|The Girls of Usually
During my first semester of grad school, I met with Allen Ginsberg every Thursday night to discuss my poetry. One night I brought him a cryptic poem about my girlfriend, Maria.
Is this about a man or a woman? he asked, twirling a tuft of his gray beard.
A woman, I said, almost ashamed.
So you like girls? Or are you bi-sexual?
I'm not sure why I was so uncomfortable discussing my personal life with a flaming fag. I guess bi-sexual.
When I was younger, he said, I slept with a lot of women. That's the only way you find out who you really like to be with.
Perhaps I felt uneasy because I was talking to an American icon, or because we were in a mint-green classroom, or because I felt ashamed that I was with a woman, or because I wasn't sure why I was still with Maria. She and I argued about her drinking, we argued about the half-truths she told me, we argued about her close friendship with a woman who bought her CDs, household appliances and often wined and dined her at fancy restaurants.
Maria, a native of Mexico City, had been awarded a year-long post-doctoral fellowship to study the brain's elasticity and its relation to memory. In a windowless lab near Washington Square Park, she performed experiments and designed computer programs. While she studied graphs about short and long-term memory retention, I wrote poetry about my childhood and dead poodles and vague declarations about my ambivalent sexuality.
Despite our close proximity-Maria lived in the West Village and I lived in the East Village-we sent each other two or three e-mails a day. In one e-mail, she wrote about the doubts she had about her research project. In response I told her to think positively, to recall the articles she'd already published, and in the end, I said, Thanks for your love. I can't wait to hold you and hug you and kiss you. I pressed send. To my horror, the letter was sent to my brother in Seattle. My brother who knew nothing of my personal life.
I called Maria. What should I do? I asked, sweat streaming from my armpits.
There's nothing you can do.
Are you sure?
Maria suggested I write him a follow-up e-mail. Tell him that he may receive a letter that wasn't meant for him, but to disregard it.
My brother replied: Guess the letter wasn't for me, but it was pretty interesting. He never mentioned the letter again. At the time, I was relieved. Despite that the door flew open because of an unexpected gust of wind, the door that could have led to an honest exchange, I didn't walk through. I didn't say, Yup, I have a girlfriend. Does it freak you out?
Funny how I felt more comfortable discussing my personal life with Allen Ginsberg than with my own family.
But Ginsberg had no secrets to hide, not from the world and not from a frizzy-haired, reserved student who wrote cryptic poems. One night before he looked at my poem, he picked up an official faculty rulebook from his desk and opened to a page about how faculty shall not, under any circumstance, engage in sexual conduct with a student enrolled in his or her class. Ginsberg tossed the booklet down on his desk and hmmmphed. Sleeping with your students is the best thing you could do for them, he said.
He was an irreverent icon who didn't give a damn about what people thought. Another night he talked about his financial situation, how for the first time, he could finally live off his poetry, now that he got paid thousands of dollars for readings. But what's the point? he said. I can't even get it up any more.
I had first met Maria on a freezing winter night at a Hudson Street bar. Wearing cuffed Wranglers and lace-up leather half-boots on her narrow feet, she looked like a short-haired version of Frida Kahlo, minus the mustache and uni-brow. All night she drank rum and cokes and rolled cigarettes. The drinks keep me warm. I don't like the cold, she said, then took a long drag on her cigarette, tilted her head upwards and exhaled a skinny ray of smoke. It don't get this freezing in Mexico, ever.
Just four months before, I had traveled to Mexico. Compared to Mexico City, I said, New York seems to be on Valium.
Maria smiled wide, a beautifully sad smile that made me want to cry.
I told Maria about the smashed up car that I saw slip off the back of a tow truck. The driver just left it there, I said. Right smack in the middle of a Mexican highway.
It's like that, she said. It's a crazy city. People do whatever they want to. The police don't care. They get the money, the bribes. They don't have the rules.
A friend of Maria's, an obese woman with a clubbed foot and thick glasses, walked towards us, aided by a cane. Maria introduced us. Carla limply shook my hand, looked above my head, then at the floor and hobbled to the bar.
She seems like she's in a bad mood, I said.
Maria shrugged her shoulders. I'm in a good mood, she said, touching my shoulder. Because you are near to me.
A week later, we shared a taxi to her friend's party in Brooklyn. I noticed her eyeing my hairy leg, just above my sock. I need to shave my legs, I said.
With her finger she stroked the hairs. I like it that way.
Her lack of subtlety made me nervous.
At the party, I met a group of women she referred to as the girls of usually--a core group of friends she knew from Mexico, all working without green cards, all fearful of the dreaded Immigration Man who might one day deport them.
The next day, Maria gave me a tour of her lab, the computers, the complicated machinery. I was impressed with the passion she had for her research, and even more impressed that she had just come from a year-long research project in Paris.
After the lab tour, Maria led me to her Bleecker Street apartment. In her white socks, she skated across the shiny wooden floor, arms raised above her head. She sang Girl from Ipanema in Portuguese. She told me about how some New Yorkers treated her: Here, they hate the Mexicans, not like in Paris.
But I didn't feel that way about Maria. To me, she was an exotic and mysterious mad scientist.
A month into the relationship, I noticed that Maria was spending at least two evenings a week with her club-footed friend Carla. Not once had I been invited along. When I asked why the three of us had never gone out together, her shoulders hunched up. What's wrong with having my own friends? she said.
Why are you keeping us apart?
She doesn't like to see us together. You don't be so jealous, she said, wrapping her warm arms around my body.
Maybe my jealousy was getting to me. But then again, wouldn't the situation be clearer if Carla were a guy? If I were a guy? If a guy bought presents and wined and dined my girlfriend and didn't want to acknowledge that we had a relationship, wouldn't that be a problem? Yet when women are the key players, somehow a sense of lawlessness comes into play. The unspoken rules bend, like light through a prism.
As sweet as she was, I couldn't let go of the Carla situation. Besides that, I often caught Maria in lies, half-truths. She'd say she was going to work all night, but later she'd slip up and tell me how she met this friend or that friend out at a bar that same night.
Since Allen Ginsberg and I both lived in the East Village, we shared a gypsy cab home from Brooklyn after our poetry tutorial. One night, an inexperienced driver picked us up. How do we get to Manhattan? the cabbie asked.
Ginsberg gave directions. How long have you been driving a cab? he asked.
This is my third day, he said. But I've never driven to Manhattan.
Where are you from? Ginsberg asked.
I'm Bengali, he said, swerving from one lane to the next. Drivers honked at us. They gave us the finger.
Ginsberg asked the driver if he knew of a certain Bengali poet.
Of course I know him. I've read all of his books.
Ginsberg said he'd been to Bangladesh and read poetry with this Bengali poet.
What is your name? the driver asked.
You probably never heard of me. Allen Ginsberg.
Of course I know who you are! I can't believe this! Allen Ginsberg! You are famous! Now the driver was looking at Ginsberg in the back seat; our car nearly sideswiped the car next to us. More drivers honked and gave us dirty looks. This is it, I thought, I'm going to die with Allen Ginsberg. It'll be my claim to fame. When I looked to my right, a yellow cab driver waved his arms and mouthed profanities. I made deals with god. Let me live and I'll treat myself better. I'll write everyday. I won't play Maria's games anymore. I'll tell her I can't deal with her relationship with Carla.
Ginsberg chanted a song in Bengali. The driver smiled, looking at the road in front of him every now and then. Ginsberg turned to me. Do you think you could write a haiku about this?
I fake laughed. Dead. I'm going to die with Ginsberg. Maybe my name will make the front page of the New York Times.
But we made it to the East Village. I walked home, my body sweating. I dialed Maria's number. Busy. Dialed again. Busy. For the next hour, I later found out, she had been chatting with Carla. When I finally got her on the line, I felt weak, furious. I almost died, I told her. In a cab with Allen Ginsberg.
I'm sorry, baby, she said. I'm glad you didn't die. That would be terrible.
I need a drink, I said. Could we meet for a drink?
Carla is on her way here. She's going to take me out to dinner.
I walked across town to the Christopher Street Piers, on my own, and sat, staring across the water at the Good to the Last Drop Maxwell House sign in New Jersey. I watched the water ripples swish up and back and attempted to let my anger, my frustration about Maria's friendship with Carla go. After all, I was a poet. I was alive.
Why did I stay with this woman who continually evaded the truth? Perhaps it was the sadness in her eyes that made me feel like she needed me. Or the way she said, You don't love me. Tell me the true. She never raised her voice. She was such a sweet liar.
One night, I participated in a poetry reading at a crowded downtown café. At the conclusion of the reading, Maria and her friends disappeared. Two hours later they showed up at my apartment. I felt enraged, abandoned. Maria threw out flimsy excuses.
The next day, I noticed filtered cigarette stubs in her ashtray, not the kind she smoked. Empty beer bottles lined her kitchen table. Where did those come from? I asked.
Maria emptied the ashtrays, wiped her table with a rag. Before I went to the reading, I met Carla, she said.
You told me that Carla doesn't smoke.
She picked up bottles off the table and washed them out. She half-smiled and looked away.
Where did these cigarettes come from? I asked, pacing around her kitchen table.
Finally she told me the true. After the poetry reading, she invited friends to her apartment where they drank and snorted lines of cocaine. For the past four months, Carla had been buying it for her. Twice a week, they snorted it, a gram a week.
We negotiated for hours. I walked toward the door. You can have Carla. You can have cocaine. But you can't have me!
Maria threw her body in front of me, blocking my arm from opening the door. Please don't go! she said. I need you. I won't do it no more. When Carla comes tomorrow, I'll tell her I can't do it.
And with this disclosure, we cried, clutched at each other. I licked a tear from her cheek.
Maybe I stayed with Maria because this is the model I grew up with. If my father got heated up enough, he'd slip off his belt and threaten to whip the first kid he could find. Fighting, raging, throwing chairs through windows, this was all normal for me. We fought over who got what chicken part; we fought over who got to gnaw on the steak bone. One afternoon, when my brother, the same brother who inadvertently received my e-mail to Maria, discovered that I had eaten his tongue sandwich--a sandwich he had hidden in back of the refrigerator and salivated about while dissecting a pig in high school biology class--he chased me around the block and beat me, right in front of a neighbor's barking German shepherd.
My father, the son of a military officer/rabbi, also grew up in a dramatic household. As a young boy, he escaped his parents' daily fighting and screaming by sitting in his closet and memorizing the dictionary. When I showed Ginsberg a poem about my father in the closet, he asked, Is this true? That's pretty funny. My father, the red-faced man in a rage, the young boy who hid in his closet studying the dictionary.
Little by little, I learned about Maria's upbringing, how her father had lived a life of lies. Six months into our relationship, Maria told me she had visited her grandparents in Florida before coming to New York. Grandparents in Florida?
The story goes like this: Maria's mother worked as an au pair in Brooklyn one summer. On the Coney Island boardwalk, her father spotted her mother, a fetching 18-year-old Mexican. He spoke fluent Spanish, told her he was also Mexican, but had been living in New York. Soon after, they married. Within the year, Maria was born. Her father lived under a Mexican alias, when all the while he was a New York Jew. Until she was five, Maria grew up on the Upper West Side of New York. She spoke fluent English, but eventually her mother left her father and, taking Maria with her, moved back to Mexico. Maria lost her father. She lost her English. For many years, the conman traveled back and forth from New York to Mexico, trying to woo back her mother.
Maria hadn't seen her father in years. I hate the man, she said. Last time I talked to him, I just started university. I told him I was studying science. He said, 'We don't need any more women scientists. We already have Madame Curie.'
In a sloped-floor midtown tenement flat overlooking a flood-lit gas station, we spent Christmas Eve with the girls of usually. There, we ate spicy chicken molé, drank beer, exchanged gifts and danced to Madonna's Immaculate Collection. On the subway back to Maria's, our knees touched; we looked at each other and grinned.
But I hated Maria for going to a party at Carla's on Christmas Day, a party I wasn't invited to. I hated her for telling me there was no way to turn the heat down in her apartment, the heat that dried me out. I like to sweat, she said. Yet, at winter's end, I opened up a camouflaged-into-the-wall control box where one could flick a tiny silver knob to cut the heat off.
Did you know about this? I asked.
She grimaced, looked out the window. Do you want to get whitefish salad? I love whitefish salad.
In the back of my mind, I knew that Maria would return to Mexico after her fellowship ended, that our relationship would naturally end after the year. But Maria applied and received another six-month fellowship. Six more months, I supposed, wasn't that long. But six months can be a very long time. Especially after a friend told me she saw Maria in a long, passionate embrace with another woman on the street.
Why did I stay? No one wants to be alone during a cold, gray New York winter. Or maybe it was the way she smiled and sang Spanish children's songs while slicing papaya. Or maybe it was the sadness in her eyes when she mentioned a brother, a brother I hadn't heard about before.
He disappeared when I was 15, she said. My mother hired a detective but after a year, they couldn't find him. They gave up.
Maybe I stayed with Maria because her brother was kidnapped, or her best friend fell off a balcony and died, or because her mother sold Avon products, or because her father was a Jewish conman who lived under an alias.
Or maybe I stayed because I told myself half-truths, that I convinced myself that if I moved to Mexico with Maria, I could get a job teaching English, she'd cut her ties with Carla, and we'd live happily ever after.
In the meantime, I continued to lie about my relationship to friends and family. I finished my master's degree and, without Maria knowing, started applying to doctoral programs. I wanted to keep the illusion up. Yup, I'm going to move to Mexico. But I could only keep the secret for so long.
Before Maria returned to Mexico, we cried in each other's arms, as if we were both losing a piece of ourselves. We agreed that it was best to let each other go, that if we found someone else, it'd be okay.
Three weeks later, Maria let me know she had kissed a woman. The e-mails got shorter, less frequent. And then she told me that she had a new girlfriend, Blanca.
I'm glad for you, I wrote back. But right now I need silence between us. I need time to adjust.
And just like that, our relationship came to a halt.
We still correspond now and then, updating each other on our lives.
Ten years later, Maria continues to perform research on the brain and its function to memory. She's still with the same woman. Recently, in an e-mail, I asked if she could send a photo of her and her girlfriend. After all, I'd never seen a picture of Blanca. A week later, she sent an e-mail with five attached photos-photos of her Labrador retrievers.
I found it odd that she sent pictures of her dogs, rather than her girlfriend, but I also felt sad, sad that Maria still leads an evasive life, a secret life, a life I had once led too. Yet to this day, despite the many visits with my brother and his family in Seattle, we've never discussed my personal life or the letter that I accidentally sent him ten years ago.
In our e-mails, Maria and I reminisce about the good times we had in New York with the girls of usually. Somehow all the heartache, the alcohol and stumbling and threats, have washed away in our memory, leaving us feeling a fondness towards each other. In one e-mail, I recalled a ride we took on the Coney Island Cyclone, the speed whipping our bodies down rickety tracks, me laughing hysterically while Maria yelled over and over, Ay Dios Mio!
Funny how certain moments lodge in our minds--the confused, teary-eyed expression on Maria's face at Kennedy Airport when she turned back one last time to say goodbye; my harrowing gypsy cab ride with Allen Ginsberg, him turning to me, asking if I could write a haiku. A week after the cab ride, along with Ginsberg and other students, I read two of my poems at a poetry reading in honor of Walt Whitman's birthday. The next day, I told Ginsberg how much I liked the new poem he had read. He looked at me askance. You were there?
When I read my poems, he was busy doodling, in his own world, as we all are, I suppose, thinking of one memory or another, as if each memory were a film that you watch in a darkened theatre, over and over, until the film's emulsion is scratched thin, until footage gets caught in the projector's sprockets and bubbles up and dissolves under a smoldering bulb, until it's spliced back together, retouched, recreated, until the original film is altered into a mere apparition.
As with love, there's a certain lawlessness to memory. In time, everything is up for grabs.