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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Novel

Mauro Javier Cárdenas

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Once again his daughters and his former wife packed their lives and left him to summer in Czechia with Babicka and Deda, and unlike the previous seven summers, Antonio wasn’t anxious for them to leave already so he could sleep with former girlfriends or new girlfriends or whomever he happened to meet at bookstores or nightclubs or on the internet, on the contrary, he was anxious that they were leaving him because on the one hand he didn’t want to be without them (Ada, his eight-year-old, was becoming an ace on the soccer field, and Eva, his five-year-old, was already tinkering with the upright piano he’d abandoned years ago), and on the other hand he’d resigned himself to a so-called stable family life in Los Angeles alongside his former wife due to his daughters, so he didn’t want to be alone and risk chancing upon any more women like Dora (philosophy major, S3) or Silvina (science fiction writer, S7) who might remind him of the other lives he could have lived if he’d left his former wife when he was planning to, three weeks before conceiving Ada and three months before he was asked by her parents to marry her, and although one never really knows why one does what one does — at least I like to believe I don’t always know, Antonio writes, so as to feel less programmed by the catastrophes of my childhood — it is likely that his desire to avoid chancing upon any more women like Dora or Silvina who might rattle the family arrangement that was allowing his daughters to bloom beautifully was what led him, on summer #8, to join a website called Your Sugar Arrangements for $69.99 a month.

* * *

An internet executive overdoses on heroin and his companion doesn’t phone the paramedics but instead leaves him to die on his yacht, the internet reports, a companion with a history of not phoning the paramedics in similar circumstances and whom the internet executive met through a website called Your Sugar Arrangements, which is how Antonio first heard of Your Sugar Arrangements: what in the world is this website, Antonio remembers thinking, and since he doesn’t inject himself with heroin and can’t isolate himself dangerously inside a yacht — I have no interest in yachts, Antonio writes, or people who frequent yachts — on one of his first evenings alone on summer #8, as he was waiting for a stool at Salt Air, he angled his phone so no one could see him browsing a site called Your Sugar Arrangements (YSA), typing Arturo Ventanas as his username and joining this website out of curiosity, he told himself, not expecting to become a Sugar Daddy (SD) to any Sugar Baby (SB), as advertised on the website, nor expecting to become another successful male looking to fuel mutually beneficial, no-strings-attached (NSA) relationships with beautiful young women, as also advertised on the website, although financially he’d done okay enough to maybe belong to the Practical designation in the SB allowance section called Expectation / Budget ($1,000 to $3,000 monthly), as opposed to the High (more than $10,000 monthly), although he selected Negotiable (openly negotiable to any amount) because in the past he’d experienced bouts of nihilist spending (mostly on clothes from Saint Laurent) so he didn’t want to rule out the possibility of throwing away his database analyst salary on these new types of arrangements.

* * *

One day you’re at Saint Ignatius Catholic Church marrying someone because she’s expecting your child, one day you’re at the same church listening to Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-Flat during your lunch hour, one day the young pianist who performed in that Schubert Trio is unbuttoning your jeans at the Pelican Yacht Harbor in Sausalito: her YSA name is Jasmine and she claimed to be a classical pianist who was studying at the Curtis Institute of Music, a claim that, unlike the many other claims on the many other profiles he has been encountering on Your Sugar Arrangements, turned out to be true, and perhaps because she already knew about the excess of falsehoods on Your Sugar Arrangements, she messaged him that she was performing at Saint Ignatius Catholic Church, so there he was in the audience during his lunch hour, two days before he was to meet her in person for the first time, sitting in the pews amidst the Catholic paraphernalia of his youth and at least a hundred retirees who seemed to believe they were entitled to free classical music during their lunch hour and at the same time seemed to be performing the joyousness of being alive, isn’t this incredible, Gertrude, at last we have time to listen to this beautiful music, the nineteenth-century music Antonio used to fumble when he was twenty-one and learning to play the piano, the tempestuous music of Chopin and Rachmaninoff that he later rejected as tonal kitsch, the Schubert Piano Trio No. 2 in E-Flat that he is listening to now as he runs SQL queries at Prudential Investments, remembering that afternoon a few weeks ago at Saint Ignatius Catholic Church, sitting in the pews and feeling like he’d been invited to participate in a public game of foreplay, yes, Arturo, you will watch me rousing the retirees with my pianistic vitality, and you will not talk to me after my performance, not yet, you will just watch me bow to the audience of the elderly, I won’t even know if you’re in the audience, but please don’t imagine you’re at one of those peep shows your hairdresser told you about, the kind where you insert a handful of coins to see me behind a glass pane because we’re in church, for god’s sake, and a decrepit priest just announced the afternoon program, and a beautiful woman in the balcony is about to film me from the wrong angle, yes, Arturo, that’s my mother and she has at least two rich boyfriends right now and she’s about your age, although you will never tell me your real age is thirty-nine, just as you will never tell me that one day you were at Saint Ignatius Catholic Church about to marry someone because she was expecting your child, or that nine years later, when you showed up to see me at Saint Ignatius, you didn’t feel any longing or regret or any of the strong emotions associated with returning to the church where you married someone because she was expecting your child, no, you were simply listening to my rendition of the Schubert Piano Trio No. 2 in E-Flat, enjoying the wonders of being alive just like the one hundred and one retirees around you, isn’t this incredible, Arturo, and that evening you will message me and tell me you were in the audience and praise me and tell me you recognized the cellist I was playing with from a performance of Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint at Carnegie Hall, and two days later I will cancel on you minutes before our dinner at Salt Air because I panicked about you knowing my real identity — I didn’t want to mix up my life in YSA with my real life, Arturo, Jasmine messaged him later — and despite your messages reassuring me that you also had an incentive to be discreet — I deleted your voicemails, Jasmine said a few days later, I was scared to listen to them — I didn’t change my mind until later that night, after you sent me a link to your publications, although I had already done a search on you to verify you weren’t a criminal, and three days after Jasmine canceled their first dinner at Salt Air, the game of public foreplay continued in the Bay Area, during dinner at Sushi Ran in Sausalito, where Arturo and Jasmine engaged in a heated conversation about John Cage, Chopin, etc., trying to impress each other without touching each other just yet — I don’t know why I canceled on you or why I later changed my mind, Jasmine messaged him later, I don’t think we make decisions like these logically, I had a gut feeling that something terrible was going to happen during dinner, that’s all, I just didn’t think you could possibly know so much about classical music, everyone in YSA exaggerates themselves 150 percent, everyone is tall and handsome and then they turn out to be bald businessmen or scrawny tech people — I just remembered another reason I originally didn’t want to meet you, Jasmine messaged him later, you told me you were a novelist, so I immediately assumed you’d be one of those cynical emo pretentious types who would tell me how depressing the world was, I don’t know why I remembered that just now as I was practicing my scales — and after dinner at Sushi Ran, Jasmine said let’s stroll to the pier, so they strolled arm in arm to the dark pier and stepped down to the empty Pelican Yacht Harbor, joking that in movies something terrible always happens in these kinds of harbors, and when they reached the end of the harbor she approached him and kissed him, and he unzipped her white jeans and discovered she was not faking her arousal, and she unbuttoned his black jeans and discovered he was not faking his arousal, and he wondered whether the knees of her white jeans would be soiled by the damp floorboards such that later her mother would be able to guess what her nineteen-year-old daughter had been up to, and he looked around at the dark sea and the vacant yachts and thought life is unbelievable and beautiful, there’s even a discarded bench cushion Jasmine can repurpose to lie down, and then it was over and she didn’t ask him for an allowance and he walked her back to her mother’s 1980s BMW and she was gone.


To be Nicola, Antonio thinks, to ride his Shadow VLX, far, to the Nuart Theatre, toward the traffic of 405, to be Nicola instead of Antonio just as Nicola’s brother, Matteo, had wanted to be Nicola, to tell his former wife, when she was eight and a half months pregnant with Ada, and his mother, who was visiting for Christmas, that he had to leave them for six hours to watch The Best of Youth at the Nuart Theatre, three hours of Nicola Carati and his family on Saturday afternoon, three more hours on Sunday evening — if you’re feeling strong enough, Nicola says to his daughter, drive to your mother — to ride to the Nuart Theatre on a motorcycle that rattles him if he crosses the sixty-miles-per-hour mark, to answer dismissively when his former wife and his mother ask him why he needs to watch such a long movie now, can’t you wait, his mother said, any minute now your daughter will be born, to not know why he felt the urge to see Best of Youth, no, Antonio thinks, even then he must have known he was riding to the Nuart Theatre to see Best of Youth because Dr. Adler had told him to (because Dr. Adler knew he wanted to become a writer, knew his misgivings about being a father, his dread about being a husband, even knew his dreams because she encouraged him to write them down and share them with her — I knew a woman who knew my dreams, Antonio writes — and when small birds sighed, Theodore Roethke says, she would sigh back at them — did you agree to become a father to please Dr. Adler? — does it matter now? — dear Dr. Adler, Antonio writes, thank you for the new family you’ve given me — an Italian movie like a Tolstoy novel, Dr. Adler said —), to know why he felt the urge to see Best of Youth but to not know how to explain this urge to his former wife or his mother, but perhaps Dr. Adler, who used to believe and perhaps still believes that only the interaction between doctor and patient changes the patient, in other words only in the warmth of Dr. Adler’s office could Antonio rehearse how to be other than what he was, told him to watch Best of Youth not for literary reasons but because she wanted him to learn how to be Nicola, as he has indeed tried to do, watching Best of Youth so many times over the years that he has come to believe he can speak Italian like Nicola — voltate! — to learn how to be a father from a movie might sound ridiculous, Antonio writes, but how else do men learn to be fathers different from their own monstrous fathers?—holotropic breathwork? — tried it once already—constellation therapy? —twice —okay you’re excused, be Nicola—to be Nicola, who plays limbo with his young daughter late into the night, who playacts at being Charlie Chaplin to amuse his young daughter, who, after his wife leaves him to join the Red Brigades, rearranges his life so he can spend most of his time with his young daughter and never remarries just as Antonio’s mother never remarried while Antonio and his sister lived with her — your daughter has softened you, Nicola’s sister says — yes, Antonio writes, that’s what daughters do — and one day Nicola’s daughter, who despite being abandoned by her mother has become a lighthearted adult — children are more resilient than we think, Nicola says — receives a letter from her mother, who’s finally out of jail, and Nicola’s daughter asks Nicola what she should do, and Nicola says if you’re feeling strong enough, drive to your mother, and so she does, waiting for her mother with a bouquet of flowers outside the library where her parents met — Mama — embracing her mother — you tried to overthrow the government and now you have to ask permission to play music for me, Nicola’s daughter says to her mother inside a church in Florence — to be Nicola’s daughter listening to her mother performing Bach on the church organ for her for the first time — Bach’s Invention No. 2 in C-Minor, Antonio writes, which I have played for my daughters, too — contemplating the vast universe of those years without her mother — everyone in your dreams is you, Dr. Adler said — Mama — but no, unlike Nicola’s daughter, Antonio hadn’t been feeling strong enough to board a plane to Baltimore to help his mother handle his sister, who couldn’t discern what was / wasn’t imaginary anymore, or yes, perhaps he thought he could pretend he was as strong as Nicola’s daughter because he had a steady database analyst job at Prudential Investments, two daughters and a former wife who tolerated his erratic attempts to remain with them, so about twelve months ago, a few days after Antonio’s mother called him and told him his sister had accused her plus Obama of conspiring against her and had thrown her out of the house she owned in Baltimore (for years Antonio didn’t care about houses or cars or whatever else people purchase to pass the time before they die — the pitiful concerns of philistines, I probably thought back then, Antonio writes — and so for years Antonio ignored his sister whenever she asked him to please bring his daughters to her new house in Baltimore, a house his mother often talked about not because it was a luxurious home that stood as a symbol of his sister’s success in life, but because she knew that house was a comfort to his sister, who had rejected almost everyone in the family as retribution for what she perceived as their rejection of her — a house was a comfort to her, Antonio’s mother said, a place of her own — but unfortunately one evening one of his sister’s neighbors had parked her car in front of her house, waiting to pick up her kids at the bus stop, and his sister, thinking her neighbor was conspiring against her, had allegedly threatened to shoot her neighbor and the other families at the bus stop if they didn’t get off her property, for which she was arrested and charged with multiple counts of assault and cruelty to children — Ms. Marta Terranova stated that Estela Jiménez came to her car and started beating on the window with a knife, the police report says, to the point that one of her children begged Terranova to drive away because she didn’t want to die — and so Antonio’s mother was concerned that his sister, alone and unsupervised, would aggravate her unfortunate legal situation as she awaited her trial proceedings), Antonio surprised himself by boarding a plane to Baltimore, renting a compact economy car, and driving from the airport to his sister’s house, unannounced, of course, armed with the disastrous resolve of the reasonable, no, Antonio thinks, he doesn’t want to think about his sister ranting at him about radial frequencies from satellites with lasers, or about his sister throwing him out of her house, or about him and his mother in a government agency filling out forms to commit his sister to a mental institute, so much of that trip to Baltimore he has already forgotten anyway and if he were to think about it too much his mind would be less likely to erase it — I don’t intend to write about my sister here, Antonio writes, among my so-called sugar arrangements — nor do I want to give you the impression my so-called sugar arrangements are a diversion from thinking about my sister’s misfortunes, Antonio writes, because of course my so-called sugar arrangements are a diversion, but so are all other activities that allow me to pass the time without thinking of the misfortunes that have happened and are still happening to my sister — and although of course Antonio’s ashamed of his avoidance, no one needs to know, he won’t tell anyone, and thankfully he no longer believes in a god that can strike him for avoiding his sister’s misfortunes, so yes, Antonio will rather think about Jasmine from Your Sugar Arrangements, or he’ll rather rereread A Lexicon of Terror & Other Stories by his last former girlfriend, the science fiction writer he still likes to call Silvina (S7), or transcribe the conversation he recently had with Dora (S3), another former girlfriend, whom Antonio hadn’t seen in almost five years, since around the time his second daughter was born (Dora had demanded that he stop sending her sporadic messages, however seemingly innocuous they might be, resorting to the hackneyed language of breakups to do so — it is disrespectful of you to continue doing so not only to me but to my boyfriend, Dora wrote, and since we’re living together he is well aware of any and all efforts you’ve made — so he hadn’t had any contact with her through any medium in those five years, until recently, when he discovered through casual Facebook research that her new relationship had ended since she’d posted a public picture of Bailey, her dog, along with a comment about how her new former boyfriend had stolen her dog and could someone please talk some sense into him — I was not surprised their relationship had ended, Antonio writes, I knew their day would come because it comes to all of us — and so after exchanging seemingly innocuous Facebook messages during the spring, Dora agreed to meet him on a Sunday afternoon outside of Menotti’s Coffee Stop in Venice Beach toward the beginning of summer #8), or he’ll rather think about his upcoming arrangements this week and the next, or about anything other than his sister’s unreason, or her misfortunes due to her unreason, or the accretion of misfortunes that culminated in her unreason, or her whereabouts since she ran away from her trial proceedings in Baltimore a few weeks ago.


What would you endure jail for, Dora said, I would endure jail for my daughters, Antonio said, I’m not telling you this so you think I’m a good person, father, etc., this is simply the first answer that comes to mind, and because Dora withheld her response for too long, and because he knew she might not offer him another audience, Antonio continued, speaking to her of I’ve Loved You So Long, a French movie they’d seen together in which a mother endures jail for killing her son (the revelation toward the end of the movie that the mother knew that her son was dying, and that she had injected her boy to spare him because she was a doctor and knew how painful his terminal illness would be, had been so unbearable to Antonio that he had to rush to the bathroom of the Nuart Theatre to conceal his sobbing from Dora — in my own so-called fiction I skirt the verb to sob because of its melodramatic acoustics, Antonio writes, nevertheless to weep aloud with convulsive gasping was what I did at the Nuart Theatre—), I think jail in that movie is the mother’s equivalent of killing herself, Antonio said, the question has been on my mind because I did go to jail, Dora said, because apparently her new former boyfriend had gifted her a dog, a dachshund she was carrying with her that Sunday outside of Menotti’s Coffee Stop on one of those BabyBjörn carriers that are popular in Abbot Kinney among fathers who want to showcase to the world that they, unlike their own fathers, are good fathers, keeping their newborns close to their chests, after I ended the relationship we enrolled in couples therapy to mediate custody of our dog, Dora said, I’m going to need most of your cigarettes to hear this story about you and your dog, Antonio said, last winter he traveled to Miami with Bailey and did not return him, Dora said, so she filed charges in small-claims court, won, but apparently the judge didn’t have the jurisdiction to issue an injunction for her new former boyfriend to return her dog, I called the police anyway, Dora said, but the police informed her they couldn’t enter his house without a court order so she put up flyers with pictures of her dog and of her new former boyfriend in the neighborhood in Manhattan Beach where she used to live with him and her dog, did you tape or hammer your flyers to the telephone poles there, Antonio said, why are you asking me these questions are you going to write about this, Dora said, the story of you and your dog is compelling to me because it externalizes what during breakups often remains, against one’s will, internalized, Antonio said, elaborating his point by recounting a story by Charles D’Ambrosio in which a screenwriter at an insane asylum asks a ballerina at the same insane asylum why she burns herself with cigarettes, because it externalizes her pain, the ballerina says, I actually handed out most of the flyers, Dora said.

* * *

The expectation of unconditional love should be reserved for the relationship between parents and children, Antonio said, because it’s unreasonable to expect adults to burden one another with unconditional love, and since Dora did not reply Antonio continued, telling her that after he was surprised by the news that he was going to be what he never wanted to be, a father, his former therapist said that one of the most wonderful aspects of being a parent was that you could love someone without worrying about them leaving you, that is absolutely not true, Dora said, children do leave their parents — I knew what she meant, Antonio writes, so I didn’t attempt to amuse her with insouciant counterarguments — and perhaps because Dora used to complain he purposefully excluded his life as a father from their relationship, which lasted almost a year, he softened his tone and told her how in his life now he pined after Saturday afternoons, when Ada has her soccer matches, and that to watch Ada score three or four goals per game was beautiful to him, as if he was watching an apparition of himself as a boy playing soccer in Bogotá but much better, although he didn’t connect Ada and himself across time until his mother visited and said she’s just like you, Antonio, running furiously after the ball — Ada, Antonio writes, my sensitive eight-year-old who paints I’m Sorry canvases for her mother when she splashes too much bathtub water — I am still seeking that kind of unconditional love, Dora said, admitting this probably made her a romantic, it does, Antonio said, but there’s nothing right or wrong about being a romantic.

* * *

Someone called me about my dog, Dora said, was it a man or a woman, Antonio said, guessing it had to be a woman because only a woman would understand the plight of another woman in search of her dog, or at least that’s what Antonio thought at the time, sitting next to Dora and her dog outside Menotti’s Coffee Stop, a woman, Dora said, a store owner who had seen her dog with a blond woman who happened to be the new girlfriend of Dora’s new former boyfriend, that just proves how benighted he is because white girls are the worst and they age horribly, Antonio said, I drove by the store owned by the woman who had called me about my dog, Dora said, what kind of store was it, Antonio said, I’m not telling, Dora said, but I found my dog nearby and snatched it from her, how did you manage to snatch your dog away from the blond woman, Antonio said, for legal reasons I can’t tell you too many details, Dora said, did the blond woman chase after you, Antonio said, no, Dora said, the blond woman did not — Dora didn’t tell me if the blond woman was already pregnant when she snatched her dog from her, Antonio writes, but the blond woman was pregnant — I’m glad I didn’t have children with him, Dora said, obviously the blond woman didn’t love your dog enough to chase you and therefore did not deserve to keep your dog, Antonio said, he filed charges against me, Dora said, assault and theft, she didn’t think the charges would go through, months passed and nothing happened, but then they did go through and she had to hire a criminal attorney and place her dog in a witness protection program, I’ve heard of dog therapists and dog dentists so I guess a dog witness protection program isn’t too far-fetched, Antonio said, that’s just what I called me hiding Bailey outside of California, Dora said.

* * *

One night at the apartment Dora was sharing with her sister and her brother, a night Antonio would prefer not to forget, Dora shared with him the video her soon-to-be-new father had recorded of her, her two siblings, her soon-to-be-former mother, and her soon-to-be-new mother, all of them in what looked like a train station in Beijing at the moment the adoption transaction was taking place, her brother pretending to be delighted, her older sister as enraged as she was when Antonio met her years later, little Dora smiling in confusion about what was happening to her, her new father recording a video that years later he was to share at a family gathering as a tribute for Dora’s former mother, whom he was to bring back from Beijing to marry soon after leaving Dora’s new mother — Dora’s family history is more complicated than I or anyone can even attempt to reconcile, Antonio writes, and to this day I would not wish it on anyone — enough, Antonio thinks, closing the file entitled Dora & Her Dog and scanning the messages that have been arriving since he began writing about Dora two hours ago, at 7:00 a.m., messages that contain words like autoregressive forecasting, intraday transaction posting, we are now accepting submissions for our Nature issue, the principal assumption of the geometric distributed lag model (GDL) is that the maximum impact of marketing occurs in the period in which it takes place and that its influence declines geometrically to zero thereafter, your suboptimal SQL query is slowing down the Teradata box, pursuant to the terms of the Bail Bond contract and promissory note you agreed to indemnify Any Day Bail Bonding Inc. against any and all claims incurred due to Estela Jiménez’s failure to appear in Baltimore’s Superior Court you are hereby given ten days to pay $110,000 for failure to appear, attorney fees, interest, and recovery expenses, and as Antonio removes his headphones, which have been transmitting Eight Lines by Steve Reich on repeat, he hears his work phone ringing inside his cubicle at Prudential Investments, Ron Graebel here, Ron Graebel says, I’m the owner of Any Day Bail Bonding I just sent you an email how are you today, you shouldn’t call this phone I need to, give me a minute I’ll call you from a conference room, Antonio says as he hurries toward Bermuda, the conference room without windows so that no one in the office can see him, okay, Antonio says, I hate making these calls, Ron Graebel says, you have a business to run I understand, Antonio says, do you know your sister’s whereabouts, Ron Graebel says, no I, Antonio says, no, you and your mother are responsible for her I know you know that, Ron Graebel says, my mother and I, Antonio says, my sister isn’t well she hasn’t talked to us in a year, as owner and the one directly responsible to pay the court I would feel a lot better about this case if you would submit the full bond amount to be held in our security deposit account to cover the liability or at a minimum proof of funds, Ron Graebel says, we reserved Bermuda for 9:00 are you almost done, Antonio’s coworker says, I’m done I’ll call you back, Antonio says, I do expect you will, Ron Graebel says.

* * *

Aside from finishing law school I’m acting now, Dora said — Dora, Antonio writes, the least expressive woman I’ve met — she had discovered acting was her calling and acting is about portraying our reactions to dramatic circumstances, life and death, just like in fiction, and Antonio disagreed and said that he subscribed to António Lobo Antunes’s belief that we should remove the dramatic charge from fiction because nothing’s really that dramatic, someone is always leaving us or dying or going to the insane asylum, these miseries just happen to us and will continue to happen to us, to which she replied by speaking of metaphorical icebergs, the surface of things, etc., but Antonio did not refute these handed-down notions of narrative because he wanted to be amenable so she would agree to a handful of Fridays with him during summer #8, I’ve changed, Dora said, explaining that her former therapist had encouraged her not to be so black-and-white, to be more comfortable with the gray aspects of life, which included seeing Antonio again, and Antonio said I am Dora’s gray area, but Dora didn’t laugh, I have begun to see myself again as I was as a three-year-old, Dora said, so open and cheerful, ambling with her new father to the neighborhood ice cream shop, it’s remarkable to see oneself as a three-year-old again, Antonio said, across twenty-seven years of life, I would do things differently now, Dora said, and Antonio interpreted this as a reference to her cruelty after she ended their relationship, a topic Antonio had no interest in pursuing (what good would it do now? — besides, Antonio writes, cruelty is embedded in the structure of endings — the day after Dora ended their relationship, Antonio revealed to her, despite his distaste for the hackneyed language of so-called love, that he loved her — I did not conceal my sobbing from her, Antonio writes, and she was taken aback because while we were together she hadn’t known — I love you too, she said, but it’s too late, she was already seeing the older man who was to steal her dog — just last summer I heard the same response to my untimely revelation of so-called love from Silvina, Antonio writes, the other former girlfriend I wish I could have kept—), if I have learned anything about breakups, Antonio said, and I haven’t really learned anything about breakups, and here she interrupted him and said why do you always qualify yourself like that, and he said because I believe this business of learning is a mirage we impose on ourselves to feel better about our fated lives, does that include what I just said about changing, Dora said, that wasn’t my intention but yes, Antonio said, reaching across the table to rest his hand on her forearm, wanting her to believe he could believe she could change, why shouldn’t we nurse our delusions, Antonio said, if we find consolation in them?

* * *

I thought it through, Dora said, all the possible angles, whether I was in the wrong and should let Bailey go, or whether I was willing to abide by my principles and endure jail for what truly matters to me, and since Antonio remained quiet she continued, telling him a friend of her new former boyfriend had contacted her and told her that her new former boyfriend was enjoying himself with this business of the dog, getting even with her through her dog, how did his friend know about her dog, Antonio said, I emailed his friends and coworkers, she said, pleading with them about her dog, and as Dora removed her baseball cap to rearrange her hair, Antonio could see what looked like scabs on her forehead and the excessive makeup she had applied to cover them — in my own so-called fiction I don’t provide descriptions of people because I don’t remember what people look like, Antonio writes, but I remember Dora’s forehead because I became concerned Dora wasn’t well — she must have intuited that he was considering whether she’d derailed aspects of her mind as a consequence of spending a year plotting the recovery of her dog because she changed the topic and asked him about his relationship status — no way I’m risking a summer affair with Dora, being what I was thinking, Antonio writes — and so Antonio spoke to her about his child custody proceedings and how he had to attend a mandatory orientation where a man described how he had to enter a special building from one door, and how the mother of his child had to enter the same special building through another door, on the other side of the building, and how the man was only allowed to see his son in a special room inside that special building for a limited number of hours — I dream of that building often, Antonio writes, or perhaps I no longer dream of that building and it has simply become one of the images I have to contend with, in other words it is my building now, a building shaped like the Pentagon or the doomed fortresses of Jacques Austerlitz — he spoke to Dora about resignation and how his daughters need a lot of attention, and how he has come to define happiness collectively, and that it was ridiculous, given that most adult relationships end anyway, to pursue a relationship with another adult at the expense of his daughters, who were so little still — I thought I knew the effect my monologue would have on Dora, Antonio writes, the narrative of self-sacrifice, etc., but we were both wearing sunglasses, so I couldn’t tell how she was feeling, although even if she hadn’t been wearing sunglasses I wouldn’t have known how she was feeling — I think your mother giving you away for adoption so you wouldn’t die of hunger after your father died in a motorcycle accident is your mother’s equivalent of killing herself, Antonio didn’t say.

* * *

I had to turn myself in, Dora said, trying to lighten up her anecdote about jail by saying that she had tried to turn herself in on a day the computer registration systems were down, so she decided to come back another day because if the systems were down she wouldn’t know when she was getting out, now would she, I was in jail for one night, Dora said, what was jail like, Antonio said, apparently where you first sit gives away whether or not you’ve been in jail before, Dora said, and because Antonio didn’t want to think about or share with Dora how a year ago his sister had also been in jail after threatening to shoot her neighbors, he asked Dora if walking her dog had become stressful to her, in other words was she worried about running into her new former boyfriend or his future former girlfriend, no, Dora said, showing him her dog’s new, difficult-to-snatch harness, I knew I would have to live with this new burden of worry before deciding to snatch my dog from that woman, Dora said, plus she also knew her new former boyfriend was still in Miami, and as Dora and Antonio watched the sun come down outside of Menotti’s Coffee Stop — in my so-called fiction I never describe landscapes or weather, suns coming up or going down, Antonio writes, what’s the point? everything’s searchable online and metaphorical weathers are a bore, but that Sunday the sun was coming down and I didn’t know how I was feeling about seeing Dora again — Antonio said this is my favorite time of day, things coming to an end, and since Antonio didn’t want her to think he was being metaphorical about endings, he mentioned that these particular colors of sundown reminded him of sundown at Burning Man, a weeklong party in the desert he used to attend when he was in his twenties, speaking to her of people standing atop RVs, the sense of anticipation, the biggest party of their lives about to begin, the fluorescent lights on art cars and the wonderland castles about to be animated by portable generators, and because Dora wasn’t smiling he said next time I will add puppetry to my Burning Man story to amuse you better, and Dora said what makes you think I’m not amused?

* * *

In retrospect I have assumed she didn’t want me to leave just yet because she had suggested we walk her dog along the beach toward Santa Monica, Antonio writes, but unfortunately I had to go because my oldest daughter Ada had taken money from her mother without asking and upon being caught had cried for almost two hours, afraid of what I would say to her, I don’t want to make Ada wait any longer, I said, I’m also worried about handing out a fair punishment, a lesson about consequences, I explained to Dora, without getting too upset at Ada, and yet Dora seemed upset that I was done with her and her dog, hugging me politely, sideways because of the dog on her chest, our torsos barely touching, kissing each other’s cheeks too quickly, letting her dog lick me and playacting at licking him back, neither of us saying let’s meet again soon, awakening, later that night, at least three or four times, worried that the excessive smoking I’d done with Dora might have corroded my new tooth implant, ambling, the next morning, from the extra-small studio apartment my daughters call The Other Home, across the laundry room that connects my building with their building, to the apartment where I used to live with my former wife and my two daughters, who were almost done packing for their annual summer trip to Czechia — my former wife and I have nothing in common besides our daughters and perhaps a proclivity for buffoonery, Antonio writes, so our relationship should have ended before we conceived Ada and it has, many times, including a divorce proceeding that led me to write to an acquaintance dear John, thank you for your invitation to join your book club but my life has been reduced to four-way settlement meetings in which a family attorney lectures me about the deleterious impact of pizza on my daughter so he can assign an additional $25 to my former wife’s spousal support, but stay tuned, even Moses Herzog recovered — my former wife has tried to date others and I have tried to date others but we both want to see Ada and Eva every day, Antonio writes, so we’re not dating anybody anymore — last week my former wife bought me a bookshelf so I wouldn’t have to lug my books between Home and The Other Home but didn’t tell me it was for me so she was upset I hadn’t remarked on it, Antonio writes — I bought you a beautiful bookshelf and you don’t say anything, Ida said — perhaps that’s the only way adult relationships can last, Antonio writes, by exhaustion, although I wouldn’t take relationship advice from me.


Or perhaps nature no longer exists for me because of my job, Antonio thinks, all these years at Prudential Investments running SQL queries and at the same time not at Prudential Investments running SQL queries, pretending I am not running SQL queries eight hours a day inside a cubicle in the financial district of Los Angeles, I am not here, no, I am at my Jesuit high school in Bogotá praying to our Madre Dolorosa and sprinting after a soccer ball across a barren field that will never see grass (for the last twelve years he has been writing about his Jesuit school years in Bogotá inside a cubicle in the early morning, before beginning his eight hours of SQL queries at 9:00 a.m., and because on the other side of his cubicle wall a product manager has been spending her early morning hours arguing about financial health features on conferences calls with technology managers in multiple time zones, he has had to train himself to write about his Jesuit school years in Bogotá with music set to the highest volume, the same Arvo Pärt / Olivier Messiaen playlist on repeat every day for the last twelve years, which has been transmitted to his ears through oversized circumaural Sennheiser headphones whose headband cracks in the middle after a year or two such that the file cabinet inside his cubicle has become a junkyard of cracked oversized circumaural Sennheiser headphones as well as of obsolete electronics like PalmPilots, Nokias, BlackBerries encrypted by Prudential Investments, all of them stashed inside their sturdy laminated boxes containing limited warranties printed in microscript by Robert Walser, and in that junkyard of a file cabinet you can also find a decade of Antonio’s 1040 tax returns, birth certificates for both of his daughters, a bail bond contract assuming obligation for his sister, who due to an accretion of misfortunes he’d rather not think about has been hearing conspirative voices incognizant of the spatiotemporal regulations in the USA, signed documents committing most of his database analyst income to his former wife according to rules set by a mean-spirited divorce attorney), such that, in the early morning, before beginning his eight hours of SQL queries, he has been simultaneously existing in Bogotá, in the alien musical landscapes of Arvo Pärt / Olivier Messiaen, and (not) inside a cubicle in the financial district of Los Angeles, and perhaps this accretion of pretending he isn’t where he is has disrupted too many of the pathways inside his brain accountable for his relationship to nature, window after window into nature shuttered by a decision-management hub inside his brain that he hasn’t imagined in terms of pathways or operational linkages or tentacles connecting and disconnecting themselves to artifacts from nature like palm trees or cordilleras or panoramas abloom with inspiriting vegetation but in vaguer terms than that, thinking instead of the garbological assemblages he’d seen years ago at an exhibit called The Alternative Guide to the Universe, which, because he barely remembers the details of that exhibit, he has to search online as he considers writing about his (non) relationship to nature inside his cubicle in the financial district of Los Angeles instead of thinking about his sister, yes, there it is, The Alternative Guide to the Universe at the Hayward Gallery in London (he’d actually purchased The Alternative Guide to the Universe catalogue that came with that exhibit, a catalogue that contains essays about fringe physics, symbolic devices, the symbiosis between magic and technology, and one about counternarrative by Antonio’s former fiction-writing teacher, who almost ten years ago at the New York State Summer Writers Institute had wondered why Antonio didn’t write in Spanish instead of in English, advising him against writing sentences that seemed to contain two or more sentences from two or more narratives at once — pues ya ve que no he cambiado en nada, profe—), and later that evening, after concluding his eight hours of SQL queries, he searches through his The Alternative Guide to the Universe catalogue and finds that the artist responsible for the vague garbological assemblages Antonio has been associating with the decision-management hub that has shuttered his windows into nature is called Richard Greaves, who apparently studied theology and hotel management and quit his job to dedicate himself to assembling his own asymmetrical visions of the world out of abandoned barns, coffeemakers, nicked shovels, computer keyboards, old razors, twine, rope — a nail stops the evolution, Richard Greaves says, but a rope is patient — parsing discarded objects in the forests of Quebec based on his nebulous linkages to them, Antonio writes — and as Antonio marvels at how what seemed like an incondite associative thread turned out to be quite pertinent to his reflections about his (non) relationship to nature, he imagines Richard Greaves spreading his cargo of trash on a kitchen table, trying to find linkages between gnarled tricycles, giant tacks, newsletters about toolboxes, recognizing that this image of Richard Greaves has its origins in Vertigo by W. G. Sebald (and here Antonio searches online inside Vertigo for the word table and finds the passage that according to him describes his own method of composition — I sat at a table near the open terrace door, W. G. Sebald writes, my papers and notes spread out around me, drawing connections between events that lay far apart but which seemed to me to be of the same order—), and yet unfortunately for Antonio the catalogue for The Alternative Guide to the Universe only contains five photographs of Richard Greaves’s houses or huts or installations or anarchitectural visions or whatever one wishes to call them — buildings on the verge of disintegration, Valérie Rousseau calls them in The Alternative Guide to the Universe catalogue — and so Antonio orders a book called Richard Greaves Anarchitecte, thinking that if he can spend a few hours contemplating more photographs of Richard Greaves’s installations he would be able to construct more compelling visions of the decision-management hub that has shuttered his windows into nature, meanwhile, as he waits for Richard Greaves Anarchitecte to arrive, he tries to imagine Richard Greaves’s garbological assemblages in terms of whatever comes to mind, no, he doesn’t have enough of an imagination to construct compelling visions out of Richard Greaves’s installations without the aid of additional photographs of his installations, in other words (1) his imagination seems to subsist on the hope that a vague juxtaposition of data signals from disparate sources might yield an associative thread of interest, (2) it is likely the decision-management hub that has shuttered his windows into nature is also responsible for shuttering his windows into visual art, such that the only piece from all the modern art museums he has visited in the last twelve years that has stayed with him is an erased movie at the MoMA in New York (and here Antonio searches online for MoMA + movie + erased + free jazz and doesn’t find what he’s looking for so he searches his old journals for the name of the piece, hoping this search will yield an associative thread of interest (his journal pages during his first trip to New York in October 2010 are empty so he browses through the video catalogue of the MoMA online and eventually finds it, The Death of Tom by Glenn Ligon — after footage of his reenactment of the last scene of a silent-film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was processed, the gallery label text says, Ligon discovered that the film was blurred and the imagery had disappeared and yet the artist recognized an affinity between this spectral footage and his own earlier work — no, Antonio thinks, nothing of interest for him here except the memory of him watching Ligon’s spectral footage in a dark room for an hour or two — perhaps memories in which we see ourselves from a dubious omniscient vantage are uncanny not because of their content, Antonio writes, but because of the vantage from which we see ourselves — there I am in the dark in New York watching an erased movie and that person who’s me cannot see the observer behind me who’s also me—)), and then Antonio wonders if perhaps it isn’t just his windows into nature or visual art that had been shuttered by the inordinate amount of time he has spent pretending he isn’t where he is but all his windows into the outside world, including the ones that look out into what is happening to his sister, in other words Antonio receives a call from the private investigator hired by Ron the Bail Bondsman in Baltimore to interrogate him about his sister’s whereabouts and Antonio tells him no one in our family knows where she is because my sister believes our family + the Pentagon + Obama are conspiring against her, and after the call with the private investigator ends the windows into what has been happening to his sister (losing her job as a Senior Actuarial Associate, losing her house, fleeing Baltimore before a judge would deem her mentally incapable to stand trial for allegedly threatening to shoot her neighbors) shut and he goes on living inside his Richard Greaves assemblage without his sister’s misfortunes, without calls from private investigators, without visual art, without nature, without descriptions of landscapes or nature anywhere in his recollections of his Jesuit school years in Bogotá, and although at first he’d thought he was against descriptions of nature in his fiction due to his affinity with the aesthetics of Doing Without, he has come to believe that all these years pretending he hasn’t been running SQL queries eight hours a day inside a cubicle in the financial district of Los Angeles not only have given birth to this decision-management hub that has erased nature for him but have also atrophied this decision-management hub such that it has begun to erase everything at random, yes, so much of his life in the last twelve years has consisted of erasures that have included nature, visual art, his sister, hundreds of passages about avant-garde music that he’d tried to commingle with passages about his Jesuit school days in Bogotá, and while he waits for Richard Greaves Anarchitecte to arrive he wonders if searching for all the other passages he has erased in the last twelve years might yield an associative thread of interest, and it occurs to Antonio that as the erasures have accumulated throughout the years his imagination has had to subsist on a pool of material that’s now a puny fraction of his original material, in other words perhaps all he has left is his Jesuit school in Bogotá and the music of Arvo Pärt / Olivier Messiaen he has been listening to while writing about his life at his Jesuit school in Bogotá, and yet if he were to write about nature for the Nature issue of Conjunctions perhaps he would be better off skipping any mention of decision-management hubs born out of pretending he isn’t where he is or any mention of windows or erasures and focus instead on what still remains for him of nature: there was once a barren soccer field at San Luis Gonzaga High School in Bogotá where I would play soccer every day with friends I haven’t seen since I moved to the United States twenty-one years ago, and my friend Rafael would kick the ball so out-of-bounds, toward the giant palm trees surrounding the soccer field, that we used to call him Monkey Shooter, and whenever we needed a quick rest we would sit on rocks like prehistoric eggs next to Don Jacinto’s cafeteria and prattle about the future of Colombia, that is all that comes to mind when I think about nature, Antonio would write in his essay about nature, I am not a nostalgic but that is all that nature means to me, thank you for asking (and then a week later the bail bondsman calls his work phone again and says the ten days are up and if his private investigators can’t find his sister Antonio and his mother will have to pay the $110,000 as per the bail bond contract they signed, and then Richard Greaves Anarchitecte arrives in the mail and Antonio contemplates photographs of his installations, hoping to find an associative thread of interest (no, Antonio thinks, nothing except Greaves’s spiderwebs of twine, perhaps Antonio prefers these assemblages to exist for him as they have existed for him before, as vague hubs of vague associations — I make the shape of the house with the twine, Richard Greaves says, then I build — such that if a wind came and swept it all only these skeletons of twine would remain)).

Copyright © 2020 by Mauro Javier Cárdenas