly, as if he loved him, or as if to say, “See? I could love you. Anyone could love you.”
Instead, Diego leaned close. “What’s your name, beautiful?” he breathed. The kid fidgeted, but didn’t raise his head.
“You shy?” The boy’s taut face flickered and he might have made a keening sound though in a bar it was always hard to be sure.
“Hey, chill out. Making small talk over here, nothing to worry about.” Whatever. Diego would be spending tonight in capable arms. He’d be Grant or John or Miguel, but the name would be incidental, a small offering of identity in exchange for hours spent in the present, in thrall to the body and its wants alone.
Diego scanned the room and reached for the beer that wasn’t there. He raised his hand in the air, summoned—or attempted to do so.
The bartender was in the same position he had been in when Diego entered, resting on one elbow and flirting—even from a distance, it was more than obvious—with Mr. Rugged. Rugged, a Marlboro man look-alike, leaned back, letting his cigarette smoke rise into the younger guy’s face. Mean, but sexy: silver-streaked black hair, a lined grin that mocked while it seduced. Diego’s city boy ass was a sucker for men like this, capital-A American dudes, factory workers and electricians who saw themselves as stranded cowboys. In bed, they made you feel like you were ten years old, sitting in the Cineteca’s front row for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It was the talk even more than the look. Unreal. Sometimes Diego would mimic them, exchanging their own clipped sentences for his best Eastwood impression. Or he wouldn’t speak at all. Then it was as if Diego was dancing with a shadow he himself could not see, although he sensed it clowning his movements from behind.
Diego hadn’t slept around much since he and Jeff got serious, but there were times that the pressure of their shared home, their circle of friends (who were, anyway, Jeff’s friends), of his job, of Jeff’s increasingly traditional desires—marriage, babies (babies? what the fuck?), moving to Indiana to be nearer Jeff’s parents—descended upon him and he felt that if he couldn’t become someone else right that second, he would explode, literally, physically, splattering brains and guts across the walls. With growing frequency, he fantasized about plane tickets to far-off places. Cultured places. Paris, yes, where he should have studied in the first place, la cité of film houses and cafes, slender men hunched over white, ceramic cups, thumbing copies of Rimbaud, alleyways that led to impeccable apartments and, of course, the requisite post-homocoital cigarette smoke trailing out through white shutters.
And yet, despite himself, there was something he loved about the entity that called itself America. Or maybe love was the wrong word. What he felt for the United States was perhaps too uncomfortable, too frightening to be love. Infatuation? Enamorment? His feeling for America had a certain French quality to it, after all. A noirishness: this passion for the highways and old movie stars and the dirt that hung in the air of its polished cities. Grit. Was there even a word for that in Spanish? In the DF, you had dirt, smog, dust, diesel fumes and crumbling paint, but nothing that Diego would call grit. Grit was a product of wealth. Or of power, where power went unquestioned. Americans of the sort with whom Diego was acquainted, those with whom he worked and had gone to school, did not expect to contend with dirt or dysfunction, and so when they encountered it, they had to give it another name. Grit and glamour, such American concepts.
Diego glanced again at the bartender and his quarry.
“Hey! Bartender! A drink over here?” He stood and leaned over the bar, waved his hand.
“For Christ’s sake,” Diego said. For a split-second, he would not have minded one of Jeff’s ay Jesúses or santo míos.
“Pretty hard to get served in here, huh?” he said to his sullen, jailbait companion. Staring down at the now-empty Corona bottle—damp peels of label pasted to the bar in front of him—the kid did not respond. Instead, he ran his finger over the rim, which gave off a low noise like a foghorn.
Diego examined the boy. High? Autistic? What was he doing here?
Finally, the barman approached.
“C’n I get you another one there, cutie?” he asked the kid.
There was a pause and Diego waited.
Then, to his surprise came a soprano but fully audible, “Sure.” The kid blushed and shot the bartender a beautiful lipped smile.
Fuckin’ A, thought Diego, but cleared his throat and said, “You can get me one too. A Sierra Nevada.” He pronounced the words loudly, taking trouble to enunciate, irritation acrid in his mouth. “Or a Corona’s okay too,” he added and laid his palm gently on the bartender’s forearm.
It had never before occurred to Diego that when you touch someone, their flesh responds, even if they are angry or distracted. A person’s body cannot ignore you. A body takes notice, sees even if its master is blind.
The bartender’s arm, where Diego touched it, did not pause for him, nor murmur, nor recoil; rather its cells maintained themselves in stolid order, much as if it were a table leg, or a mechanical limb, operating under the command of a distant central computer. Diego jerked away. There was something wrong with the bartender. His flesh was strange, un-alive.
Yet, moving along the row of lagers and ales, the bartender pulled free a gleaming Corona and flipped the lid off in one brazen gesture, drops of condensation sent arcing overhead. When he placed the bottle in front of the kid, their hands met and the boy sat up, lightning-struck.
Diego licked sweat from his upper lip. A slow-forming question in his mind, he reached across and encircled the kid’s hand with his own as it lifted the beer bottle. The boy, unmoved, took a long chug, sloshing pale ale over Diego’s knuckles. Then wiped his lips with Diego’s hand.
“What are you doing?” yelped Diego. The kid lurched to his feet, but instead of looking for the source of the cry, he pulled a vibrating cell phone from his pocket and squinted into its dim screen.
“Hey!” Diego said, anxious to the point of nausea, accent españifying by the millisecond. “I’m talking to you, you little shit.” No response from him or anyone else, not even a glance. Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck.
On the stool, the boy continued to sway and turn, texting drunkenly.
Then Diego screamed. Like a dying animal. But he wasn’t dying, he was panicking.
I am panicking, thought Diego. He felt inebriated, dangerous and faint all at once, as he slid backward off his stool and stumbled to his feet. The bar had filled in somewhat since Diego arrived. He navigated through clumps of young guys, head down, trying not to vomit, to visualize exiting. “How do you imagine yourself exiting, D.?” said Jeff’s voice inside his head. But no, it wasn’t that hard. The space of a few steps, hand reassured by door—this, at least, recognized his touch—and then he fell, panting: into the freezing air.
Next to the bar entrance, a group of smokers, a guy and two girls, mingled, talking loudly. Their words merged and separated in an elaborate cursive of smoke. Although unintelligible, it had a decisive aesthetic sense, drew forms that one could read, if only they did not ooze away as fast as they appeared.
“Give me a cigarette?” Diego asked. When no one responded, he snatched a lit one from between the lips of the homelier girl. She searched the pavement in confusion. “Hey, uh, any of you guys see my square?” she said. Everyone looked at their feet, while Diego sucked the nicotine into his lungs, feeling it flow through his limbs, gauze his exhaustion.
“Maybe I’m sick,” he thought. There was something wrong, if not with Diego, then with this bar, or maybe with the city itself.
Under his lightweight jacket, Diego’s shirt was drenched in sweat and adrenaline. He had not registered how cold he was until that second, but now he shook, from bones to teeth. He needed to get inside and soon.
“I’m going home,” he thought, feeling the hopeful certainty of the words. Okay, so if this was the message, he got it. Consider it heard, he thought to God, or the Virgin or simply to the city and its rows of buildings, each one braced against the sky like a listening ear. He would go home to Jeff. Do anything, be anyone Jeff asked him to be. Home meant this: Jeff’s known hands undoing the buttons of his shirt, the weight of his lover’s body over his and how it would feel to be fucked hard tonight, to have the crud and weirdness of this evening spent out of him, to wake up new, to wake up a fully realized American fairy. Exactly as imagined.
The taxis on Halsted would not stop for Diego, nor the ones on Broadway, but he had no trouble jumping the turnstile at the Belmont L and walking through the automated doors of the train. The familiar, electronic voice came on, intoning station names and informing passengers to look after their belongings.
“Addison, please stand clear…next stop Sheridan…” Soothing, broken phrases that translated to nothing, but meant passage and place and movement.
“…Morse…Jarvis, doors opening…”
Reluctantly Diego rose from the hard plastic seat and stepped out onto the platform. Lake Michigan from here looked like a black serpent asleep and Diego thought for not the first time how it was not the ocean, although it appeared to be. An ocean was the edge of a world, a simultaneous promise of continuity and ending. This lake, on the other hand, trapped you, made you think escape was possible.
But what was on the other side? Paris? New York? London? Or perhaps, Hell or heaven and your mother with her wide-flung arms pointing to different destinations?
No, Diego had driven to the other side, along the curve of Illinois through the hiccup of road called Indiana, on into Michigan. Like not being able to wake yourself from a dream, the Midwest—America—kept on going.
The sound of the doorbell, thunderously loud in the vacant hallway outside of his and Jeffrey’s apartment, shook Diego back into the world.
He stood there, feeling uninvited, a door-to-door salesman of the night, a man long traveling who has come home again and does not guess what awaits him there.
But: it had only been a handful of hours, really.
Stomping footsteps approached from the inside.
“Diego,” Jeff said.
“Baby,” breathed Diego, relief slackening his muscles, blurring his vision.
“I look like shit, I guess.” Diego forced a laugh. “You gonna let me in?”
Jeff stepped away from the door, then out into the hall.
“Jeff?” said Diego, staring at the face whose lines and colors he knew so well. Jeff’s eyes, weed-red and unfocused, peered down the brightly lit corridor.
“Who are you looking for, Jeff? I’m right here.” Diego’s voice bounced off the walls. He tried and failed to imagine what Jeff saw when he stared at him like this. A blank spot? A Diego-shaped fuzz? A question mark?
Or, like the men at the bar, nothing at all.
He remembered a fight they’d had not long after getting together. Jeff was reading The Conquest of Mexico City. He had this thing about Diego being descended from Aztecs, not a fetish, but still. It got under Diego’s skin. This business about the tragedy of conquest. How ingenious the Aztecs who’d built this Venetian system of canals in the great Lake Texcoco. How terrible the Spaniards who drained the lake and used the stones of Aztec temples to build cathedrals.
“You think the Aztecs were so wonderful?” Diego demanded. “They’d eat you alive, man. Literally. They were fucking conquistadors too. Where do you think they got the stones for their temples? Smashed somebody else’s. That’s where.”
That was the first time Diego had walked out. He’d ended up getting a blowjob behind the Morse Street pier, finally came home when he’d drunk and walked clean of the rage. In the morning, he apologized. Such a stupid argument, they agreed, and Diego made blueberry pancakes with the berries in the shape of a “J.” Not long after, Jeff traded the Mexico book for The Power of NOW. When, only three weeks into February, Diego ripped down the tacky Mayan wall calendar, he didn’t object.
They’d had many battles that had ended like that, flung over their shoulders like so much litter. It had been easy beginning anew, sweet really.
And yet now, as Jeff leaned into an empty stairwell to hiss “Anyone there?” he could have been anyone. Not someone Diego hated or resented or whose presence crushed him, but just a sorry guy waiting up for a partner who would not return.
For a dollar fifty in downtown D.F., you could stroke the rough but still-visible face of an Aztec serpent embedded into the side of the great Catedral Metropolitana. How many school trips had he stood there, yawning in the too-bright sun, while archeologists under his very feet dug at its foundation, revealing layer upon layer of temple, nameless civilizations, generations of the defeated.
Diego crossed the hall to stand behind his lover, who sighed but did not move.
“Things go missing, baby,” Diego murmured.
Heat flowed from Jeff’s back like water.
Where to? Only one place left.
At night, the southbound red line lags. High on the Jarvis platform, you can bang the switch, glow beneath the heat coil for three minutes, bang it again. Swirling around, the climatic wind of the Windy City. From here, Diego’s condo stands in one direction, the lake in another.
The water is darker than the sky, a negative space coiled the length of urban sprawl and beyond. Coatlicue, the two-faced mother goddess, swims in her skirt of snakes. Diego might be dreaming, but even an invisible fag knows the taste of wakefulness, the slap of cold; retreats again to the glass wall with its heating element.
Tonight the City stirs. The D.F., ancient Tenochtitlan, rustling beneath Chicago’s foundation in a display of geographical revolt: the cities interweave. Lake Michigan turns brackish, enfolding sand and salt of el Lago Texcoco. Forget what they say about the drained lake’s death: el Texcoco only vanished.