Sunday, March 06, 2005

South Beach, Part IV

Play the Podcast -- downloadable sound file.

The psychic outside Mango's Caribbean Grill told me the thing I always heard from psychics and I was getting tired of it. Nick laughed when he saw my expression.

"Yeah. You think it's funny. You're not having to hear this," I said to him under my breath. That just made him laugh harder.

"You will have a long life," she said. Her hair was bleached yellow blonde, but she had dark black roots. She spoke with a Cuban accent. She had no way of knowing I was completely indifferent to the idea of a long life. "And you will be lucky in your career. People see you as a success."

"Great. Sounds good. Anything else?"

"Someone has blocked you and has put a terrible curse on you. You will not be able to break free and you will never have a happy love life as long as this curse is on you. Someone out there cares about you very much but he's afraid to tell you."

I thought of Dad in Nevada, alone in his Suburban, running radiometric surveys from dawn to dusk, never talking to anyone. Absolutely alone. Was that good for a geologist in his late 70s? What kind of daughter was I, caught up in the things I had committed to ...

The whole thing was making me feel pretty depressed. Maybe psychics said this to everyone. Who knows. But, I had heard the same thing from psychics in New York, Houston, Tucson, and Oklahoma City. I had thrown away quite a bit of cash, it seemed --- obviously nothing they said significantly changed my life. The only thing that had really helped was travel and adrenaline.

Danger made me aware of the real. Without it, reality faded into old Polaroids and echoes of my dad, Marcus, my ex, his dad -- the assorted people and who had come and gone from my life.

The night before, I had awakened in the middle of a deep, vivid dream, and I was crying in my sleep. I was sobbing. Abjectly, with despair so profound I could hardly breathe. I was riding a horse toward Palm Canyon, and it wouldn't follow the trail. Instead, it took me to cholla cactus and scrub mequite, so I'd be scratched. The horse was trying to knock me out of the saddle, but with a minimum of exertion. Then, the dream switched. I was in a Walgreen's drugstore, but itreminded me of Kresge's in Ardmore, Oklahoma, where my memories were still all too vivid. Ardmore, Oklahoma. South, south, south – halfway to Dallas, more than midway to oblivion. That, at least was where I was born. I may feel sadness in my sleep, but by day, I feel nothing.

But I can't afford to remember. I can't afford to feel. Feeling is counterproductive to my ultimate goals - I know when I have to face a certain kind of warm, oozing fear.

I know it, and I’ll go on.

“Let’s go to Fat Tuesday’s. Have one of the drinks, maybe dance?” asked Nick. My knees were still shaking from something that I dared not reveal. But, maybe it was just from being on the hotel Stairmaster for an hour, without eating dinner. Perhaps not everything was as melodramatic as I liked to think.

Savage Peace. We could talk all we wanted about death squads, training grounds, and small airports that appeared on no one’s maps, except in the occasional classified one, based on satellite photos and infrared reconnaissance. Savage peace, indeed, when the bloodshed was quite immediate, and done for no other reason than a kind of ontological insecurity, one’s own identity wavering, fading, distorting – quickly, out-of-control, toxic like mercury.

"Still thinking about God's Hostages?" I asked. I wanted to see if Nick knew anything about my ex's dad. It was a long shot, but I wanted to make sure.

"Not in this oasis," he said. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. The motel where he had refused to leave was called "The Oasis Motel." It was perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.

I lost my nerve. It would be easier to go dancing.

“Great idea – let’s do it. I was wearing basic black pants, a white blouse I had bought in Paraguay, basic black shoes. Nothing spandex, no platform sandals, but perhaps it was just as well. My hair was dyed dark auburn-red, my body felt shaky for being about ten pounds over my normal weight, and I knew I was nothing like my normal self. Identity wavering, on the verge of going into another phase. Self-creation, self-fashioning, constructivist moves beginning with obliteration.

Dancing was a good way to start.

South Beach, Part III

Play the podcast -- downloadable sound file.

The words of the snake handler echoed in my mind. "The snake, she is stronger than you. The more you struggle, the tighter the grip. You won't ever get away unless you relax."

Both snakes were still wrapped around me. It was fun, but getting to be less so.

"You can have them back, now," I said to the snake handler. "You can take another photo. I'll pay you more," I said. He had quite a racket. You had to pay him to release you from his boa constrictors.

I felt my hands sweating, my knees trembling. Nick at my side, and the thick South Beach air was getting more difficult to inhale as the night wore on. This was a land of con artists and people with pasts they needed to erase. His grown-up high school football player mask was and this could potentially be very tricky. His intensity was only partly masked.

"Felt pretty good to get the snakes off you, didn''t it?" said Nick. His words should have been said with a sense of irony, but they weren't. He wasn't really joking. Then he said something that made me startle.

"Sort of like being 'God's hostage,' isn't it?" he asked. I inhaled sharply and thought of the Vietnam vet in Arlington, Texas --my ex-husband's father, and the afternoon I spent with him, when he told me how God refused to let him leave the hotel. His words still echoed in my head. "He wouldn't let me leave this room for 8 years. And, then, when I disobeyed one time, He re-arranged my teeth."

I looked at Nick. I tried to keep my face a mask.

"If you resist, He'll crush you. But, you know He'll crush you eventually anyway, so your choice is simple. Struggle, and die quickly. Don't struggle, and die slowly," said Nick. He took a drink of his Dos Equis and looked off toward Versace's mansion.

"Sounds about right." I couldn't tell if he was trying to get a reaction out of me or not, or if the reference to "God's hostage" was simply coincidental.

"Yeah, I've seen the film. I've punched Bobo the Clown," I continued. I was referring to Albert Bandura's experiments at Stanford University, where children were shown movies of kids punching a life-size Bobo the Clown knock-down dummy doll. Not surprisingly, when they had a chance, they, too, threw punches at Bobo.

"Are you saying we're all hostages of our conditioning?" asked Nick.

"I don't know what I'm saying." I dug inside my pink faux crocodile bag for my lipstick. "I've met a couple of God's Hostages, and I have to say I'd rather be beaten up by a child programmed by Bandura to think I'm Bobo the Clown."

This was a good place for both of us to be - South Miami Beach. There were dangers, real danger, only partially cloaked by the art deco, the neon, the drinks with touristy names, the women kissing each other in the shadows, the clerks in gift stores giving clients back their counterfeit $20, $50, or $100 bills with a mildly embarrassed "it didn't pass the test."

I had a simple question. Why reject the fake bills? Won't they pass? And, even if they don't, so what? Isn't everything, to a certain degree, counterfeit?

We live in a state of existential fraudulence. The life we define by all the subtle and not-so-subtle connections, coincidences, and karma-driven awakenings is not so easily positioned in the "authentic" realm. Manipulate my perceptions and you manipulate my reality. Change my reality and you change my life.

Sometimes it felt like the only thing real were the bruises. Adrenaline surges meant you could tell when something was putting you in danger. Only things that were real could be harmed. Isn't that right?

All that glisters is not gold. You can't test for "real" with your eyes. I thought of my dad and his equipment for running radiometric surveys to detect the presence of gold, silver, and rare earth elements. He had been spending time in the Nevada desert for years now. Winnemucca, Carlin, Tonopah, Elko, Goldfield -- all were familiar names to me. They were the boa constrictors I was trying to be released from.

It seemed like a good time to change the subject.

"They claimed that Versace had a "quiet life" and that he always went home early, and that he was conservative. I don't believe that for a minute. I mean, this is South Beach."

In one quick moment, the shimmering world Versace had constructed was gone. Worse than Toto tearing the curtain back from the diminutive Wizard of Oz, the murder bared the machine behind the illusion -- the necessity of cruising, using, and furtive, dangerous encounters to construct a fashion so pristine that only the most elegant would wear it.

The boa constrictor tightens its coils. When you look, you see God's -- or Fate's -- hostages all around you. The same dynamics as in every industry -- the marginalized and disenfranchised were fed upon yet again. Calvin Klein used street kids (runaways, junkies, child prostitutes) to push a line of clothes that titillated even as it offended.

"Did his murderer die here too?" I asked Nick. His attitude had subtly changed. He took another drink of his Dos Equis. His polo shirt clung to his biceps. I didn't quite like it.

But, the truth was, such thinking made it easier to do the work I did in South America -- both the red herring activities that made it into the newspapers and television, and the things I didn't tell anyone about except my boss and the Ambassador. I had a copy of the Ambassador's latest book on my nightstand -- Savage Peace -- and I had been reading a few pages each day. It was better for me to do what I did without thinking, without contemplating the ramifications.

My dad was still in the desert. Farley Kritzoff's map was still in my safe deposit box. It had been there for years, and I still wasn't sure what to do with it.

"You have to know when a show of force is necessary. Sometimes you have to let people know you mean business in the only language they understand."

It sounded like a passage out of Savage Peace. Did Nick have an Ambassador (more precisely, an former ambassador) he reported to as well?

The coils would constrict. All knowledge and maps were locked away, inaccessible, for all practical purposes.

South Beach, Part II

Play the podcast -- downloadable sound files.

What is it, precisely, that defines us? This is a question that only comes up when something ridiculous has happened, or you're trying your best to pretend something hasn't happened.

We were in South Miami Beach during hurricane season. That in itself was probably ridiculous enough, but to cheerfully allow someone I didn't even know to drape boa constrictors around me? This guy certainly had persuasive powers. What was he going to convince me to do next? Let him assume my identity?

Yes, it was September, in the middle of hurricane season. Luckily there were no storms, but we were able to get a good price on accommodations. I was working a booth at the IATA conference – the International Air Transport Association – the international body that governs air transport. I certainly did not define myself around air transport, although I love to fly.

I was with Nick, a blonde Irish-Italian American from upstate New York, who had a fresh-faced slightly goofy high-school football player look about him. Despite the innocent face, I suspected he could be easily pushed into obsessiveness, perhaps even of the slightly self-destructive type. Maybe he injected steroids into his buttocks every night. He was a tightly-coiled spring. He exuded drive and soledad from every pore.

At least, that was the romantic take. The other was that he was just a grown-up football player from New York here for a conference.

And, maybe he was here in Miami for something else. He ran a small airport near the Canadian border. What, exactly, did he say he was here to buy?

We walked away from the snake charmer and down the sidewalk jammed with women in tall platform sandals, spandex dresses, darkly tanned bodies. The men were wearing Hawaiian shirts, loose pants, sandals. It was another world, and I wasn't sure I wanted to go back to my "real" one. Ever.

Nick noticed my sudden silence but made no remark. We hadn't talked about it yet, but I could sense we already knew we were in the same business, and that could make things either very difficult or very easy. It just depended on how we wanted to play it.

In an open-air bar, chilled humid air poured out like boiling, tornadic clouds as a flamenco guitarist with Dimarzio pickups on his classical guitar burned the night with tanguillos and arpeggios, reminding me not so much of the Gipsy Kings as Al DiMeola or Paco de Lucia -- especially after a slim, sinewy dancer mounted the small stage. She was next to him, somewhere between two ceiling fans and the humid south Florida air, redolent with flamenco, joyous cacophonies of heel stomps, castanets, and other assorted juxtapositions to bring to mind life bursting out into the phenomenal world like blood on sand "a las cinco de la tarde." At five in the afternoon. Garcia Lorca's bullfighter was dead. The Spanish Civil War began at five in the afternoon as well, with planes bombing Granada.

A sculpted python was wrapped around the portal over the entrance of the bar. It was the classic Garden of Eden motif promising temptation and eventual seduction. The night was fetid with histories of those who had fallen before us.

"I can see why Versace stayed here. He could step outside his door and find inspiration for his fashions, his designs," I said. "But I don't quite believe the media -- it was a typical homophobic portrayal if you ask me. Gay stalkers, rough trade."

"The alleged murderer was a fake, too. But, you know I've met a lot of fakes like that -- they're everywhere," said Nick.

I looked at Nick. The snake was moving around my waist and my thighs. I could feel it starting to constrict.

Yes. Something was tightening around my body, squeezing the breathe out of me, crushing my feeble efforts to preserve my dignity.

"Fakes? Con artists?" I said. "They get to be pretty obvious. They try too hard and they don't even know it -- the fake Rolexes, the fake travel facts about world resorts. The more they try, the more errors they make. You can't say too much."