follow me to the edge of the desert kelly martinez
For my dad
“And in much the same way my life goes on.
Weaving and unweaving its weary history”
- Jorge Luis Borges
I left Nogales in a hurry, though I could still remember the shock of the night-time air, staring into rampant celestial disorder. Outside, Nogales felt the way midnight at the ocean would: black and gusty and eternal. Hills once dyed rich, glorious hues by long forgotten sun, now faded into the unrelenting blare. Quiet signs of life: two-toned diners, emptied gas station lots, the faint glimmer of lights at the window, of the person who’d yet to sleep. And all was silent and all was sunless and in the drowsy warmth of the car, I couldn’t help but think of Essex. In fact, I could only think of Essex. The pulsing throb of the subway; The quiet line of apartment complexes; The roar of tourists through Chinatown, clad with freshly bought rain gear to fend off the looming downpour; The tiny flat my father and I’d lived in, warm and illumined against the stark New England haze. Echoes of memory, disjointed and fleeting, but with a quality of tangible permanence that left me fitfully chasing fictive realities that would bleed into fictive futures.
And much like my father, leaving Nogales meant I was walking away from austerities of truth and into the depthless drawing rooms of recollection.
Ice Water for Flint Michigan
WAKING, I AM MET with an unwelcome ring in my ear. Metallic hum. Discordant rhythms: a single mother hushing her children, the steady tap of sleets on glass, gusts of laughter as college students drifted in. Staring out, it was as though I’d landed in a dull landscape of one of the Dutch masters my father taught-- Vermeer or Frans Hals maybe, the colors outside, mixing and mingling into muted tones. I could picture the university students, fixated by the quick, muscle twitch movements of my father as he spoke breathlessly on the Golden Age, in a room populated by glossy replicas; then them falling into the sleepy silence of the train car, their gaze catching the same strokes of color layered on the dull haze, the careful droplets of white rain on glass. It was just the subliminal way of the world. Tearing your eyes away from art to drink in more art.
Before he died, my father and I’d taken the train to the university nearly every afternoon, his head tilted against the metallic frame of the car, lids pried shut, expression transmuted to a distant, preoccupied dreaminess. It was as though somewhere in the darkness he’d followed the soft lantern glow of memory into my mother’s embrace, the lonely comfort of past beauty. She’d died in car accident on one especially particularly grim winter’s storm, her pallid figure nearly imperceptible against the snow when they’d finally spotted her. And I hadn’t stopped dreaming about her, trying make out her voice, straining for not words, but the bend of her mouth and the shine of her eyes, until I was sick, almost convulsing with agony. Because that’s what it is isn’t it? You can remember, but you can’t recapture.
And that’s all my father had ever wanted, to take these un-savable fragments—her face, emanating a jarring otherness, dark skin and eyes glinting as though they possessed some truth we knew not of --- and force them into something that breathed like she had, full of delicate but luminous energy. He’d spend the entire day at a canvas, silent. It upset him to be interrupted. We’d stop eating dinner together a week after my mother passed, and seldom spoke, unless he’d sent me out for more paints or books he’d left behind in his office at the university.
On one of these evenings, returning from the rich, flowing halls of the art department, I was met with the disquietude of our apartment. Pools of light spilled at my feet from lamps torn to their sides, untidy stacks of clothes and perfumes, my mother’s favorite gloss-covered art books sitting in boxes, the ivory sheet of canvas cut down the middle, her eyes now half-moons. And then, I’d caught sight of my father, silent and puffy-eyed, listening to the bright blue record player my mother had bought in a tiny antiques shop before giddily bringing it home. For a moment, it was only me and the crooning voice of my mother’s favorite singer drifting about
as I stood there, blinking in the dim corridor.
Follow Me. Follow Me. To the Edge Of the Desert The ground beneath me felt oceanic, washing over me a deep emptiness that worked through my ears, my eyes, my heart. At my knees, I watched my father turn his eyes to me, then the mess. I remember trying to think of something to say when he suddenly fell back into a rack of sobs. I pressed the small of my back to the wall, halos of light spilling around me, listening the run of the record, raw gasps for air, wishing again for silence.
Since the accident, my father produced any reason to take the subway. Gas stations owners too haughty with their prices. Car keys left in his office. Burnt exhaust valve. I’d come along dutifully, rewarded with a weary, ghost of a smile. And secretly, I adored it. The feeling of going somewhere and being nowhere, a glorious in-between, as the city faded into a faraway thought. Now I’d began riding the train by myself, stopping at the sort of end of the road places, landing in deserted ends of the city. Outlandish was the word. For hours, I’d walk down uninhabited bends, scrutinizing the muted storefront signs, old fast food restaurants with chairs upturned. Quiet marks of the past, a reminder that they truly had been and still were, even if it was only the outline or skeleton; That time could only steal them partly, that there was some shout of hope in the void of loss.
This routine seemed to derive some sort of ulterior happiness I failed to possess in ordinary life. I’d shut my eyes and call up the details of his countenance, relics of the past. Though even as they re-opened, his death colored every end of my vision, exploited every crevice, wavered at the surface of every hanging mirror as my mouth curved to form his name. Every now and then, the veil would lift and I’d catch sight of him—an apparition against the subway tunnel’s blackness; Lingering on the platform, as if awaiting someone; On the edge of his seat, heavy with laughter; Next to me, our eyes converging for a moment, a visitation from two contradictory planes: life to death, highest peaks to ocean depths, suburban realms to provincial lull, reality to rabbit holes. And then some noise—the stalling of the doors or the shifting of footsteps—would send me rushing back to consciousness.
I knew it was unhealthy. Still, the status quo seemed so hideously unbearable that I resolved to live on the edge of consciousness, never submitting to full awareness. I’d scroll past and never read articles about students at the local university, reminiscing on their beloved professor. I’d only just register my name as I slipped into the market, the sounds slipping down the street, slick from downpour. Slowly and all at once, my life unfolded into a series of last minute runs over metal thresholds, biting glares of platform lights, and half-conscious wanderings until someone took pity on me and bought me a ticket back to Essex.
He’d died at the start of fifth period (I later found out)- sophomore English, taught by a skittish, young woman in round framed glasses. I could remember the morning, the touch of summertime that dragged my classmate’s faces into vacancy. Heavy with perspiration, they gleaned like caramel candies, dripping into their seats. I was engrossed in the metal window latches that’d embittered us all as we’d made effort to open, ultimately with no avail, the next hour passed in a daze. With the booming of the school’s bell system, I rose with a start, in listless pace with students heading out into the buzz of the school day’s end.
As I drifted past the stream of students, I realized for the first time in years, my father hadn’t been aside the other slew of parents. (This was the only thing he’d ever done well.) I’d decided to wait in the library, encapsulated in its dusty, towering rows, for a long time, keeping my trepidations hidden, focusing on our English readings, making small talk, asking for books whose location I already knew.
I’d returned home on the 6:00 o’clock train. With shaking hands, I’d produced three crumpled dollar bills, rushed onto the first train I’d spotted, and stumbled through stockbrokers, street-artists, interns. and executive woman until I finally made it home.
I rushed up four flights of stairs, a monochromatic green and white rush past my eyes, and with agitated impatience, rattled open the door to our apartment. Stepping in, its vacancy was immediately clear. Lamps shut off. Books still in the tidied manner I’d left them, that was so unlike my father’s usual disarray. Still, I passed painfully at each room, checking for signs of him. I’d even found the old home line- hidden beneath piles of National Geographic and leaky pens- to check for messages on the answering machine.
I tried to feign unperturbedness, thinking of reasons he hadn’t made it home. Meetings. Students neurotic over final exams. Congestion in the subway. Maybe he’d stopped in at a bookstore or market and hadn’t seen the time. My mind bent, tortuously composing could-have scenarios, until exhausted, I found the number for the front desk at the university stuck onto the refrigerator. Pulling my thoughts together, I phoned, quickly greeted by a voice I recognized as Horace Conway’s. The name for many, conjured up thin, gilt-framed spectacles, silvery hair piled in tight screws, and a warm, unassuming manner. He was, really a receptionist. (Though no one of sound mind would say such a thing within earshot.)
“Horace,” I said, my voice almost tearful with relief, “my father hasn’t made it home yet. Have you heard anything from him?”
“Carmen,” he paused, “Oh my dear, you must come. Come here. There’s been a terrible accident...” his voice shuttering off.
I don’t remember much about the rest of what he’d said. Time felt imaginary, disjointed visions as I pulled on my sickly green coat, swept my hair, dark and coarse, into my father’s black baseball cap. I bore out into the nighttime, lightning carpeting the sky. Within an hour, I’d made it to the ivory colored steps of the university, water-sodden and uneasy, wavering as though I’d cross the threshold and step into some new, chaotic world.
Stealing through the entryway, the warm, bookish of the university came over me. For a while, I drifted between the lines of commemorative plaques (one for each graduating class), overly large vases, and freshly waxed lecture halls. I found Horace in what I thought to be in his place of permanence: peering over the edge of his great oak desk (strewn with files and ballpoint pens) in deep conversation with a student.
I drifted to him not pausing to excuse myself before I saying, “Horace.”
He turned to me, absent his usual cheeriness.
“Oh… Carmen, yes. I’d been meaning to call you dear—but you see it’s all been so much and it must’ve slipped my mind. Yes, yes, why don’t we get somewhere a bit more private?”
Just behind his desk was a stuffy office, much like a broom closet but stacked endlessly with photos of his children, old Russian novels, fashion magazines (his sister worked at Elle), and notes that read things like “and the sun still rises” and “ask if New Wok delivers.” He hands me a small mug, filled with tea gone cold, but I take a sip anyway. He lets out a half-audible sign, then turns to me.
“Carmen, your father, I’m afraid they found him… they found him here, at the university, his car, well… oh—they say the damage is irreparable. Your father, oh well, he’s dead, Carmen.”
I’d already made it to an exit from the university when the office door shut. I worked my coat on, not bothering to check if I’d fastened it correctly as Horace came after me.
“Carmen, you must let me explain!” he shouted, his voice slipping away as I made out into the night-time, rain catching over my eyes, before stealing away into a quiet, shadowed street I seldom took, but was all too necessary now.
And I remember the walk back, how the ground shifted as I trudged past the acidic glow of business signs. The night seemed to shout his absence. I fell deeper into Essex’s sprawling backways and shadowed corners, spotting empty restaurants we’d frequented when neither of us felt like cooking- my father’s favorite a tiny, pastel toned diner tucked in a corner between a jewelry shop and fish market.
Intermittently, shock spilled through me. Thoughts swarming, I missed the street to our apartment building a second, then a third time. I thought of the last conversation we’d had. What had it been about? That book- the one he’d left in his study. Titled austerely and written in dense, dull lines. I strained for exact words and inflections, trying to retrieve any saveable fragment. Leaning my weight against a bare bicycle rack, I felt an unwelcome swell of emotion. I stood there for a long time, under the phantom streetlights, half-tranced. I was almost certain it was all a dream. My hands pinched at the muted green fabric of my coat, its sodden, worn material shifting between my fingers. I can’t explain what it felt to not start then, not to find my head raising over piles of books on a desk as I blinked away the blackness of sleep.
I felt myself collapse against the blacktop in an almost drunken stupor. On my back, I fixated on a set of grand, wavering eyes, honey colored, as the clamor of sobs racked through me. The sky seemed to deepen, spilling out before me in an oceanic void. Cars hum by. A young couple passes, laughter rising clear and hopeful in the air.
And in the vast, depthless space before me, I find him, his memory, the glimmer against the black; It was the convergence of light and laughter, the thin, shining point of exactness where stained glass fractures; The swallowing sounds of silence before the next note, the thin patches on the asphalt where flowers are to bloom. Beauty, only sustained by absence.
And what an absence it was.
The seasons seemed to bleed into one another, days drifting soundlessly. I’d wake up at the house of a cousin, the bathroom of the library, anywhere. But never here. As the end of summer began to close its mouth over me, I’d found myself in the stuffy, carpeted hallways of our apartment building, eyes drinking in the details around me, shocked with unaltered state of it all. It’d been over a year since I’d left Horace and life as I knew it. But here I was, met with the same forest green paint, shaded windows, mundane heaviness.
The evening sounds had all but settled as I ease the door open, greeted with the quiet exhale of particulates. I don’t know what to expect, really, as I enter the empty flat. I press the lights on. They waver over the striped wallpaper, shadows erecting themselves into haunting forms. The beep of the answering machine, then his voice, a low apology for missing their call. About the corner, sorry, I’m not home. His absence hummed every detail, the quiet contradiction of what had been and what would never be. The lantern glow at his study. The bowl of takeout he’d left untouched. The peculiar slew of patterned rugs that populated the living room. Books at every available space. Department store china left on armchairs and side tables. The thread-and-bare black cap he’d worn that day. Yankees, the sort of contradiction one could only avoid in Central Boston. Hand in mine, we’d endured the steady, light-hearted remarks from passersby, as we’d peered into the caverns of a Chinese antiques shop, candied red and gold, his bookish smell that only a decade as a professor could produce.
I’ve drifted through every end of the apartment until I’d finally found myself at the doorway of his room, lingering at the threshold, as though my entrance would disrupt the highest orders of ignorance, the almost certain emptiness inside a disastrous stroke on my portrait of oblivion. I simply couldn’t believe he was not there. With a quiet trepidation, my hand slips over the gilt doorknob, and with a forward leaning, I slip into the small, honey-lit space.
Emptiness stares back.
Slipping to the floor, I listen to the hum of the evening tunes; The ceiling sheen swells about me, until reality fades into the bareness, and all I think about is the hard wrought beauty of life: how the quiet sings, how the plain enthralls, how the it’s never been about what grandeur fills the less lustrous spaces, but the sparseness of detail. My father’s distant, swarming eyes that centered intermittently. Restrained laugh, that only unwound when he’d been alone with my mother. A warm embrace, a habit of not combing his hair.
There’s something about the small, un-saveable grains of his life that brings an unwelcome surge of emotions, something akin to an electric shock or a dousing in ice water. It was the figure at the study; It was the guiding hand after skinned knees; It was the voicemail that he’d be late, but he’d be home soon. It was … it was… it was. Because everything now could only be was, an inexhaustible series of what ifs and hypotheticals; A perpetual ring that burned resonant against the nighttime; Unfolding slowly, as though a strain of musical notes in lullaby, lulling and distant, before delivering me to the dark thrall of subconscious thought and finally, the blackness of sleep.
It’s nearly 3 am when I surface to the steady hum of the phone line.
I press the receiver to my cheek.
“Is this Carmen?” A voice I don’t recognize.
“You haven’t been home, have you?”
I froze. “No.”
Pause. “Phonebook. Look for Francisco Corona.”
The line went dead.
And so it was, and could only be: sprawling delirium as I made my way to the kitchen, failing lights as my cheeks pressed to the faux stone table top, hands firmly clenched about the pale blue receiver. My father kept an address book, one that even in altered state, I manage to find tucked beneath unpaid energy bills and takeout menus. Half asleep, half studying the carefully spaced address lines, I find the name, the 3rdth entry:
Francisco Corona Boston Photography
I recognized the name immediately— a small shop a few blocks from Essex. Worn sign with a letter or two missing, warmth as soon as you walked in. It was nothing like the austere, well-lighted places downtown. My mother always pointed it out as we walked by, telling me how much she’d loved it. But I couldn’t understand why that mattered. Why I’d find anything there. Why my mother, why the past wouldn’t leave me.
The End is in the Beginning.
Soft lights, the sounds of cheer filter in as I sit at the mirror, hair between my fingers as I practice plaits like Katherine had done on me a few times. It’s Christmas. And it’s also the last day I’d be in Essex. My hand passes over a box of ribbons to tie and then, a stack of photographs. One of my mother, her quiet smile, my father, painting, and finally: together, talking. I pause over it, as I always did now. It was a moment that would have been insignificant—a happy couple dressed in simple clothes and with nothing to draw attention --- but now, felt like the only thing that mattered. Funny, how they seemed so tangible here.
Francisco had given them to me when I’d rushed into his shop after the impromptu phone call. Really, he’d been calling all day, but no one picked up. Said his wife Katherine told him to wait until morning to call again, but he’d been so overcome with excitement over finding the photographs that he insisted to keep at it. “All week if I have to!” he’d said. We’d taken lunch together, where Katherine quickly offered me a place in their home (a small flat with a spare bedroom), which I’d taken them up on. It was strange. I felt normal with them. Rose with Katherine in the morning to watch re-runs of Gossip Girl and stayed up for Francisco’s American Pickers. They both refused take-out at first, but let me introduce them to my favorite Chinese restaurant in Essex, which they adored so much they bought nearly every weekend. I worked down with Francisco in the photography studio until nightfall. Allowed Katherine to take me to clothes shops downtown, register me at the local school. I’d even seen the New Year with them a few times. All had streamlined. I lived like all the other kids did, apart from a string of inspections each month, to which Katherine passed with flying colors. But slowly, imperceptibly at first, the swell of restlessness came over.
I’d announced I would be leaving a week before the holidays began, sending Katherine, shattered, into the kitchen where no one could see her and Francisco into a look of quiet disappointment I’d never seen. Then came arguments and more arguments before they finally accepted and they bought me a bus pass to Nogales, Arizona.
I didn’t tell them how long Nogales had been on my mind, that on the night before I’d met Francisco, my gaze had brushed over another name, just beneath his.
Esperanza “Abue” Cruz Nogales, Arizona
I left at sunrise with a soft loom overhead and a corny gift from Francisco—a shirt that read “World’s Best Uncle.” I stepped onto the platform, then ascended, before stealing a glance back. At Francisco, his smile warm and proud. At Katherine, composed but a bit teary. I sat near the back, not daring to glance out the window, knowing I’d almost certainly stop myself. It was the bus pulled away, the swirling sounds of Boston fell away, the morning dimmed to evening, that for the first time I forgot Essex, the past, love, life, death. I only thought tomorrow and how it sang of hope and liberation.