He came unannounced. The Wanderer. He dropped into lotus in front of my folding fisherman’s chair; his pointed chin landed in the dimple of my right kneecap, nestling in it without permission, as if he’d never left. The smell I still remembered, of morning saliva and ground herbs, thyme, marjoram and perhaps coca leaves – who the hell knows – knocked me out; he barely caught me.
‘La hoja de coca no es droga’ says the T-shirt that I stole from an overpriced market in Peru’s Cuzco when I was a stupid-sounding seventeen-year-old giggler, with a flask of home-made slivovitz peeking out of my right hiking boot throughout the trip with the gang. Now I can say, don’t believe a fucking word of what the moon-faced natives selling Inca Cola tell you; even the scent lingering on him is addictive.
He walks with the tip of his tongue airing itself between his front teeth and with his toes hovering a few inches above the ground, stealthily like a ropewalker, so I couldn’t hear him coming. Who knows how long he’d been following me, his elegantly arched shadow cowered a little to be able to hide in mine?
I couldn’t have not-fainted. I was out for a couple of minutes, dreaming a lucid dream, of the lightness of breathing that I felt, in passing, when it was dawning on our last day in the English oak bed that our shared phobia divided into the sex center and two sleeping peripheries. When my dangling head, out of control like a bulldog’s, fell back to the front, in between my collarbones, I woke, with a startle, just like I do after the nightmare that keeps coming back. He was holding me up with one arm, one hand, at the kidneys. I placed my palms into his underarms, staring in between his eyebrows, where I surmised his third eye, and pulled him close, to hide in the dry heat of the ascetic, unearthly body that so rarely sweats. It’s me who needs to purge of poisons of various sorts two or three times a week, not him; he heals through sleeping or fasting, and I never could do either. That’s how I got the indigo horseshoes under my eyes.
We collapsed onto the ground, my leg wound around his, twice, in a pre-coital eagle asana, his lips tracing the arch between my ear and my shoulder, and we said our greetings in silence, hissing out an unpracticed duet of denied expectation, wheezily: me, the soprano reduced to alto by excessive smoking, him, the baritone that never resounded outside my imagination. It hurt to breathe, more than usual, because the burning blueness of the sky in the Atacama was pounding us below ground zero.
It all happened long ago, but I didn’t find time to assess the full scale of the damage, maybe because we parted so suddenly, or maybe because I burned the sheets where he made love to me until I cried and then held me until I stopped, in a bonfire of hurt vanity in my backyard, to extinguish the stench of him on me, in me, out of me and beside me; it wouldn’t disappear in the bowels of the washing machine, not even after three cycles at 90 Celsius, and I did use the vile little pink soaps that grandmother Villager gave me; the ones that can eat out concrete, if necessary, as she liked to say. I needed to forget that the catastrophe was natural, not man-made. So I turned him into one of the many ghosts I talk to: most often myself as 17-year-old, but also my father as 35-year-old. Dead relatives and dead friends and dead lovers. Him as a 24-year-old. The undead dead in my head.
“How did you find me?”
“The smell of dying flowers. Black magnolias. The blossoms were full of rainwater… and the stems broke. That’s how you smell when you’re sad. I don’t know what you smell like when you’re happy.”
“Don’t talk to me like that. Like you know me.” My half-forgotten coarseness. But I couldn’t help it; the words rose up my throat like word-vomit; I had to spit them out because they tasted like the she-beast that I chained and caged when I found out that it was capable of biting off bits and pieces of itself, of me, when it went hungry, like Ouroboros, the dragon.
He buried his boyish face in my hair, to breathe in the scent of my L’Occitaine shampoo, and let out a muffled sneeze, because he inhaled a few grains of overheated dirt. Then he squeezed my hand, strongly, much too strongly; I gritted my teeth and shut my eyes to suppress the urge to scream. By inflicting pain on my body – we’d only just met again, so I suppose he wasn’t yet sure whether he could get deep enough to touch my soul – he told me that what I had just said to him hurt. Not enough, whispered the sedge of his chest hair against my cheek, as it grew a thousandth of an inch, to defend his heart by digging into my skin and starting a reddish rash near the corner of my mouth.
“I’m still hard to kill.”
“I’m impossible to kill now.”
He could never talk about pain while he was going through it, only after the worst had passed, like lightning, which enters through the fingers and exits through the toes, leaving you shaken but unbroken, with a survivor’s bewildered gaze roaming about the shambles surrounding you, under the oak that had just been sliced in two and didn’t crush you only because the wind happened to be blowing eastward, and you came to the park to watch the sunset. ‘Since he still hasn’t learned it,’ I pondered, with some satisfaction but a lot more alarm, ‘he hasn’t cared for anyone since our last encounter.’ My left side started throbbing at the thought, and I shivered as a warm trickle started snaking its way down my stomach and the small of my back.
We untangled our limbs – his right leg had gone to sleep, so he had to shake it off a little – and stood up. With the S of my bent back to him, I took off the ‘La hoja de coca no es droga’ T-shirt and ripped off the stained bandage, sizzling, S-S-S, a bit too violently, like a petrified swan, because I can’t stand stinging pain; I can bear burning and piercing and thrusting and stabbing, complete with wound fever and hallucinations – in this case, of an oasis, I would think – but not the kind of stinging pain that loiters for weeks and months, like a fucking parasite, a tapeworm, perhaps, and a tapeworm that is allergic to warm milk, at that. He sensed that I didn’t want him to help me, though I knew he had trained as a paramedic before his hatred of things cold and wet had chased him out to Chad, so he didn’t move, but I could feel his stiffened, questioning, preying presence encircling me, closing up on me, frightening me.
I am rarely frightened, so my body doesn’t know what to do when it comes over me. The pores near my hairline started releasing cool sweat reeking of tequila, and lemons, and oranges, and salt and cinnamon; the night before, at about 2am, I started mixing silver with gold in the God-forsaken dump on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama whose name and location I forgot just as fast as the barista who ate me up in the supply closet at 10pm and didn’t expect anything in return. Since I moved to Chile, I found out that Latin men love the taste more than any other ones I’ve met, so naturally, I started taking full advantage, out of necessity, not desire, and depending on how good they were, I either practiced hair-grabbing and moaning with an absent-minded stare at the ceiling or fantasized about the Wanderer and the Departed, or both of them, with tightly fisted hands, to be able to get off. As I was fiddling with the bandage, cursing only in my head, and in the language that he doesn’t speak because I forbade him to study it, I managed one deeper half breath, half sigh, and I knew with a certainty that sent my pulse on a wild sheep chase that he had opened his mouth to ask what had happened to me: my nostrils detected a new ingredient. Gasoline. Where the fuck did he come from?
“I picked up fencing when I was in Mongolia last year.”
The white lie came with a flash and a beep, red, before he asked the question; he was supposed to wait until I was ready to talk to him, and it annoyed me that he started breaking our rules so early on. When I stopped the bleeding, with a fresh strip of gauze pressed onto the wound, I tied the shabby bandage around my waist like a belt and fished in my army backpack a little for the slightly suspicious antibiotics that the bearded doctor prescribed to me in the hospital in Santiago.
Some of the deeper lacerations heal slowly because they are not dressed properly when they’re fresh. I used to think that I could treat everything with willpower. But without tenderness – the cracked lips of a military man from Britain and the sweet lips of a fairy from the Czech Republic, to suck the puss out – there is still raw tissue under the scab, and when you tear it off, the way you used to with bike scrapes when you were eight, to shut up the white trash bullies on the playground, who called you “pussy”, there are midges in the puss, repulsive buzzing little midges, and it all stinks, awfully, because it’s been rotting.
I popped the pill and washed it down with some water, and as I crouched to put the canteen down on the ground, his shadow fell down on me; I rose, and he locked his arms around my waist, cautiously, to avoid the wound, and I leaned back to rest my head in the pit of his shoulder with primal familiarity that crept up my back like a kitten with velvet paws; I heard him exhale in relief, and I realized I could finally close my eyes, lightly, with no force at all, and let the eyelashes tremble under the weight of the tear that fell out, just like that, to tell me that I did not un-teach myself how to cry. We stayed like that and talked without speaking, for ten minutes, half an hour, an hour; I opened my eyes every now and then in hopes of catching our shadows in the act; they could have been dancing while I wasn’t watching, a dervish dance maybe. When we got stiff, we let go.
“Shall we go now?”
“You’re still looking for him?
“Where did you come from?”
“How did you hurt yourself?”
We started walking, me backpack-less half a step in front of him; he with a double load tagging along; south-west, towards Antofagasta, where I wanted to take a bus back to Santiago. I didn’t ask what his plans were, not because I didn’t care, but because I knew he would either tell me when he was ready or disappear without warning, yet again; I got used to it somewhere between the Czech Republic, a few years ago, and Mongolia, at the beginning of last year. The odds were 50:50: tell me which of the hands behind my back is clutching the krowka, the Polish candy made out of caramel that has wrapping with a goofy smoking cow on it, and I might give it to you before it melts. Left foot. Tap-down. Right foot. Tap-down. My pelvis led the way; I tilted my back and bent my elbows, remembering my flamenco frame, and I soaked up the mature August sun that most Chileans dread; ‘you’re like a scorpion’, the Departed told me once. My side had stopped hurting; I felt more at ease, so I extended my right arm back, and seconds later, his bony fingers interlocked with mine.
Left, right, tap-tap. The desert treated us with hot, hotter, hottest hostility, but I loved it all the more for it because Electra is my middle name, so I dote on rejection; we soldiered on for what could have been an afternoon or an hour, drying up and shrinking like the crunchy anchovies they feed you on the beaches in the Mediterranean. We knew we had to get to the nearest village, and fast, because we were running out of water, and also because we were desperate to tear our clothes off – the lower part, at least; neither of us ever fully understood the meaning of foreplay – but fucking makes you sweat, and we couldn’t afford to do that: though it was already 6pm, the sun hadn’t tired of draining water, blood, urine, spinal fluid, whichever liquid it could find, from our bodies; it seemed insatiable, like a newborn vampire, which was slightly odd; I didn’t remember it being this hot the day before, but then again, I didn’t remember much of the day before, either.
First comes the haze. I lost my concentration and stepped into a crater, twisting my weak ankle, the one that got stuck in a bicycle wheel when I was five years old. I gasped and uttered a “Do riti!”, but then my lips curved into a crooked smile that told me more reliably than anything else that I was glad to lean on his arm. I let him examine the ankle, and then we moved on, more slowly, because it turned out I had a slight sprain, even though I didn’t feel it. I couldn’t tell how long it had been since we set off from my base camp of half-a night and half-a day, where he found me sitting down and staring at my feet, brain half-fried because I had taken off my sunhat at mid-day. High on antibiotics and the sunlight, I slalomed around the craters and kicked into dried cakes of dirt and llama shit with my healthy foot, grinning a little because the Wanderer, bent under his backpack and mine, was pouting behind my back; he lost most of his child-like habits by the time we met.
“Where did you last see him?”
“Four days ago, about 50 kilometers north-west from here. I pulled out the Luger, but it wasn’t loaded. He disappeared in a cloud of smoke. He’s become very dramatic.”
“Did he say anything?”
“Did he still have the snake?”
“Yes. Around his neck.”
That’s how we met. I was chasing after the Departed, the charmer with the Western diamondback rattlesnake that bit me a long time ago and then kept haunting me at night, in pleasant and unpleasant nightmares, staring at me with its one healthy eye – the other one was missing; I always hated the empty socket more because it was just the right size for a bullet from the Luger that I bought when I was old enough to admit that I could, and wanted to, kill, to satisfy the desire of which I was ashamed of at first, the desire to look at blood, fresh dripping blood, still blood in puddles, dried up black blood on skin, in ways that wouldn’t require me to cut myself or fake forms because you can’t donate blood too often if you don’t want to get too weak. I never managed to fire into that fucking pirate eye in time, not in my dreams, not in real life, dammit, so the one-eyed rattlesnake went on trying to hypnotize me, with a seductive hisssssssssss, until I developed insomnia to keep him away.
The Departed left me, with the snake, in 0 A.B., After.Bite., the time that prepared me for what I do now. Silencing the spirits. My own and others’. I was one of them for a while, and they enjoyed my company so much that they wouldn’t let go even after I was resurrected, like fucking Jesus, except a year and a half after my supposed death, not three days into afterlife, which was blissful. It’s just you and the spirits, without the body, without the mouth, the cavity whose uselessness insults me; I often watch it chew and swallow and spit words, on strangers that interrupt each other and on friends that interrupt me. Just you and the spirits. Mr Absolut and Miss Glemorange, a threesome so unlikely that you can’t resist it, even though you know you won’t be able to throw up later because the gag reflex disappears after some time in the purgatory. It’s when you start hurling again that you know you are coming alive; it tastes sour; it hurts, the stomach bubbling with vitriol, the esophagus contracting with heartburn, the mouth spitting out bits and pieces of yesterday’s dinner with insults and curses. You don’t talk in the purgatory. That’s what I miss the most.
The Wanderer Part II and Part III will be (re)published respectively on April 27, and May 1, 2018.
The picture is an artwork by Stefania Bonatelli, from her project Zumo de Flores, Italy