New to the City

Into a Garden

As soon as I reached the city I went to the botanical garden. The final glass chamber of the greenhouse was filled with mist so that the roomful of plants taken from the tropics was a blur of dark, curved outlines. The sun was going down somewhere far away from the city, and its thin light illuminated the haze. I stopped before this impenetrable interior cloud and saw a figure slowly emerging- a nun in all white with a wooden cross hanging over her chest. I live around the corner from an old red brick monastery. The fruit seller next door told me that the nuns aren’t allowed to leave the building. But on Sundays one of their large wooden doors is opened, revealing a courtyard full of potted tropical plants.

Slanged and Accented

When I first arrived I told my friend, “Everything is different here. Sidewalks don’t exist like this, windows don’t look like this, doorknobs are different. Even in books our punctuation changes if someone wants to speak.” When I want to speak, I put away my native voice and try on one that flies out fast and high, eager to catch and be caught by its new, loud surroundings. If I talk my native tongue it’s formulated for other ears, a morphed version of what and how I’d say. Corralled in the back of my brain, my English lets loose on my country men with extra ganas, bonus slanged and accented. But suddenly someone from another tongue kisses me and I don’t any longer know what to do with my quiet and loud mouth.

The Position of Time

I was on the train the other day listening to a scholar speak about the physical location of time for people around the world. Some cultures conceive of time as passing from left to right or right to left according to their respective written systems. Some locate the future in front of them and the past behind. Others place the past before themselves because it is something that has already happened and so exists within their field of vision. Last night an artist told me that when he was 7 years old his parents had his fortune told and written down without his knowing. He found the document 13 years later and said that he himself couldn’t have written a more accurate account of his life. That discovery was 13 years before now, and as I was imagining a younger version of this man who I’d only just met reading his own future, I realized that I’d missed half of what he went on to say.

Cotton Mouth

I finally saw my own name somewhere in public, on the highway outside of another city on a couple of billboards for public storage and a parking garage. I’d never seen my name written so big and all of the sudden there it was, sitting on the sky. It’s not a common name. I’ve told people this week that my grandmother picked cotton in the fields growing up. It always seems to change the temperature in the room when I say the words. She’s the one on my mind, on my tongue here. People make assumptions before they meet me. They think I’m from here or there by the name I have or the photo they’ve seen of me- dark hair, dark eyes. Could be from here or there. Til I open my mouth.

Life in Prison

Everything about the time I spent in the province of Alicante, Spain was colored by the fact that the landscape looked like parts of my state’s national park, a harsh and sublime palette of terrains on the frontier with Mexico where we spread the ashes of my uncle, who was the only one of us born in Spain but who always said he was a Mexican. After views of dusty and crumbling castles on crags that jut out of the land like tongues and so much other unfamiliar architecture, we passed a thing I immediately recognized- a prison. It looked just like the ones I spot on the side of the road back home when I go south, towards where he lived. Its exterior gave absolutely no sign of it, but the building was certainly filled with a universe of people, each one his own world, and timelines for departure- or not.

Treasures

The city is full of treasures- books, gems, jewelry, paintings, furniture, coins, porcelain, glass, and gold. The city itself is a monument, a catacomb, a library, a reliquary. Once I went to a palace at night. It was bursting with people celebrating something, and the things on the walls glittered and blurred my eyes. Suddenly I had descended into an extravagant dream- I had found myself at the party from Le Grand Meaulnes. I passed through the rooms unaccompanied, peering into the glass cases. The museum was only half lit, as it was night, and the jewels sparkled my mind into a haze. The next instant I nearly collided with an artist in one of the salons. His eyes, an unforeseen mediterranean blue, stunned me- there were too many jewels for me.

Mom’s Madrid

I walk around this busy city and at times feel so dizzy that I have to stop and lean against an old granite wall. The story gets more complicated- my mom finally returned here after moving away 52 years ago. Her older brother and sister saw The Beatles in a bullring here in the 60s. We go to the address where her old apartment was and it’s the only number on the street that doesn’t exist. It’s as if all of it- the singing donkey carts, foot races in the parks and boulevards, the night crying alone in her bed before they must return to a small town in Texas- never really happened. I haven’t had the strength to return to that part of the city since.

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