The Blackness of Cold Marimba Nights

screen-shot-2016-09-30-at-4-25-24-pmIn this beast. In this gray and glum beast of a city in the sky, on the mountains above the center of the earth. the day is half, and the night is always half, in perfect symmetry.


People workaday work. They push, pile, type, iron, clean, build, teach, cure. And when the moon disc rises on a Saturday, women and men in front of mirrors dress in clean pressed cotton and spit-shined shoes, the bigger earrings, the more expensive perfume. Under the Saturday moon, we all want to be our free-est selves, the most impeccable, the most reborn and the happiest dancers.


Doormen roll up the shutters and start charging covers. DJs check speakers and try out their beats. Their best beats, their back home pacific songs.


The cavernous two-story hall begins to fill, as do other halls in the district.


And everyone is Black here. Not everyone; “like everyone.” Far away from the Black parts of the country that have refreshing names that sound like oceans and breeze but I think might be hot. Where people go whale-watching and listen to marimba music that sounds nostalgic and pulsating, now that I listen to it here – not like the animated metallic Congo guitar of my first Caribbean home, not like the Soukous of the dusty streets and painted speakers of the north coast that I know. What else don’t I know?


Up here. In the nevera, where tomatoes don’t rot in your kitchen because it’s never hot. Where we wear jackets every day to live shoulder to shoulder with the seeping mountain fog. In the Athens of Latin America. In the spine vertebrae of the Andes. Everyone dances to recall who they are in heart and being.


Between rum and marimba I think of my Midwestern home.

I think of it too, sober in the mornings, when I come to, and remember that we exist.


People there are singing songs again. Songs for loss and songs that help you scream, and scream louder, when people cover ears with hands and refuse to see. Songs because Selma is on fire again. Songs because Selma’s always been on fire.


In class, we watched a video of every slave ship since the start, animated as a dot, a benign little dot carrying, carrying everything. We look up at the map of the Americas.


“Which part of the Americas do you think will get the most ships? Raise your hand.”


“The U.S.” says a boy. 18. Political science.


We look as the dots start moving. First one by one. Then some more. At its peak, we see dots running, open faucets of human devastation flowing into the Americas, but the biggest flows aren’t into the US, to that spot that I think might be Charleston with its white spire, but to the archipelago of his own country. To Brazil. To the blue waters of the Caribbean. To Port-au-Prince. To this Andean peak with two oceans and green pastures and rain forests.


I don’t say a thing, not anything.


Do you see?


Do you promise me you’ll look?


In the Galerias dance halls. At your parents. At what’s said and what isn’t.


And that you’ll be gentle with what you find?


I daydream, I do. And the girl at the next table, she’s on the bus with me, the 17 bus route on a humid Cincinnati evening, getting on outside the courthouse with me. I’m sure. We ride the fresh heights of Mount Airy and its crickets. This night of marimba feeds, wakes, rests my homesickness and my finite smallness.


That joyful Blackness exists on our continent today at all. At all, after all. That it didn’t just leave shore and die. That it’s lived to delight in itself, self-aware and purposeful, to love its children, to look sharp on a Saturday night, to dance to marimbas below a cool moon-lit sky, is a miracle of decisive magnitude. Would I have been broken, just on day one?


And as I take another sip of ice and rum the marimba track changes, and I will for Blackness, joyous, present, not to survive, but to thrive. At ease. At ease.


And I will for us, to unobstruct.


I Will Tell You the Secret of My Heart

IftarThe sky is pink and gray just northwest of I-75, behind the old-brick factories in St. Bernard, on the highway where it’s gray and the air smells of soap-factory. It’s almost time and the car won’t start, so we’re here, waiting on the shoulder.

“I’m sorry, lady,” you say. But really I’m more sorry, because just now, it’s your iftar we’re losing.

You turn the engine over, a few times. We knew it would just cough, and that’s all it does.

“It usually works if I let it sit for a while.” That the cars we drive have personalities is mutually understood.

We watch the pink sky become more gray. I sit on my hands to keep them warm. You have fingerless gloves. We don’t talk because I think you’re tired and hungry and I wouldn’t want to talk either.

But sometimes, sometimes I do talk. Sometimes I pretend you have the energy to listen even when your mouth is dry and having opinions makes you tired, because I can’t quite help myself and I want to tell you everything I know. And sometimes, I ask you a personal question – Do you remember? A Personal Question – and you say:



And the first one I think is resignation, and the second one is gratitude, and I say it with you because I am thankful that after all, we’ve both found ways to be fine. And now, why push for details if it’s alhamdulillah already? A friend should make a fast easier, not harder. Alhamdulillah.

 There are three minutes left and we know we won’t make it.

“I’ll text her and tell her we’re late,” you say, as if this isn’t the text we both send every time we go anywhere at all.

You unwrap a pack of vanilla Oreos and break your fast with some water from your thermos, the one that is stainless steel and alway at your side, and then your can of Arizona Iced Tea. The 99¢ kind. The kind we got from the gas station for free when the clerk saw this ukhti walk in thirty minutes before maghreb. The kind I got for free, too, because I was with you and he wasn’t asking questions. The kind I saw you buying when I bumped into you at Walgreens at 1 a.m., and we were both hanging out there like losers, and we giggled hard and bought more snacks together. The kind we got when we stopped to put $5 of gas in the car before driving up to the northern suburbs. The northern suburbs that I think we only ever abandoned Greater Clifton for when we had an iftar to find.

“Do you mind if I pray real quick?” you ask, as if five minutes of communion with God would bore me off you forever. As if you weren’t the one who made me laugh the most, or the one who knew my secrets, or loved me even when I drank wine at my parents’ house. As if tonight I weren’t burning palo santo in my bedroom, writing just this. As if you weren’t my Sister already. I feel embarrassed and grateful.

You’ll always ask if I mind, and I will always tell you no, and I do hope we’ll do this until we are very, very old ladies.

I lose my fear of getting wrinkles when I remember that we can get them together.

When the car finally starts, it’s thirty minutes past maghreb, and the radio blares Drake or Nelly or Sean Paul, and even though we like it, tonight we turn it off.


1989The sleet falls into the blackness of the waters of the North Quay. It is a soft descent that ends with each flake, vanished, the moment it meets the glossy surface of the sea. It commands my gaze, and for many minutes, I can’t look away.

“Fall int in dit,” my mother says. “It’s too cold to swim and you’ll drown.”

I grab her fingers with my mittened hand and follow her away, to where friends are waiting, but I’m afraid we might be lost. I’m told again that the worst thing that can happen to a child is to drown. It is also the worst thing that can happen to my mother.

Streetlights leave circles of yellow lights on the sidewalk, and we walk along the street, opposite the dock, with my brother and father half a block ahead already. A row-boat hangs from the wall of one of the warehouses, maybe a sailor’s bar, or a pirate’s den, I think. In the sky above us, the brick and mortar Uspenski Cathedral holds motionless watch, its highest golden cupola so deep into the night blackness that when I stop to think about it, I shudder and speed up my footsteps on the sleeted sidewalk, to be there, next to my mother.

Inside, we are put to bed after we’d played for a while – fotosparks – two to a bed with heads in opposite directions, with children we’d known our entire lives.

Through the crack in the door I hear the adults talking.

Sovjetunionen,” one of them says, and drifts off into grown-up speculation that I don’t yet have opinions on. I know it is Russia they mean, and that after drowning, it was almost as dangerous, but not anymore, because we hadn’t had a war in a long time. I also know who Gorbatjov is, and I know that he is bald.

On the playground we’d sung Perestroika and discussed Maradona with equal precision.

“Russia isn’t the same as the Soviet Union, you know.”

“Oh yeah? Well Maradona could beat both of them!”

Two years later I would declare the death of Russia to my first-grade classmate who insisted it had been the Soviet Union that went kaput, but how could you keep track of all these things? And who was Maradona anyway?

Now, from the bedroom, I hear as another adult counters, and I hear my father start a Russian melody and they all shout and drown out his singing and pour another round of wine. They are eating vorschmack and there are books on the bookshelf up to the ceiling.

My mother comes in to check on me.

“Är du vaken?” She asks, wondering why I’m awake.

“Jo, lite. Int kan man sova när ni sjunger så hårt.”

“Sov, vännen,” she tells me, and after she tucks me in again, I fall into gentle slumber, far away from the sharks and dangers of the North Quay waters.

My Skin Can’t Tell Me When I am

My skin cant tell me when it isThe seven, ten, twelve-story buildings reach up toward the starry sky above us, and we laugh our way down the avenue, together, through the walking multitudes doing their shopping. I grab your arm and brace myself against the cold that will now bite the skin of my legs, that will sting it against the stiff ice of my blue-jeans. I am a midwinter fool with no long-johns on. That’s the only mistake. The only one. Otherwise, I know who I am and that I belong with the snow-cold and the echo of my heels against the tall-building canyons. But the jeans don’t sting, and I don’t hear the creak of snow packed under my footsteps, nor do I feel the slow penetration of ground frost on the soles of my booted feet. No moon reflects on any ice-crust of snow, like it should, over there on the left where a tram should pass us and screech, no plowed hills of snow and gravel line the pedestrian street. No gray and yellow snow in this midwinter silence. No icy-dark sea beyond those buildings right there, where the city ends and the abyss contains it, where the water is black and clear all year round and you know the names of all the fish and the sea-grass that washes up on the shores. The sea, that sea, should be right there, behind those city blocks, but it isn’t. And the starry sky, it isn’t starry. It glows red with city and I don’t know when it is anymore. I don’t know when we are.

I shift into the notion that this cool doesn’t hurt. It soothes and pacifies and I think it comes from outer space and it barely ebbs and it barely flows. I wait for it to be over, but it never is. It’s March. It’s March and I am on the center of things, here. Curtains draw close over stucco apartment blocks where families hold court over old china and well-placed carpets, or just over rice and eggs. The sky is the abyss and it is just barely north. Stars hide up behind the skyline and I relearn to boil water because we almost live in the clouds. We are so close, it is the frontier that pushes back from above, envelopes us, here where it is eternity and people drink hot drinks without knowing if it’s June or the silent days just after Christmas.

In the mornings, my skin reaches out to touch the air, to know when we are and what we are supposed to anticipate. If it’s hot and still you don’t have to try anymore right now. If the frost bites your nose, you’ll be introspective and in the silence of your mind you will know more.  This is how you know how to be.

My skin reaches out here, and it is only ever now.

When I See My Feet on the Morning Tiles

FeetIf you took a moment to notice, you’d hear the birds chirping, the unknown birds, mountain birds. And the cold would roll off the mountain and slow down over your curled up body, over the book you didn’t read, through the folds in your cover. You’d hear the street-man hollering again. Could he climb up here to the third floor, scale the tin roofs up to your third-story window? Would you trust anyone then?

Your bare feet shift back and forth on the early-morning tile floor. You woke up with your heart again this morning, it’s still there, and now you have to bathe. A piece of soap, tin roofs beyond, a drafty bathroom door. You put in a toe, an arm, now a shoulder. You constrain yourself to the steaming trickle of an old showerhead. Don’t let your body touch the air. You give the water to your back and neck and buttocks, and then to your shoulders, breasts, to your stomach, to your soles. If you could really, really bathe every morning, and dry between your toes, and read a newspaper while only the clock ticks on the kitchen wall.

Today it won’t shine and it won’t rain. The air will be gray and suspended and the coffee pot will sputter promise like it does each day you’ve woken up so far.

The tall balconies of the city invite the sun and host potted plants and expensive deck chairs. Your shoe slips on the sidewalk, slips just a little, on a rotten fruit you can’t quite place.

Sundays at the Edge

This is part three. Read part one and two.

Sundays at the edgeOn Sunday afternoons, they kept away. The señora was busy with her grandchild and the husband was asleep. You could leave the building undetected. Even the security guard in the booth by the tattoo-shop next door was asleep in front of the television, legs propped up on the desk, hair flapping in front of a fan with no front cover. A woman in a pink top and knee-length jeans strolled across the intersection, umbrella in hand against the midday sun, and an occasional Puerto Colombia bus would come lumbering up the avenue. Except for them, it was still.

The neighborhood had a smell that came over from behind Monte Cristo, from the industries by the river and the wide Vía Cuarenta that skirted it. It smelled like soybeans in water but everyone knew it was factory oil. If you were blindfolded and left in the city, you’d know where you were if you could sense that smell. It wasn’t unpleasant and when I came home alone at night, I’d begun to expect it.

On Sundays like that, you could go undetected by the Señoras. They sleep the sleep of worn out street dogs with half an eye open and eyebrows twitching at flies, and on Sunday they didn’t care about you.

You roll down the hill on the moto, from the top where you see the church cupola and the industry and river beyond, down, between the old single-story houses and drowsy, well-stocked corner stores. You circle the baseball stadium once, and under the cavernous underbellies of the concrete bleachers, you begin to suspect that you might be alone in the city, alone under the constant sun, in the city on the edge.

They’re there, of course they are, sleeping off last night, mending quarrels in bedrooms, holding toddlers by the arm to keep them from running into the street, looking at you though the darkness of their shaded doorways in the high noon sun. And because a city of noise can’t be silent forever, someone flips the switch to release accordion notes that detonate through the air, through man-sized speakers at a corner bar and into your skeleton. From a distance, you see three men sitting there, sitting small, immobile, on the bar patio, unmoved by the detonation behind them. As the day went on and the sleep wore off, they’d spend Sunday drinking beers and watching their kingdom – the baseball stadium, the lot, whether or not the man who discretely let himself out of la flaca’s backdoor was the same one as three nights ago or a different one again – and they’d also watch you, should you choose not to move on, so you do.

The thing to know if you are driving your moto down the 54 at night, is that when you turn right to take the ramp up to Vía Cuarenta, you had to go slow because it was a ninety degree turn, but you also had to go fast because people stayed under the overpass and there could be dogs on the on-ramp or a person in the dark waiting to rob you. I thought about that and it may be true. I never told anyone where I went then.

But on Sunday afternoons robbers are too tired to rob, and you could see dogs from a distance.

And if you followed that road into the Centro and the neighborhoods beyond, well, you would, and you’d find all of humanity there, hollering through pyramids of plastic pots, through mountains of fan covers and tubs of sabila stacked high on carts and sidewalks. The streets formed canyons where the businesses climbed up the walls like stadium seating. Fish and eggplants and cashew fruit in hand carts. Shoe-fixers, shoe-gluers, shoe-stichers. Booths with side paneled CDs. Lemonade aquariums, coconut-sellers, cat-callers, meat-butchers. You’d want to stare up at the eternal spires of San Roque, too, it’s only natural, but you really shouldn’t, because you’ll catch a pothole or forget to brake and fly right over a mule cart or slam your face into a taxi and you’ll break your spine right there and there is no way your mother will forgive you for being dead. So it is best to glimpse a little when you can. But mostly you have to keep moving because when it’s go, it’s go.

You could go anywhere. You could surprise visit a friend and be invited to coffee around her kitchen table. You could talk about old times and laugh belly laughs, and your friend would have a new life-project she would tell you about. Maybe she quit her job, or got divorced, or learned to be happy by ignoring other people’s advice, or slept with some young man and then leaned back to smoke a cigarette with her under-arm flab jiggling, stifling her chuckle, fighting the desire to crack a smile as he spoke about love-making and pretended he was used to it, and you’d both laugh until you cried and when you’d leave, you’d know that her happiness was yours, too. But everyone you know like that lives on the other sides of oceans, so you continue. You don’t blink. You ride the moto. You don’t sneeze. You go.

Through the neighborhoods where streets get narrower and traffic gets denser and boys drive bicycle rickshaws without breaking a sweat, you go up, up the bridge, up the bridge where the air opens up around you and all you see is river. Brown river and industry. And you stop.

It’s immense and silent where you are. And the river is always different. Some days the waves are strong and quick to turn. On others it is covered with floating green plant-islands that lie flat on the water. On some days there are herons, White Garzas, on invisible black stick-legs, perched on the floating green.

“Garzas. They go where all the shit is. There’s garbage where you see them.”

“Ufff. Why did you have to tell me? They’re so beautiful.”

“Ajá. Shitty garzas. There’s garbage in the river if you see them.”

You look at the shitty Garzas and try to keep seeing them the way you did before you knew.

You live at the edge of the country. Where it ends. Not the end-end. That’s farther away. But still. The edge. It ends here. Into a blue nothingness of air and water, and you stare into the end of it. You are almost so far away that you could do whatever you wanted and nobody would care. Like a crime, maybe. Or just disappear and live off the fish in a shack-house on the river. Almost. To really get to the end you’d have to go farther east, where the land was desert and the people lived without water and the oil and rum flowed across the border and into plastic jugs and thirsty mouths. But even here, you were at the edge. Nobody could tell you what to do.

Sundays are good for that. For sitting with the things of the city. For visiting the river, for staring into the edge.

When you come home, the Señora parades through in the stairway just as you are struggling with the thick Yale padlock on your reja.

“Oh, you’re going out.”

“Coming home.”

“Oh. Coming home. Look.” She introduces you to the son and the daughter-in-law she’s got in tow. He’s an orthodontist and you tell them all that that’s nice. She works with some paperwork that you say is nice, too. She has a gold bracelet.

“Where did you go? To visit friends?” asks the Señora, and then, to her relatives. “She rides around on a moto by herself. Can you believe it?”

“By herself! Oh, be careful. Where do you go?”

“Just around here. Just little paseos.”

And the daughter-in-law looked like she’d never been any place that she hadn’t been taken to. They look like Nice Well-Dressed People who spend their Sundays at their parents in the old neighborhood one estrato down, instead of out on bridges, staring into the edge.


This is part two. Read part one.

Triple A

The neighborhood enjoyed a state of abandonment on Sunday afternoons. Busy-bodies and meddlers had relatives to entertain who in turn had aguardiente to sleep off. Everyone was free of the 5:00am alarm that dictated life on the other six days. Electric fans blew and dishes clinked together in kitchens and echoed into the hallways.

Every month, the bills would come, from AAA for water, from Electricaribe, and the Señora from next door would knock on my glass panes to collect my share.

“Oh, you’re such a nice girl. I always tell my husband that you are such a nice girl,” she’d say, and the husband would fumble around with the wrinkled bills, stuffed into some grandchild’s leftover school folder. We’d sit at the dining room table over the now busy Tuesday intersection below, listening to the busses shriek and bawl on the street.

“The water is so expensive here. It’s so expensive! Not like in Valledupar, and this is estrato tres!” the husband would say, and every month I’d say “oh” and “yes.”

Then the husband would formulate a number that I had to pay – either on gut instinct or, perhaps, calculated just high enough to have a cut left over for the third payment on that porcelain dog his wife had been talking about – and the wife would either protest that it was a bit too high – it’s only her – or she’d agree. They hadn’t had a leak that month, so it was really just me.

“Yes, that’s your part. That is what you have to pay. I mean you are alone, but you have your own apartment.”

“Oh yes, you have your own apartment. That’s why you have to pay this.”

“Here are all the bills. See? You can see them all.” And in what had become a ritual, the husband would stack out all the bills in unclear order as if he’d been accused. “See? September. October. November. See, they are all there. If you want to see. I tell you exactly like it is.”

“Oh, but be careful when you take out money downstairs,” the Señora reminded me.

“Yes, be careful! You know they tried to rob my daughter last night!” The husband’s thick eyebrows rose, reliving the shock.

“Last night! Can you imagine?”

“Yes! Last night! And she screamed and ran away. The guy got nothing. But it could have been so much worse,” he said. “That is why I am telling you. You know, we have to stick together. Your neighbor is closer to you than your brother. Like the time you needed that hammer, you came here, of course!”

“That’s right,” smiled the Señora and put her hand on his shoulder, delighted with the astuteness of her husband.

Then he’d pick the number for my share of the payment. He’d furrow his brow and think for a long time, in a struggle that gave him pause. Was it math? One time he wrote “television” and spelled it with a “b.” But people knew numbers.

I paid my share, and the next month the Señora had a little porcelain dog on the patio.

“You’re such a nice girl,” she’d say.

Places Where We Live

The IntersectionThe wide intersection below was so vacant that I – maybe this was a mistake. It was early night on a Sunday, just past nine. The woman searching in the garbage muttered to herself softly. There are lots of recicladores around here. But a recicladora didn’t wear just a sack and no shoes. Recicladoras had chanclas.

 If you imagined how big the river is, you couldn’t, perhaps, but it is, it is huge and constant. It flows around this city to the east, next to the industries, on the other side of the wide Vía Cuarenta, ten or fifteen blocks from this intersection to the north, and again some twenty-five blocks east, down the slope, after the neighborhoods end and the Centro begins, and on and on into the interior, past the airport and Malambo, past Mompox and between the two mountains somewhere far south of the capital. That’s on the other side of the country and I couldn’t even tell you how they speak there or what their faces look like, or even if it’s hot or cold.

In the city, and at the intersection, what wind didn’t come from the sea came from her, the river, and it came now, over the tree tops and down onto the street where it stirred the debris of leaves and a crushed beer can into a dance around the stop light, and in a final gust, sent a plastic bag flying, as high as the electrical wires. The woman muttered her way down the side street, into the blackness under the trees, and a black dog skirted the bushes and crossed the main road, illuminated by the streetlight. It hesitated before it continued down the avenue. It was time to go.

I lay on my back on the sofa-bed, next to the boxes. I stared up at the rectangular ceiling of that small living room and listened to the geckos bark.

This is part one. Read part two. 

The City Rivers Bring Garbage and Flowers

PlumeriaIt’s in October when the rainclouds come. They come from the Antilles or from Haiti or just from the open ocean somewhere past the horizon where we think there is nothing. They come en masse to this dark city, and pour themselves out over its night and its people and its dogs. For an hour or so, everything floats. It doesn’t matter if you are cardboard, baby clothes, a motorcycle, or a girl. The draft of the city-rivers will pull you along, and if you lose control, through tunnels and grates and open storm drains of garbage into the refuse of the river where nothing else is found. Tired dogs seek higher ground and recyclers hurry home in their carts filled with cans and paper. Somewhere, the power goes out again and nothing is left dry. Down on the boulevard, the stadium and its park are washed clean. The roads to the wooden shacks by the river turn into impassable mud. Lovers wait stranded for a room, but it’s fine, really, better maybe. The people who are awake sit and watch the mortal torrents – I’m telling you I’ve seen stronger but I wouldn’t try to cross that. In the low-lying houses water seeps into the kitchen and the littlest one will wake up to find the whole household fighting to save the couch.


In nights like that, the Plumeria tree in the courtyard shakes her wild head and coats the grass in perfect white flowers. Every morning, a groundskeeper rakes up the evidence of this uneasy excess and restores order to the geometric lawn. Move along, nothing to see here. I walk under that Plumeria tree every morning that I can, and I pick up one of the symmetrical, five-petaled flowers. It smells fragrant, and I feel relieved to remember that the happenings of the night can go on so completely without me.   


Chicago When We Suddenly Remembered

Chicago When We Suddenly Remembered

America. When I was little, you didn’t have a sound track. You were silent, except for the constant hum of the slide projector in the darkness of our living room. You were traffic stopped in mid slide. A yellow taxi, or my then 28-year-old mother, happy, drinking a martini. You were the hot light bulb of that machine. You had dust swirling in that beam that projected a happy police-man guiding traffic. You had children who were Black and Chinese and wore school uniforms. There was a place called Chinatown and it had a small toy-bear that blew soap bubbles and my mom had taken a picture of it just for me. Maybe I could be friends with one of those girls in that picture and maybe I could play on that playground. You had families that were Catholic and had lots of children and went to church and we thought that was so clever but mostly exotic and quaint. All your people were just Americans and they were happy to be together. They had appliances and trash compactors and they weren’t afraid of talking to each other on the street, even though nobody could ever really understand what they were saying. But mostly, mostly, mostly you had yard sales.

You were my parents, at the Second City, laughing at cultural references they couldn’t possibly have understood. Maybe they were laughing just from the happiness of being some place new.

They saw Alan Alda. They bought an answering machine and installed it in our home.

But now it’s Monday in Chicago, and my toes are freezing. We don’t even think to look at any skyscrapers, and place bets instead on how our father will be dressed when he comes to pick us up. A hat, the trench-coat, a to-go cup of Earl Grey tea, not noticing us at first, even though we are waving and hollering from across the street.

They’re divorced. I don’t have an American driver’s license. It’s just a license. I learned Spanish and quit calling it America. My dad learned that the bus driver is not an American lady who is happy to have him in her country, but that he’s a white guy, some foreigner, who doesn’t have any sense and just can’t follow rules even though she’s explained it to everybody twice already. “But they like me,” he grins.

We get in the car and he hands us each a clementine. My brother looks at me and we share a smile because together, we remember it all.