Essay by Nataniel Gondra

Domingo, Who Joined the Foreign Legion

San Francisco, 17 Sep 2015.

I have a very lousy memory. I can’t really remember what I had for lunch yesterday. Or what was the chapter of the book I was reading about a few hours ago. But I do remember some things clearly.

Growing up with my mother, she never told me what to think about death. She avoided the subject, as most of Western civilization (although recently I’m not sure if you’d think we share the same concept of Western civilization since I’m South American), but she also avoided teaching us anything about religion. She went to a very good Catholic school run by Yugoslav nuns that taught her how to write, read and think properly. She excelled in every course and she became one of the most intelligent (if not the most) woman I’ve ever met. It’s not just because she’s my mom. She had a sensible answer for everything. Except death.

Those same Yugoslav nuns gave her that education through an archaic but apparently effective method: fear. She once told me how they traumatized her about going to hell if she didn’t behave properly and that god was all seeing, all knowing and all judging. I don’t know what was going on my mother’s mind in her last days. At times I know it was fear, she said it at least once. But I don’t know if she was remembering the fear of hell instilled in her by the nuns.

I fear death. I fear death because I’ve had panic attacks. And I know, I just know, that when it’s my time to die, unless I’m heavily drugged and unconscious, I’m going to be in one perpetual, terminal panic attack. I’d give up many things not to have another panic attack again in my life.

But I’m not particularly concerned about hell. At least not at this moment, while I feel no immediate threat to my life. Mom raised me and my brother freethinkers. “It’s your choice to believe in what you want to believe”. Still, I was in a Christian society. So my friends where Catholics. My school made me do the First Communion, although I did asked in Religion class how come dinosaurs were so impossibly old and that got me sent to the principal’s office (I loved dinosaurs). I knew only one prayer, the one my mother taught me: “Little guarding angel, sweet company, don’t abandon me, neither night nor day”. That’s the Spanish transliteration of what my mother said. The whole thing is more complex and has darker passages. “I’d be lost without you” it adds. She didn’t teach me that. I think she didn’t even told me to say Amen after I completed the prayer.

One day I figured out that El Ratoncito Perez (the Tooth Fairy) wasn’t real and then the whole superstructure came down and I saw the vacuum and the strings. So if Little Mice Perez wasn’t real, then Jesus wasn’t either (he’s the one who’s supposed to bring you presents in Christmas from where I come from), nor god or heaven or hell. For some reason that scared the shit out of me. Maybe it was my first panic attack. Maybe others have experienced this before. Maybe what scared me that much was that my own parents were able to deceive me for so long.

But they did their best not to do so, really. I understand it can come as cruel and maybe non adaptive to teach your children that there’s no tooth fairy and no guardian angel and nothing at all and that there are only very slight differences between you and a worm.

“What happens after we die?” I asked my mother anxiously one day.

“Nobody knows. But it’ll be in such a long time that there’s no need to worry”

As a kid, I worried a lot. Even if I died, I found out that the sun was going to explode. So not even the world I was living in would survive. And before that, I already knew about the Arms Race and the upcoming nuclear holocaust.

Death was an uncomfortable subject to me.

So when other people died, I didn’t know how to react. I went to my mother for answers.

“Do as you feel, dear, if you don’t want to go to the funeral, you don’t have to”

I haven’t gone to a funeral in my life. My mother donated her body to scientific research and the cremated rest was given to my brother in a standard mail-quality square brown box. It’s sitting in my brother’s closet waiting for the time we get the courage to go to Venice, a place she always dreamed of but never visited. A place she told us we would go when she got cured.

So not even my mother’s funeral. She didn’t have one.

But my memory’s not that good. I was closing down old accounts in old pages I didn’t use anymore and I found a blog I made titled: “My friend Viernes (Friday) is dead. Thank god I still have Domingo (Sunday. Also a name)”. It was full of the strangest writings I’ve ever found. It took me a few minutes to understand what was going on.

These were literally messages from the past. From a time when Domingo and I exchanged almost daily Burroughsian emails and chats. I don’t know if he understood anything that we were talking about. We didn’t do drugs. We weren’t trying to be hip. This was something actually extremely amusing to do. Shared stream of conscious with scifi, political, tropical nihilism and rock music themes.

Domingo’s father had died recently. Of cancer, like my mother would years later. I had no idea of how he felt. It was the equivalent of being raised a no-sex-before-marriage, if-you-masturbate-you’re-going-to-hell and trying to imagine what sex felt like. Not even like that, really, because even those people get wet dreams. I had literally no idea. I thought it was bad, I said what my mother told me to say (an obsolete phrase everyone uses and that I still don’t have any idea of what it means): “Mi sentido pesame” (I’m not even going to try to transliterate that. To me it sounds like random words combined), patted his back and thought sadly about his father for a few weeks.

He wasn’t particularly sad. I don’t know if my empathy is a recent ability or if he was very good at hiding his feelings, but he just sang to me an Alan Parsons Project song, half-jokingly, half-seriously: “Time… keeps flowing like a river”.

I have much to say now about Domingo. Now that he’s gone.

It has been more than a year since he hanged himself. The last email we shared was a short story I wrote about mass suicide in my shitty Ballardian. He was doing his thesis on Ballard.

He also sent me, in an ultra-secret email, his draft of Tristicruel, the best short story book to come out of that hellhole that is Caracas. It was published a month after his death. I bought it this year through Amazon. Somehow it made its way through Venezuelan customs and got into the US.

I was part of the people he dedicated it to.

Now I know a lot more about death. I’ve lost my mother and the only friend that could possibly appreciate anything I try to push out of my mind. I’ve had other losses too. And for the things that have been going on in my life, I know how bad it must have been for him to get to that point. Fuck Dante and his Wood of the Self-Murdered.

He was kind to children. He was bright. He was a great friend. He lived like an accursed poet, but he had strong values. His writings reflect that he loved and cared a whole lot more about humanity than most of the people I know who go to church every domingo.

Domingo Michelli isn’t dead.

He just “went to France. To the Foreign Legion. Like Manu Chao”*.

*The last things I heard from Domingo that made me laugh. I found it in a YouTube video one of his hipster friends made when he visited Barcelona.

 

 

 

Short Story by Kendra Lindemann

Okay

By Kendra Lindemann

Grass smells different in the morning than in the afternoon.  Alexandra lay with her back to the sun and her feet flipped up, the slight flare to her jeans catching on the wind.  Before her was a necklace and the warm, vaguely damp grass.  She played the necklace over in her hands and closed her eyes.

She hadn’t wanted to, but she’d said okay.  She’d said okay and she’d kept saying that everything was okay.  She closed her eyes and felt the familiar edge of silver under her fingertips.  This was real.  This was something she could grasp and hold and that could bite if she so directed.  This moment, this moment was safe.

Safe.  A large dog trundled over to investigate her as she lay mostly still, a well-chewed green frisbee dangling from its mouth and moving as it adjusted its grip excitedly.  Reaching up, Alexandra scratched the dog under its jowls and smiled at the waving tail as it marked the contented departure of the dog through the overgrown green grass.  The field needed to be mowed, though it was not so bad.  Four inches long or six made very little difference.  Seven inches, though, that was too much.

Too much.  He’d been so gentle.  Alexandra plucked a blade of grass from the wet turf and looked at it.  The light caught the green in interesting ways, refracting into an almost pink rainbow.  Fascinating, she mused, how a thing who could look so different up close.  Fresh grass was supposed to be green, not so close to irridescent that it couldn’t possibly be real.

When she’d cried, he’d stopped and asked if she was okay.  She’d said yes, as she’d been saying, but he hadn’t continued.  He’d stayed close for awhile, just holding her in place and making soft shushing sounds.  When she’d calmed a little, the tears rolling down her cheeks silently such that he couldn’t see, he’d kissed the top of her head and left her there.  A yellow light in the kitchen had come on and she’d heard popping and shuffling.  A few minutes later, there had been pizza rolls and popcorn and her shirt was smoothed back in place.

Above her, a bumble bee hummed as it moved from one clump of clover to another, drifting to the left as it chased the firmly planted but gently waving flowers.  She smiled and looked up.  Across the way, a soccer ball danced across the field, several girls in bright pink and white chasing it while a matching set of french braids and ponytails dressed in sky blue charged from the other direction.  They would meet in the middle and send the ball toward one goal or another, depending on which foot made first and strongest contact.

Her stomach hurt a little.  Well, not her stomach.  Lower.   She’d tried eating macaroni and sourdough toast for breakfast.  The ache didn’t go away.  It was like when she put in pads but different, both worse and not nearly so bad.  The phone, discarded a few feet away where she’d abandoned it to think, chimed once.  He’d informed her that he had tickets to the game.  She didn’t do sports, not usually, and wasn’t certain what teams were playing.  No one she knew, she was sure.  But he’d invited her; he already had the tickets.  There was nothing else to do tonight and people would talk if she didn’t go.

Picking up the phone and dragging it across the turf as she propped herself up on an elbow, she gazed at the screen for a long, long time.  “Still there?”

He never used acronyms.  They’d only started texting a week ago and she had waited in the cafeteria earlier today for all the guys to leer and make their stupid comments and for all the girls to look jealous.  She could have hated him, then.  Instead… instead all was well.  Katy had asked if she’d had fun yesterday but there had been nothing suggestive about the way she’d asked, even if Alexandra knew she’d been a bit defensive.  She gazed at the phone and considered writing yep, followed by the send key.  Her fingers didn’t move and she looked up at a distant clicking sound as a bit of dust caught in her eyes and nose.

A large mini-van opened up, revealing an ice-chest of juice drinks and pre-packaged cheese.  Probably a few apples.  The sorts of innocuous things that meant a mom was dedicated to her daughter and to the team by extension.  The kind of attention that was great now and would be stifling later.  Alexandra wondered what it would be like to feel so stifled.  She’d be just as unable to talk about last night if she was, she mused, though for entirely different reasons.  Oh the humanity.

Humanity.  She’d seen humans on TV.  She’d talked about the alphabetical faces and what they meant.  He had stopped well before.  He had… and now he wanted to watch the game with her.  And he hadn’t told a soul.  And he had an extra ticket if she wanted to bring a friend.  A third wheel.  And it hadn’t felt as good as the movies said.  And the popcorn had gotten stuck in her teeth and the blankets had been wet after and he’d said there was shampoo and conditioner in the shower.  His hair was short; how had he known to have conditioner?  How had he known…

The phone chimed again and Alexandra realized she’d been staring at the bee for a long time now.  Her skin might even be a little bit burned.  It felt nice, and maybe, when it peeled, she’d be clean again.  “Are we good?”  Another chime.  “Say something.  I’m getting worried.”

She rolled over and tossed the phone in the air.  It came down to the side and she extended her hand to catch it.  Another toss.  Another catch.  Another toss.  This time she caught it with her left hand.  The tosses were growing wild.  She tossed it more gently and it landed between her shoulder and her head, a little away from her neck.  Fishing for it awkwardly, she sat up and watched the large golden-yellow dog lope toward where the frisbee had hit the grass and scratch at it, trying to get an edge so it would flip up and he could lift it.

Again, the phone chimed.  “We okay?”

That word again.  She hated it.  She hated that she’d said it.  She hated that she’d kept saying it.  She hated that he’d stopped and she hated that he cared so much it hurt to look at him.  She hated it and she hated him.  Except that  “Look, I didn’t know.  There are things I would have done.  We don’t have to do that again.  Ever, if that’s what you want.  I like and respect you enough to want to be your friend, anyway.”

A long text, this time.  She could picture him with his finger-length hair and his dark blue eyes and his chestnut skin and his high cheeks and beautiful, kissable lips.  His smell had lingered on her shirt.  She hadn’t washed that, yet.  Maybe that was the problem.  He’d looked so concerned, so worried that it had seemed his pain and not a reflection of her own when his gaze had reached her eyes.  Too much.  She watched one of the pale blue shirts shoulder-check one of the pink and white shirts.  The other girl went flying.  It was obvious she wasn’t hurt, though she played up a skinned knee as the ref blew the whistle and a friend from the sidelines helped to walk her from the field.

How he must be panicking, now.  She was one of the pretty and smart girls.  Not the queen bee and not one of the wasps that defended her, but popular enough to be an oscar winning victim.  She’d not meant to say everything was fine.  She’d not meant to do a lot of things, least of all follow the kid back to his house with the busted front lock and the thousands of carpet-stains.  Once it was happening, she’d not meant to cry.  Once she’d stopped crying, she’d not meant to feel worthless.  Once he’d wrapped his arms around her, she’d not meant to feel like she’d hurt him.

Another chime.  She held her phone up and squinted against the brightness of the sun.  “Do you respect me enough to be honest?”

Ugh.  Why wasn’t he just leaving her alone?  She texted back the word “Busy” and tossed the phone a little ways off in the grass, laying back down again.  Her skin felt tight, like maybe it really was burned a little.  Didn’t matter.  The heat was nice.

She closed her eyes.

Off in the field, the girls were high-fiving each other in the lineup, saying they respected their opponents.  There would be pizza and soda tonight and juice boxes in the here and now.  Even the losers had grins on their faces.  Everyone was a winner.  The dog’s excited footfall as it trotted after its frisbee again mixed with the music of another lazy bee and the phone made a ding sound followed by another chime.  She rolled over and picked up the device, noting her mom’s identifying picture in the corner.  “Working late.  Leftovers in fridge.”  “Gave the tickets away.  See you tomorrow in class?”

Well, there was that word again.  She hated herself for saying it then; she hated herself for saying it now.  There was no other phrase to use, though.  There was, however, a social constraint that begged compliance.  She would heat up leftover sloppy joe mix in the microwave and put it on fresh buns from the toaster onto a plate.  She could, if she wanted, make something fresh and original before slaving over the dishes.  She might even have enough petty cash to go out, or even call in sick and take some time away.  These were things she theoretically could do, though she knew she would not.  Instead, she gave the only answer that was acceptable.  She gave the only answer she could.  She looked at her mom’s line of text and flipped to the other.  On both, she wrote the same word.  On both, they meant the same.

Okay