11 July 1991

(excerpt from autobiography by other means)

By Roberto Tejada

Lorna’s instamatic camera has passed between hands often and long enough at least for someone among the gathered to snap a picture of her in mid-motion, to the right of Magali who remains as well unaware of the shutter, both faces transfixed by something beyond the frame. It occurs to me now to ask, wishfully, did I take the photograph? Magali’s face brightens behind clear plastic glasses, her deep red lipstick and shoulder-length hair, jet black, further enhanced by a close-fitting sweater, deep yellow, loose sleeves pulled to mid-arm, one hand firmly on hip. Bewildered, but ever undaunted in mood—as in the reportaje she’s published last month on sex work in Mexico City—Magali’s uncertain smile now lingers as a dare. Next to her in the picture, Lorna, unmistakable, is a radiation of silver hair and sapphire eyes, lips parted in midsentence, as though deliberating the merits of who among our clan had featured in the group exhibition at Benjamín’s gallery or maybe rather a riposte to some entanglement now occurring at this daytime viewing party she is hosting on the rooftop of her apartment building, a courtyard vecindad on Calle de San Luis Potosí in the Colonia Roma neighborhood. Her flawless Spanish is ever so slightly betrayed by a clip in cadence more than by accent, unidentifiable at any rate, between English and French, the languages of her life before Mexico. She resumes, possibly now with Gabriela or Luciano, also present, relating the recent plot turn in the ongoing comedy of communication breakdown between French executives, the local film crew, and Lorna’s work of cultural diplomacy on the conquest of Mexico epic in pre-production. It’s Thursday, we’ve assembled around noon with an abundance of cold Tecate, in league with Mexico City’s twenty million inhabitants similarly congregating around balconies and rooftops, or on the streets, to witness what TV and radio have christened The Great Eclipse of Mexico … millones y millones seremos testigos directos de cuando el día se hizo noche… many millions of us about to witness as day became night. The eclipse’s path: ten thousand kilometers of darkness 250 kilometers wide, enough to blanket the capital and its surroundings. 

Lorna again has the camera. 

With her encouragement and some stage direction, I prepare myself for the snapshot, remove my glasses, and as though to lampoon a public service announcement, I hide my face behind the cardboard mask, two holes punched in front, little touches of green and red ink flared at the left and right edges, a corner bearing the government seal of Mexico. My thumb and forefingers hold up the viewing card, an official thing that circulated in a state campaign to prevent any incident of blindness among the imagined throngs determined to stare down the diminishing sun, still an hour away, and we’re counting. My face is cast in shadow, hair high and tight, a tousled flat top groomed by the only reliable barber in Mexico: Emilio, whose skin is the color of caramel, doused as a rule in bergamot aftershave, upper lip bearing the trim of an impeccable pencil-thin moustache. Had he noticed but said nothing about the over-exuberance of my gold-orange floral shirt, ill fitted, and just feminine enough, at any rate short of what passes for masculine in Mexico, to confirm a tiny calculus of queerness in plain sight? 

 The rooftop azotea, coveted for socializing in Mexico City, is here a tumble: a clothesline sagging from one wall to another, behind me a partition of angled slats, the slack curve punctuated with cheap commercial clothespins—red, light blue— the plastic curled over time by the sun. Below this is a hammock slung from one corner of the lattice screen to the other. The smell of concrete fuses with a metallic tang from yesterday’s rainfall, a few puddles evaporating around the escape drains, and with the scent of laundry soap, released from the pink onetime bricks of Jabón Zote mostly now dissolved, misshapen, and strewn around the utility sinks in the chain link cages outside the cuarto de servicio. On the side of the card, I hold to my face are the instructions in ALL CAPS for the protective filter pressed between the encasing: ÚSELO 10 SEG. CUENTE DEL 1 AL 10. DESCANSE 50 SEG. CUENTE DEL 1 AL 50.  And below that: SI EL FILTRO TIENE RAYADURAS, DOBLECES OR RASPADURAS, NO SIRVE, DESTRÚYALO. I follow those directions as the model observer for the camera, count to ten, look away in a rested count to fifty, and confirm that the filter is free of scuffs and scratches. By now the effects of many Tecates have so fueled my expansiveness, my commitment to sociability and the will to further conceal my sense of crisis. 

But I’m still posing for Lorna and the camera. Now, click, an AM radio resounds from another rooftop, an upswing horn section swelling with the first bars of a pasodoble mambo, Daniela Romo’s “Todo, todo, todo.” Some among this rooftop crowd, with decidedly loftier aspirations, puff in gestures of disdain, but really few of us can resist the brawny voice of Daniela Romo as she swoons—“Papá”— above the counter-rhythms of this dance floor torch song. It’s about an abusive lover, ever aloof, the singer’s longing no less fierce despite the distress she designates—“…porque sabes que te adoro, me tratas mal / crees que estás en tu derecho pero te has equivocado…” In a fervid lull she summons the strength to refute desire and wish instead for retribution—“…crees que estás en tu derecho pero te has equivocado / y un día de tantos me decido y te pongo en tu lugar.” Romo sings of her weariness even now as the song structure builds to its chorus. Goodbye to the withholding lover, surrender to forgetting: it’s a heart that swells again with memory, it’s her lover’s eyes, verdes, flesh on fire, every smile in syncopated recollection, everything “…todo, todo, todo.” It’s tawdry and trite and engineered to perform straight, but clearly coded otherwise—a trashy anthem to unreciprocated desire and all the emotional amplitude that betrayal is able to contain. 

It suits me to cover my face in that staging for a photograph—but I’ve lost my bearing as to how the lines connect between the snap of Tecate pull-tabs, cigarettes interjecting in the air, a surge of chatter and laughter, pitched higher as the sky begins to darken and somebody roars the manic reminder to avoid directly staring at the sun. I’ve been hiding, not only behind the viewer, in line with the dimming midday countdown, and I further disassociate. I’m in the room now where I belabor, aching to fill the void with fractions of speech and living, before I sink again into prolonged silence, drawn to the watermarks on the walls and ceiling. How much more is there to say about the turbulence of separation and heartbreak?  How much more about the repertoire of figures—antagonist, mentor, guardian, lover, my once and future self—blurring one into the other and deposited in a person from all the experience I manage to extract into spoken scenes that would redirect my excess of attachment, my dispossession pursuant to a man who wasn’t there, a former lover’s anatomy the source of all the invalidation I am able to claim is my birthright. A thousand faces for my disembodied voice so straining within a part of me that would avert the walls from collapsing on this person I want to release from reluctance, fragile and unformed, compelled to endeavor, committed to reconcile the near and far in this place that, maybe then or only just still had now begun to feel like home, like a pattern exalted as belonging but plain and infectious as a pop song on the radio.

It’s 1:24 on Lorna’s rooftop, and I’ve been drinking. So when the disruption begins between the uncanny twilight and the anxious clamor from the neighboring crowds—peals coalescing anxiety and joy, repeated intakes of breath and sudden applause—I’m focused instead on the voice of news anchor Jacobo Zabludovsky in real time coverage, as though issued in time-lag reverberation from a hundred Colonia Roma TV sets. He’s broadcasting the distance the eclipse will have traveled from Hawaii to Brazil, by way of La Paz, Guanajuato, Valley of Mexico, and Federal District. He’s preparing us for the eclipse’s diamond ring effect, the satellite footage, the next seven minutes of darkness, the drop in temperature, the sense of expectancy. 

In the growing dark I must be stumbling, so I go inward, to a dream I’ve already recounted to the analyst this week. I’m on an arid landscape, altogether flat and barren but for the scattered brush that disintegrates on the horizon before my eyes can settle. I head in the direction of a spot in the far distance when I realize that my body now defies the laws of gravity, and I diminish the closer I get to the vanishing point that, in turn, continues to recede. I observe in horror as the landscape begins to implode, a surge of water rapidly draining through the point ordained for me in space—my navel to be exact, insomuch as I’m abruptly inside out, a liquid glove, even as I am able to breathe now that I am fully underwater. I puzzle the word scar (my navel), repeat it over and over again until it so transfigures as to sound like scale

And this other: I hunt among the city newsstands for the morning edition—for something of mine in print—but I wander instead into the vast hull of an abandoned factory. I walk up several flights of stairs at the other end of the building to find there a swimming pool and two teams engaged in competition. I recognize a rival of mine who calls me over to explain the benefits of an unspecified sport: its impact on the cranium; diagrams, explanations. Elsewhere in the factory my opponent hides his secret sharer and I’m given to understand I must make this double speak. I insert my right forefinger behind his neck so that my index now functions as a surrogate tongue, promoting all manner of wild assertions from the cavity of his mouth. 

*

The abrupt dawn gives way to an even louder din surrounding us now along with the regenerate daylight…. “the scent of copal, the sound of rattles, ceremonial dances performed in total darkness around the city zócalo.” Again the voice of Zabludovsky. “And contrary to popular belief,” he surmises,” no hospital has reported complications during childbirth, or any infant born with cleft lip and palate…” The incongruous crack of this television coda kills the romance with my own disquiet, and elicits howls from some of the revelers, “¡No mames, güey! Between my reveries and waking life, a swell of fellow feeling allows me to so acknowledge my own little ceremony of initiation as to dismiss my mood of uncertainty, sorrow, and starting over. I’ll yet perform a sorcery that connects the images of Lorna and Magali—now welcoming several latecomers into the fold of our scrappy assembly—to a reverence for that which the eclipse serves as my double. I’ll make it speak. I’ll make the lapse of seven minutes stand for all the eventualities as yet undetermined by time; for all the hedging still to come but never quite yet becoming in this performance of vitality and vocation to estrange. I’ll need everything—todo, todo—at once prodigious and pedestrian to ground a form of life for finding my kin, situations of exchange, loves worthy of heartbreak, dreamwork to further puzzle meanings that merit the wager.

WORKPOINTS

*

Hart Crane on stars of memory; i.e., that they overwhelm us in the present.

*

Milenio, issue 3, May-June 1991, edited by Fernando Fernández, cover photograph by Eniac Martínez; cover theme, “Noches de la ciudad/ City Nights,” articles by Magali Tercero (“Una noche de putas”), with photographer Francisco Mata, Guillermo Osorno, Gonzalo Celorio, and Amílcar Salazar.

*

Opponents and partners; cabarets, clubs, cantinas; Secretaría de Gobernación.

*

Situations into scenes; scenes into provisional circumstance.

*

Zabludovsky: “At the Chapultepec Zoo, animals startled by the sudden nighttime skies, reported to have fled, disconcerted, to their shelters….”

*

Éxitos de 1991 (julio): 1) Burbujas de amor, Juan Luis Guerra; 2) Déjame llorar, Ricardo Montaner; 3) Vuela, vuela, Magneto; 4) Demasiado tarde, Ana Gabriel; 5) Si te vuelves a enamorar, Bronco; 6) Bella señora, Emmanuel; 7) Bachata rosa, Juan Luis Guerra;  8) Tiempo de vals, Chayanne; 9) Todo, todo, todo, Daniela Romo; 10) Hasta que te conocí [en vivo], Juan Gabriel; 11) Amante del amor, Luis Miguel..... 

*

Flourish—ironize—promise

 

Roberto Tejada is the author of Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness (Noemi, 2019), a cultural poetics of the Americas, the poetry collections Full Foreground, Exposition Park, and Mirrors for Gold, and books on media and art, including National Camera: Photography and Mexico’s Image Environment. The selection published here is from a forthcoming title in the Fellow Travelers series.