September 4, 2019KR OnlineNonfiction

An Effort Toward Wholeness

Re: Greetings

A family friend—my surrogate Grandfather—sends me an e-mail. Inbox (1). Who am I kidding? Inbox (48). The Gap is always having a sale; Ancestry.com is making new discoveries about my DNA; Password Assistance Required for Amazon, for eBay, for PayPal—how have I reached my late twenties and not devised a system? In this pile of SPAM and advertisements is one e-mail from a human being who calls me by the wrong name. I do not correct him. Carla Imelda Díaz, he writes. If you think that I forgot you, Carla Imelda, you are wrong. He is not, first and foremost, English-speaking, which explains why his diction is bard-like and unequivocal. An option to reply with, So good to hear from you—my chosen family—I’m doing well, also that is not my name, how are you? But he loves to call me by this new name, which is not mine, which is Imelda. There are worse names. The word itself is gilded—bestowed upon me like some kind of diadem. Inbox as coronation ceremony, as throne of velvet and unalloyed metal. She is me, but ancient and with a finer palette, sipping dessert wines and spooning into her mouth mariscos off the coast of Andalucía. After some Internet research, I learn that Imelda is the Spanish derivation of Irmhild, whose Germanic elements translate to “whole.”

A word that means “in an unbroken or undamaged state”

is a high bar for anything. Especially for persons and for essays. A lesson from Charles D’Ambosio picks me up off the floor, tucks my hair behind my ears, brings me into a room with a fireplace and tea: the problem with an essay can eventually become its subject.

The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort toward wholeness,

writes Madeleine L’Engle in her book Walking on Water. I agree, except, maybe, for the times when creation is an effort toward disappearance. Taking a moment to step outside the conference room of your life. Representation as new life; we distort pleasingly.

There is a bird outside my window that unfolds and folds its wings. It is nine o’clock in the morning. OK—it is eleven o’clock in the morning. My roommate is in the kitchen sauteing garlic and onions. A child shrieks on Bedford Avenue. We make a choice; we leave an impression; the impression is who we are. The page is both a window and scrim, and when I look outside the bird is gone.

True or false: the writer creates in order to forget the truth that nothing happens for a reason. A theory for testing, which I will turn over in my hand like a pebble until it no longer resembles or feels like a pebble. In creating something outside of herself, the artist disappears through it, within it. A second body, chosen body, one that holds her better than the one she was born into. Not the body that betrays her in new ways every day: a pool of blood gathering in her underwear the week she’s been dumped; a perennial, inexplicable exhaustion tearing throughout her bones like a rumor in the body; early-years joint aches in wintertime—an overture to someday arthritis. Not the bodies that betray her by disappearing, never to return. There is a voice that I am standing on the edge of. ¿Para quien son las flores, si no son para mi? The tune, I remember. I fall asleep without conviction. As a child, I learned that this, too, is a way to disappear.

When someone you haven’t seen in ten years / appears at the door / don’t start singing him all your new songs. / You will never catch up.

Four lines in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “The Art of Disappearing.” Never mind the disappeared. The departed chose to depart. The abandoned are resentful. The burden falls on them to sing.

In attempting to comfort me after my father’s death, my babysitter told me that before people are born, they plan out their whole lives ahead of time: where on the stairs they will spill their laundry coins, when in their thirties they will change their mind about capers, what type of pain they’ll be most acquainted with: shooting or aching, how hard they will fall (inevitably, inconveniently, despite all plans) in love. This includes the date and time that they will open their mouths to take in their very last breath, how they will pinch the cool, thick quilt between their fingers, gaze out the window at a world that—despite the slowing and cooling of their own body—undergoes construction. Cranes everywhere. Giant seesaws that make the skyline an industrial playground. At the age of six, I balked at this idea—that he could have, in some existential way, planned his own death. For him to know he was leaving and not tell us didn’t sound like him. My father told my mother when he was going to the refrigerator. During these early years, family functioned, in my mind, like a neverending playdate. All welcome in the king-sized bed. The four of us staying inside for an entire weekend, erecting forts on the carpet with kitchen chairs for scaffolding and pillows for doors. My parents’ marriage, devoted and sure-footed. When nothing happens for a reason, we make meaning in the aftermath.

I see the appeal of my babysitter’s worldview. It debunks the randomness of disappearance. Turns something we are all so afraid of, that extends beyond the pale of our imaginations, into an orderly and surmountable To-Do.

It doesn’t matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was,

Anne Sexton wrote in a journal entry. I study a photo of her taken in 1961. Her foot perches on a shelf just outside of the frame, her sleepy head leans against the palm of her smoking hand, a smile—not shy, but understated, like she is keeping a secret of yours. I study her eyes. Do you really believe that?

Things I remember: Cafe Bustelo. A faded green sweatshirt covered in bleach spots. Two leather fanny packs. Running water—a bath?—scalding. Tall, holey socks. The sap of a Christmas tree between my thumb and index. A Looney Tunes T, once whole, later rags, now gone. Hand-holding? Walking on his back. Wide-necked classical guitars. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Velazquez. The Yankees. Chess. . . .

Growing up, my brother, Matt, played chess competitively. Our father taught him how the pieces travel across the board—jumping, sliding, inching forward one square at a time. After joining his school’s chess club and putting in months of practice, Matt began to beat our father at his own game. They sat quietly at the kitchen table on either side of a cluttered kingdom, Matt keeping track of all their moves with a steno pad and a ballpoint pen, our father happy and losing.

. . . The wooden smell of castanets. The soothing, dampened flap of a book shutting. Bikes dangling from ceiling hooks, hovering over the kitchen table. Unsmudged summer windows. Peeling yellow brick. Chalky, wrought iron fire escapes. Ballet feet. Hot tears on the playground. One chipped, fuchsia helmet. Falling asleep to the radio. Lofted beds and wooden ladders. Finished cabinets. New Balance. The Jets’ oh-so-plain green jerseys. The whoosh of a window AC unit. Blood rushing to my head as I hung upside down by the ankles. Cold tiles under two feet. Is this even memory anymore? Perhaps I am reaching now for this story I write for you.

It matters who I remember he was. I’d like to add that it also matters who my abuela remembers he was. She is old now—older than most people will ever be—and she is forgetting things. This includes English and, occasionally, when light lances through the lace curtains at a certain angle, us. Despite not having seen my father in twenty years, she expects he is running late. Don’t start singing him all your new songs. Once, when my brother and I went to visit, she greeted us at the door and believed him to be Miguel. That was a risk we took. They look so similar, my aunts and I parroted in a hushed frenzy. Matthew, we said, se llama Matthew.

The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort toward wholeness.

Literature tells a joke but no one is laughing. Its macabre truth: language, no matter how skilled the speaker, is perennially inaccurate. Like wholeness, we stretch forward as it endlessly recedes. Is the exercise itself the chosen body? Straining, we learn languages, trace our family names. We spit in plastic tubes the size and shape of tampons and send them to specialists who will recount our ancestries. We make travel plans to places we hope will aid us in our efforts to achieve self-understanding. We leap without looking:

One Spring, I flew to Puerto Rico this way. While I was there, I resolved to speak only in Spanish, but when people heard my incomplete sentences they responded in English. El baño, por favor. When no one heard me, I decided to hold it.

Have you ever flailed, splashed inside your biggest question? Waved to your brother—He came! He came!—only to realize a moment later that is just a tall, dark-haired man. Have you caught yourself in the reflection of a shop window and flinched? Experimented with prayer and been met with the stunningly flat ahhh of the dishwasher? I passed people on the sidewalk, stared into their faces. I examined eyes, mouths, noses. I looked for my father and did not find him.

Puerto Rican? I would’ve guessed Jewish.

A former coworker of mine cannot hear himself. This is the only explanation I have. I hoped for a bathtub to fall through the ceiling and end our conversation. Wow, I’d say, plaster raining down on us. Did you see that? No tub came. You’ve got the nose for it, the man said. Who knows what I said next? (Does anyone ever know what they said next?) I spent a year crafting the perfect response. If I was prepared, I could have shocked him out of his prejudicial shorthand—delivered a swift, incisive comeback. Turns out we are never training for the challenge that comes. The next one came veering at me sideways—freight derailed, clamoring soundlessly from a blindspot. Nothing worse than a Puerto Rican who doesn’t know Spanish, said the Puerto Rican cook at the Brooklyn restaurant where I used to wait tables. I was not ready. Hey, I said. Smoke rose from the griddle. Hey. I know Spanish. Why didn’t I continue rolling silverware? He moved his hands skillfully over the silver tins of shredded cheese and pulled pork. He took a knife the size of my arm and cut the fat off a darkened piece of meat. No, he said. No, you don’t. I stood there for what felt like too long, power draining from me—the opportunity to reply came and went. I stood there until I felt my body again; sciatic pain shooting down my thighs, feet swampy in my nonslip shoes. Was he right? After all, I knew what he was talking about. Real Spanish—the kind I’d never learn because I was here. Already twenty-something and counting, on my way to refill a woman’s water glass.

But you’re a brown person,

said a friend of mine. Wouldn’t you agree? We were waiting in line for hot chicken. The buzz from half-price well drinks was wearing off and the air around us had parted in a way that imbued him with answers. His authority on the subject of Me came with an enviable ease. Like watching someone toss a soiled spoon into a sink without looking. I don’t know, I measured. Not really. We ordered our meals and sat down at an off-kilter table. Our cloudy Poland Spring bottle caps, two cataracts lodged between our fingers, tapping cheaply on the dark table between us. A metallic shuffle trailed from the kitchen. The jangle of a register. He asked me to elaborate. I don’t know, I repeated. I’m still trying to figure this out, but even that felt like giving up.

Remember that creepy man who lives across the hall?

My mother wants to know. In this memory, I put her in the kitchen cooking dinner: rice and beans and abuela’s sofrito. My mother is Irish-English-German and a better Latina than I am. Salsa plays from the stereo. She’s moving her hips back and forth as she stirs. I know the man she’s referring to—his elevator small talk is incongruous. Simultaneously invasive and chilly. Good news: he is moving out. And you know what’s weird? she says. He’s Puerto Rican. Can you believe it? I give an unaffected response because this doesn’t seem particularly believable or unbelievable. It’s not like I seem very Puerto Rican either, I challenge. She puts down the spoon and looks at me, her face contorted with frustration or pain. I have attacked a part of her that she believes we share. Of course you do, she says, since after my father, being Puerto Rican has always meant being easy to love.

A name is a million questions.

It’s a theory I am working with. What are the million questions a name contains?

Have you learned the proper way to cook lamb? When will you visit your grandfather’s grave? Where do you store your receipts? How does the sun play off your hair? At what age will you have to start taking blood pressure medicine? Who taught you how to ask for what you need? What parts of you are invisible, even to yourself? How big is the house of your ancestors? Have you ever been locked within? If so, did you press an ear against the wall and strain to hear the murmurs from the other side? How many parts are there to a whole? And if spectacle is an effort toward wholeness, how big would your marching band be?

The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort toward wholeness.

I think she is right, except for the times when it is about revenge. Look what I made, despite your leaving.

I don’t actually feel that way.

I want to clarify this immediately. Sometimes you have to write something down just to know how it feels in your hands.

I thought I was an artist, but then I realized I was just sad.

My friend said this to me one night after we had already spoken the things that were easiest to speak. It was a strange thing to say to another artist. So what did you do? I asked, pressing the phone to my ear. She said that she started taking prescription medication. There’s a lot more space in my head now. Like the clutter is gone. I thought that was an interesting idea. What do you do with the space? I asked. Nothing, she said. Normal things. I sleep.

The last time I saw him, I think, was in an airport. Small, silver T-shapes ascending slowly into the sky. People with hat-hair walking through metal detectors wearing garish, piebald socks they believed, until then, would be for their eyes only. My mother and brother and I were leaving town.

Hear me when I say that none of us knew. We were focused on finding our gate. Waving goodbye too quickly.

Carla Isabella

is a name with it’s own etymology—one I recently set out to learn. Carla has close historical ties to the name Charles, whose Germanic roots translate to “a man,” while Isabella is a variation on the name Elizabeth, meaning “devoted to God.” So it is settled. I am a man devoted to God.

To uncover the meaning of your name in 2018 (a time when celebrities have called their babies things like Ode Mountain, Heiress Harris, and River Rocket) seems outdated, superstitious even. Relevant only in the eras of muddling rose petals, bird feathers, and toenails. A time of hocus pocus—of palm-reading and spell-casting. What purchase does any of this have on life today? History happens so quickly—the Internet revises the events of yesterday, time is compressed like a fever dream, all meaning is relative, a name is sound, a skree then a splash!

We were waving goodbye too quickly.

In her book Our World, Mary Oliver says “attention is the beginning of devotion.” We are devoted to our jobs, our weight-loss regimens, silky-faced Instagram influencers, not what she said but how she said it! We are devoted to our memory, to living backwards and forwards. To problems of being underwhelmed. We sleepwalk, placing something on the altar we cannot see.

Every year that goes by, I de-capitalize another word in my dictionary. Career, career. Family, family. Love, love. Some things, I’ve learned, are best understated. But Attention—the slippery, invisible, uncooperative force deserves the A. How else does one look beyond oneself? Approach wholeness? Amidst loss and creation, it’s where we end and begin.

If you think that I forgot you, Carla Imelda, you are wrong.

I read his e-mail three times before responding. Maybe part of me did think he’d forgotten; will we ever trust that we are entirely unforgettable? Will we ever allow ourselves to eschew diversion and disguise? There is a small, interior room behind my eyes where I hide the worst of me. A little dictator who never rests. She is performing jumping jacks, even now.

I am glad to scan the e-mail, prove her wrong, rub a pie in her face. I sense his love through the blue light of my screen. Take that! This kind of love stems from an unmitigated attention, devotion, like a grandfather’s. Completely undeserved. For a vague, partial-person. Open the interior door. Take a long look, love asks.

It’s a new year. Winter falls hard and dark on the sky. Airplanes leaving New York brighten overhead, slicing the clouds in slow motion. Our stories are not unique: somewhere, someone is always leaving. Open the door to disappearance—the forever fracture. Call it someone else’s, call it your own, but the fact is we’ve never been able to shut this out. Lower your fists, keep the door open.

 

Notes
Etymologies can be found at behindthename.com and—I know, I know—babycenter.com.

Wisdom from Charles D’Ambrosio is culled from the acknowledgements section of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.

Madeleine L’Engle published Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art in 1972.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem The Art of Disappearing.

Anne Sexton kept a small journal, produced later as “The Poet’s Story.” This particular entry was from January 1, 1972.

Mary Oliver’s quote on attention appears in her book Our World, published in 2007.

Photo of Carla Diaz
Carla Diaz is a fiction writer from New York City. She received her MFA from Vanderbilt University, where she served as nonfiction editor for Nashville Review. Her work has been supported by scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.