Hey, um, it’s May. I’m. Um. I can’t get to the phone. I’m going under. I’m in a world of pain at the moment. Please don’t hate. Or just, whatever, just call me back. Or not. Whatever. It’s just a bad day. Sorry. Um, sorry, whatever.
I finish recording, hang up my celly, toss it on the cigarette-burned passenger seat. Yeah, that’s the best I can do. Fuck a gameface. Shit is dark. I’m swimming in it. My eyeballs feel scratchy. My mouth tastes like dirty bird shit. I can smell my own BO. My human stench. We’re all rotting. I’m rotten. I’m a bad apple, I’m thinking. I’m feeling dramatic like whoa. Like woe. That’s my new voice mail outgoing message, okay? Because, straight up? I cannot deal. I got no grit left in me. I am clean out of dignity. I don’t have the strength to pretend I’m all good. I ain’t all good.
In the packed parking garage, I have to go around and around, all the way to the top. I pull into a spot on L6, my sad-sack of a car idling and burping and wheezing. The noise of it bounces off the concrete walls, echoing, elongating. So does Strange Days. That dang Doors CD is jammed into my janky-ass player, permanently. It’s always playing. If the car is on, then Jim is on, singing through the blown-out speakers in tinny vibrations. There’s no either/or.
Fucking Jim Morrison. Fucking Garten. Garten got the CD stuck in there, of course. Big surprise. All in a day’s work for Garten. I blame me. If I followed my own rules, the All-Jim Morrison-All-The-Time Show never would have opened for business. Easily 70 million times, I have sworn that I will not drive with him in the car ever again. Because every time I do, he pulls the same stunts he’s been pulling since high school, since when I first got my license.
I’m 16, I’ve barely had my license a week, and Garten is like, Stop driving like a little bitch, what the fuck, once you’re on the on-ramp, speed up, don’t slow down, why are you second-guessing yourself, turn now, go go go, do it or don’t, shit or get off the pot, why do you drive like you’re afraid, why are you such a pussy?
Nothing has changed. Every day is exactly the same. Say we decide to go to the supermarket, because Garten has no more toilet paper and I can’t take it anymore. By the time we pull into the Foodintown Groceries, I’m PTSD-ing out. Sweating and shaking, blood thudding.
Don’t think I didn’t explicitly tell him not to put that CD in. Okay, first of all, it reminds me of my dad, and that’s enough right there. I hear it, and I’m five, belly-first on the brown shag carpet, Strange Days album cover on the ground in front of me. I’d stare at it for hours. And secondly, that specific copy of the CD is like, possessed, or something. It’s jacked.
A burned copy. I’d been foraging around in the mysterious funk that accumulates under my car seat for a cigarette I dropped (which, by the by, I never found). I felt the disc’s edge against the back of my knuckles. I pulled it out from where it was jammed. It was hot. It was like, burning hot. I shoved it in the player. Out buzzed “People Are Strange.” And I thought, hear, hear, dude. But that’s not the first track. I know that album. Me and my dad would listen to it so hard that we could hear fingertips scrape guitar strings. Maybe it was a mix CD. I hit eject. It wouldn’t come out. I worked my fingers against the opening. I picked, prodded, pulled, to no avail.
The song played all the way through. At the end, out slid the disc. On its own. The CD was cold when it ejected. Like, frosty. Burned CD, Strange scrawled across it in permanent ink. Just the word Strange. No Days. No Doors. Just Strange.
Next time Garten got in the car, he picked the CD up off the passenger-side floorboard where I had tossed it, read the one word written on it, and went to play it. I knew it was gonna get stuck but good in there. I knew I had used my one get out of jail free card. Asking Garten not to do something is basically identical to telling him to do it. Of course, I asked him not to anyway. Of course, he did it anyway. Stuck it in.
So now, if the car is on, The Doors are on. Always on. The on/off knob, which is also the volume knob, is busted. So I’m saying. The CD is always playing. At the same plastic-door-buzzing volume. Forever, it’s Jim Morison who sings to me.
So there, world. I straight full-volume that into the cavernousness after recording my new greeting, the stand-in for my actual presence, while stomping out a cigarette, one leg spidering out the side door of my shitty-ass, humiliating-as-hell clunker of a Yugan Misolo hatchback. Ugh. Me solo, alright. Me so low, too. I uncrumple myself to standing and slam the door harder than necessary. Exit the swampy parking garage with a deep inhale, an attempt to steel myself. The smell; the car fumes caught in thick indus- trial walls. The smell wraps around me like a toxic comfort food hug. The smell is pure East. Industrial and revolutionary. It’s dirty and horrible and it makes me so happy at the same time. Metropolis and commerce and buzzing life force. All the way to The East. Boro City. Exhaust fumes. The smell knocks me back, east. Back East. BC. Parking garages in Boro City. Magical and more real than reality, all at the same time. Not like Las Astralas. Fake. A mistake, a taunting. A wanting that I can never satisfy.
Is this my life? Is this my life, for real-real? Am I on my way to my job? I work at Jemanja Juice? I’m walking out of the parking structure and there’re people and their crazy-ass vibes licking at me like invisible psycho-tongues. Fuck Jemanja Juice. Inside my head, I say it. Fuck you all for staring at me in my stupid lame work hat. Fuck you for laughing at me. Fuck me for being so paranoid. Fuck my acne and my wrinkles for coexisting simultaneously, with no grace period, not even a day’s peace between them, while we’re at it. Fuck the smell of oranges and the whine of blenders forever.
I’m saying, what blows is how the good shit all gets ruined, ultimately. Everything gets tainted, ends up in some fever-dream nightmare, I mean, honestly now. Like, for example, here’s one of the only things I don’t hate about my life: The Fruit Cart Homies. Dudes who sell fruit out of white rolling carts full of ice. Big grimy fish tanks sitting precariously atop those Mexi-corn carts. That corn is really awesome too.
But the fruit. Blocks of ice melting in fast motion on the hot asphalt sparkle of summer. Watermelon, cantaloupe, coconut, all kinds of crap, mango, jicama, you know, whatever. And the guy chops it up all perfect, in big chunks, scoops it with this white shovel thingy into a big clear Baggie, sprinkles chile powder and salt on top, then douses it in lime juice. The greatest.
I’m the kind of person who’ll always get tons of chile powder just to watch the guy’s eyebrows rise. I’m the kind of person who tips two dollars when the fruit cost five, knowing full well that at White’s Groceries or even cracked-out Foodintown, the shit would cost me…like, seriously? Just under seven dollars. Maybe. On a good day. I am grateful. Know full well how much it sucks to serve other people. To be their tragic food slave, to be broke. What I’m saying is now, I am also the type of person who is like, No naranjas, okay? Because fucking Jemanja Juice has ruined them for me. Overkill to the max. I have had enough orange up my nose and Morrison in my ear and bullshit down my throat to last five lifetimes.
So, it’s June sixth, which makes it my birthday. Don’t ask. Insert bad cosmic joke about nothing ever working out how it was supposed to here.
I can feel my legs moving and the wheels grinding inside my head. My feet are walking on the sidewalk; I feel the contact with the concrete against my soles, the pressure of each step pushing me forward. I am closing in on my place of employment, my horrific, loud, stinky, voluntary imprisonment. The glint of sun flashes against the big bright windows. And I just kind of march straight down to the beach, right past the front door of Jemanja Puke. I calmly and methodically carry my body west, sidewalk giving way to sand as I close in on the ocean, pier looming to my left. I kick my legs out in front of me and stare at the foamy and polluted and beautiful waves.
I pull a half-smoked joint out of the back pocket of my too-tight jeans, pop the button and loosen the zipper. I spark the doob and psychically dare a cop to come test my gangster. Or even a bitchy-assed white mom worried about her prissy kids. None does, so I smoke it all and then watch my finger nudge the end of the roach under the sand.
All the weed smoked, in broad daylight, and the hole inside me still empty, gaping. And nobody even noticed I was doing something illegal. I am so unnoticed it is ridiculous. What a disappointment. All of it: disappointment. The lack of an appointment. The cancellation of an appointment. No appointment. Well, I did have an appointment to be at work at Jemanja Puke. But eff that. It’s my birthday. I want to matter specifically. An appointment where it matters that I am May. Not just any old worker drone. Dis-appointment: an appointment you thought you had, but no one else cared. Like getting stood up for a date.
Like when Garten promised to take me out for fancy dinner as a thank-you for lending him 500 bucks to pay his rent, and then passed out in his clothes on top of his bed without calling first. Like when I was little, my mom would lose me, would forget me in department stores. I’d wander off, but only because I craved seeing relief in her eyes when she found me, just for a second. She loved me, but nothing really warmed her eyes toward me. That was dis-appointment, alright.
Like discouraged. Un-couraged. Un-encouraged. No more bravery. Bravery gone. Like coeur equals heart. Like courage means having heart. Like discouraged, like you had heart, but then someone dissed it, and you lost all your heart, all your courage.
Discouraged and disappointed. Happy birthday to May. In June.
So, still trying to just feel satiated, just for a few minutes even, just for today, just for my birthday, I have another Royale. The last Royale in the pack. Discount, generic, low-end cancer sticks. You know you’re poor when you’re Royale Poor. I’m Royale-y fucked. Look at me now, with a used fucking beige Misolo that barely runs, and terrorizes me with The Doors, who I love, who I hate, just like oranges. A worker drone, a disappointed, discouraged train wreck of a failure, smoking Royales like it’s no kind of thing. No big deal.
Look at me now. Just look at me. I am. I’m actually looking at me. It’s like I’m up above myself, in the sky, like a Mylar balloon tied to my own wrist. Up above and a little off to the right. I stand up and feel the smooth crunch of give as the sand rearranges itself beneath my foolish food service employee black-sneakered feet. I move like automatic. All high stakes and shit.
I’m saying I was called. I am called. What I’m saying is, it’s a calling. I have nothing better to do. I’m not saying I’m special. I’m just saying I listened. I am called to the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea. I am drawn, I am magnetized, I am called. I am calling out, I have been calling out for a while now, maybe my whole life. The ocean. The ocean is woman. The ocean is my birthplace, place of origin, of genesis. She is ocean, she is power, mother, Ymoja, protector, Iemania, safe harbor, Mami Wata, safe passage. She whispers. She breathes me to her. The ocean, my ocean, my sea.
My balloon-self calmly bobs alongside but high above me. I feel the dry, powdery sand shift to packed, wet sand at the edge of the water; feel the density increase. Feel each foot stick for a second as it steps forward.
The cold and shallow water’s edge laps at my feet, my cheap shoes soon heavy and soaked, as the cold clamps onto my ankles. The ocean breathes me to her. The cold rub of denim. The iciness bites into my crotch, sends my breath shallow up my ribs. The balloon part is with me, floating above the water, and very calm. I’m there and feeling everything. At the same time, I am also up and out. Looking at it, witnessing it.
My wet-heavy jeans pull down on my hipbones; the standard-issue sexless XL work T-shirt billows up around me like a droopy tulip. My hair emancipates itself from the ugly, barely-held-together-with-a-push-pen bun. The stupid-ass work uniform baseball hat floats on top of the acid-green waves, a wink to the living. And to the dead. To those above, those below. Any who will take notice.
Most of all, to her, to she who is the sea, to Iemania.
I am past caring whether the living even notice, whether anyone cares that this person has just slipped between the nuclear-waste-waves. Bye, See You Next Tuesday. Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad. I never belonged to you or with you. I never felt at home, not since I was born. I am trying to find a place to belong, or at least a fresh start. I have no one to blame but myself.
I am going home. Maybe I am finally going home. I have to fight to keep myself from rising; my body wants to float, but I resist this buoyancy, and my head is an explosion of sparkles, pain crystallizing in bolts, tongue and fingers and toes spiked with pins and needles, and I am calm, but fighting. Calm, but ripped roughshod with excruciate. I am, all of me, inside myself again, I am gigantic and invisible all at once, like a Venn diagram aligning itself, one circle over the other. Like an eclipse. Like when one celestial body completely blots out another.
I am breathing water. My lungs fill with fluid, up the nose, down the mouth, all black and salt and wet inside her. I feel clear in my head for the first time, maybe ever. Ideas slide through and rearrange like recipe cards, a kaleidoscope.
My blood is thudding like a team of tiny hammers marching through my veins. This takes commitment, this takes transcendence, and Iemania has to be impressed with this show of dedication. I’m putting in extra effort, like an athlete training for the Olympics, times a million.
I am in the cave of the ocean. What I feel is such an immense gratitude for who and what made me. The chance I have been given. What a fragile, eloquent mystery life is. What a blink of an eye. What sweet, precious withdrawal. What grace in gratitude. The gratitude is a bubble of light that threatens to float me up, breaking the surface. My mother. My father. My makers. But I hold steady to the ocean floor. Calm and slow as a jellyfish dance.
My throat twists like a swirly lollipop. The sparkles are connecting, but the brightness is turning to blackness as the sparkle edges touch. My lungs contract like two pinkish dishtowels being wrung out.
I think about the word ineffable. And the word God. And the word god. And whether or not God has a name that sparkles with all its facets and cuts and light. And the word ineffable. And god.
The pain makes pockets inside itself. Little bubbles of time-space
revelations. Time was elusive, illusion, mostly useless, a tool to de-dimensional-ize for the limited human mind, a lie, however well-meaning, a lie. Same for place. And pain. I now have a space. A blessed pocket of space. What I’m thinking about is language.
Words sparkle before me, snatches of what I once knew, enough to know I know nothing. Passages of Spanish I learned working in restaurants, begging the busboys to practice with me. I want some magic, some incantations, something like pictographs. Other tongues. I want a letter that’s a number that’s a symbol, all of a sudden. Something busting through one-dimensional simplicity to multifaceted magic. I want to break on through, for the words to be my door. But even that was some cliché hoo-hah.
This alphabet, this series of random symbols that represent sounds that are jumbled together in various combinations and then we all agree that this series of symbols or that series of symbols or this code or that code means this or that. Like a-p-p-l-e means apple or s-n-a-k-e means snake or w-o-m-a-n means woman.
These codes can never capture the essence of the thing they point to. They are just directors. Directions. Up, down. God, mother, whatever.
So like, we all like, think that we are communicating, but who knows what you hear when I say god or woman or whatever. I’m a letter that also means a number and a thing. I’m May. I am permission, or I am a possibility. Like sun or moon or man or woman or god.
The word ineffable is floating around my head again. I am trying hard to remember, yes, remember, this word, this one word, this word that could hold it all, it’s on the tip of my tongue, which is swelling and numb, and could I speak with no air? Could I speak water? Was water a language too? What was the word for water? What was the word for god, for everything?
It is a yawn feeling, itching and tickling the bottom of my jaw. A compulsion to open wide, and I have no other option, I want nothing more, it is natural, it is right, I open wide, all of me, starting at my mouth, which is the front of me now, the tip of me, I peel open all the way down through the bottom of me and I am a tunnel, and there is another tunnel right in front of me, which is me and is everything else, and headlong I go.
But not a where in the way you mean it.
I am here; I am in the arms of the sea, in the cradle of the ocean, in the womb of my best mother. A salty, selfsame embrace I have ever been waiting for.
There is a pop in my ears, and then there are no more ears. Then, what is May, what makes May, what is me, what makes me, it dissolves. I understand. And Iemania, it’s starting to make sense. The ocean, she left me trails of breadcrumbs. She left hints everywhere. Iemania, she was always calling me. I am her daughter. I am her water, I am part of her.
My hat, my work uniform hat, it floats past, and there is the stupid silkscreened logo: a happy, anthropomorphized cup wearing a Carmen Miranda hat, spilling over with fruit. And the name across the bottom: Jemanja Juice. Jemanja. Jemanja is Ymoja is Iemania, is the ocean, is the sea, the sea, the beautiful sea.
Even in this transcendent state, my nonexistent blood boils at the disgrace; the million different ways man co-opts and takes. Grabs what he wants and sullies and defames. All the power secreted into syncretistic whispers. Hidden. Code.
I thought I wanted a magic word, but it’s the magic that makes words move that I am in love with. That’s where the answers lie. Underneath. Under the substance. Fathoms deep. And I see why I was so stumbly and blind. All that language twisted up and used against us.
Iemania, my mother, my home, she whom I have dissipated into, gladly, the ocean, the deep, I will find a way, when I am complete, I will exact vengeance against the market, the greed, those who would take advantage of magic and use it to sell the fruit of this earth, never rightly theirs to begin with.
And though from where I now am, these earthly matters need not concern me, and not that your eternal honor needs defending, and not that you can’t fight your own battles, if you wanted to, dear Iemania.
But for the sake of those who remain. Let me bring just a little light. Just a little illumination. You have my word. My word.