An Open Letter to Trump Supporters 

No more private domain for me. Scripts took over my life for a while, and I couldn’t be happier. So I’m transferring all my old posts back on here, starting with this one. And may I say, how apropos, on Election Day. (Even though it’s woefully dated, since I’m missing month’s worth of Trump’s antics and mention the lost dream of Bernie). 


Way more Trump supporters in my extended social circle than I’m comfortable with (about two, but still, too many), so I put this together as a response.

I invite you to fact-check me. Indeed, I hope you do.

On Trump’s most widely-cited praise: His business prowess

Experts agree that he would incur significant conflicts of interest with the 500 businesses he owns—more so than any other elected official before him (including the Bush’s, Romney, and Bloomberg). In order to avoid legal/ethical issues, he’d have to either sell his assets or place them in a double-blind trust—neither of which he had indicated he would do.

On his supposed business expertise, it’s like stock market speculation; the quantifiable value is highly contingent on what people say it is. It’s a ruse. While other much richer billionaires prefer to stay out of the spotlight, fame is Donald’s bread and butter. It is his narcissistic modus operandi. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: wealth feeds my fame and fame feeds my wealth. He is a master of branding, but branding is not the same as leading.

As most people know, he did not “start from the bottom” as he likes to claim. He inherited a cool 200 million (at least) from his daddy’s estate and another million from the first real estate deal his father helped him close. This is not to discredit his later success, but it is to refute many of the self-made claims in his ghost-written “how to get rich quick” books. It’s also important to note that he has filed for business bankruptcy, and taken advantage of loopholes and exceptions throughout his career. As they say, “if you owe the bank $1,000, you have a problem. If you owe the bank 1 million, the bank has a problem.” In other words, Trump’s creditors allowed him to continue doing business while heavily in debt because the alternative was worse. Similarly, he has taken on sizable loans to finance his campaign. And received about 7 million so far in individual contributions from the very people he insults: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Glad to know you think so highly of your supporters, Donald.

What works in the world of corporate greed and even the campaign trail does not necessarily translate well to matters of legislative process, foreign policy, diplomacy, etc. It’s like Frank tells Conway in one episode of House of Cards, “99% of the work a President does is in the dark, making decisions that people will never see or appreciate. What are you going to do when the cameras are off? You’re a pretender, and if you’re elected, you’ll become a fraud.”

On Trump’s Identity Politics

Many are quick to lodge the claim that Obama was elected in large part because he is Black. Sure, many people are swayed by identity politics. Others are won over by a single issue or wedge issues. Though I must say that Obama had a lot more going for him than just being Black. Under his administration, the unemployment rate dropped from 10.8% to 4.9% (January 2016)—below the historical median. And this you’d like—corporate profits are up by 166% and real weekly wages are up by 3.4%. And yet you have people still saying he’s “the worst thing that happened to this country.” SMH. Drinking that haterade.

But while we’re on it, let’s talk about the identity politics of Trump. He is a child that’s about to be given a handgun. He gloats over someone in one of his rallies calling Cruz a “pussy,” even repeating it so the whole crowd hears. He has an egregious talent for inciting the little seed of hatred that many Americans already harbor within, using “us versus them” logic that is eerily reminiscent of Hitler. No, I’m not exaggerating. Thought nugget: What’s worse—that he might really be racist or that he pretends to be in order to garner more of that kind of support?

A Little Trip Down Memory Lane: The Crap that Spews

How about this abbreviated list of bigotry, Trump-style:

Acts like a pubescent boy when speaking of women; including accusing debate moderator Megan Kelly of being on her period when she confronted him on issues during a debate. He then refused to participate in the next debate if she was going to moderate. If anything, I’d say he’s on his period.

Said Mexico is sending rapists and other criminals across the border, when the truth is far from that. He called for rounding up and deporting 11 million illegal immigrants. The majority of immigrants that come to this country do so in good faith and are law-abiding and hard-working (in fact doing jobs that Americans wouldn’t deign to do).

When asked about his little bromance with Vladimir Putin and how this is a man who has killed journalists, protestors, and invades countries, Trump said, “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” And then further clarified that while he doesn’t condone the killing of journalists, he does “hate them.”

Let stand a charge made in his presence that Obama is a Muslim and that Muslims are a “problem” in America (something that happened to McCain and which he quickly and respectfully, like the civilized person he is, denied)

Embraced the notion of forcing Muslims to register in a database

Falsely claimed thousands of Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey

Tweeted false stats declaring that most killings of whites are done by blacks

When asked about two of his supporters attacking a homeless man because “Trump is right, all these illegals need to be deported,” he brushed it off and said his supporters are “passionate.”

Approved the beating of a black demonstrator at one of his events

Publicly ridiculed the movements of NYTimes journalist Serge Kovaleski, who has a chronic disability that limits his motion.

On the Small Issues of Truth and Qualifications

Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize winning, independent fact-checking source, rates 77% of his statements as basically false. Plus, let’s not mince words: he’s fucking stupid. A few choice quotes: “We’re gonna build a wall and we’re gonna make Mexico pay for it.” Oh, really. That’s cute. “I know words. I have the best words.” Good for you, little buddy.

Moreover, the man has zero shame. And this is not an admirable quality. Shame is a learned behavior that keeps us civilized—understanding you’ve said or done something wrong and acknowledging it. It’s called having a conscience. It’s true that he’s anti-establishment, but placing that in context also detracts: he does not have to answer to any party affiliation that checks and controls his actions. Checks and balances are part of what makes this country great; it forecloses the possibility of a dictator, and you have to really prove your case and work hard if you want something to go through congress.

The only thing, and I mean the ONLY thing, he has going for him is that he has not taken corporate donors or has super-PACs. But guess what? Neither has Bernie. Anyway, all the aforementioned flaws clearly trump this one good thing. Pun intended.

And I couldn’t care less if whole legions of voters are supporting him. It doesn’t magically turn him into a viable candidate or even a viable human being in my eyes. He’s filth covered in dollar bills. The American electorate in one phrase: If you put a frog into a pot of water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog will boil. I refuse to be that frog.

And I’m spent.

**Drops mic**

Thoughts on Freddie Gray and Baltimore

Check out my friend Joaquin’s thoughts on the string of protests related to police brutality, and looking at the bigger picture.

Joaquin A. Pedroso

The HBO series “The Wire” comes to mind as I see images of Baltimore’s youth unleashing a violent rage that mostly reflects pent up frustrations and anger aimed (mainly) at law enforcement. For those who haven’t seen the show, its focus is power and how it’s exercised in the service of both law enforcement and the criminal element of Baltimore’s underclass while painting a morally ambiguous picture of both. Besides the obvious parallel of setting the show chronicles generational cycles of violence and poverty, the consistent abuses of law enforcement, as well as the diffuse nature of power channeled “officially” and “unofficially” that shed light on the explosive events of late.

The barbaric violence exercised by those entrusted to “protect and serve” this past year, from New York City to Ferguson to Baltimore, has ignited a spontaneous and sometimes violent revolt against police brutality and impunity. Every abuse of power…

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The Many Faces of Truth

n cat on a hot tin roof tennessee williams PDVD_006

When Tennessee Williams wrote (and re-wrote…and re-wrote) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for each theatrical production, he reported going through three stages of interaction with the various stakeholders in theater, all having to do with the relativity of truth. As artists, each director, actor, and even producer wants to leave their creative carbon footprint on the stage. Williams couldn’t begrudge them that, but he did, for some time, agonize over the constant bickering about manuscript purity and its manifestation on stage.

Like Arthur Miller, Williams’s presence is keenly felt in the stage directions, to my personal delight. Mid-way through the action, he feels the need to share the following:

“The bird I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problem. I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent–fiercely charged!–interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself[!]”

With such conviction, it’s easy to see why he’d say there are times when the only living soul that really understands how to take a manuscript into performance is the author himself. I wonder what Barthes would have said to that? What about the mystery of the character to his or her creator?

In any case, truth is what we want to believe.

This calls to mind a great quotable moment from the Spanish indie film Tambien la Lluvia, where the brave Catholic priest Antonio de Montesinos ascended the pulpit and spoke his version of the truth. It happened to be a version that fought for the defeated, denounced the Spanish colonizers, and imperiled the speaker’s life. He said,

“La verdad tiene muchos a su contra; la mentira muchos a su favor.”

In other (English) words, “The Truth has many enemies; the Lie has many friends.”

Perhaps that’s a good litmus test for uncovering the capital “T” Truth? One simple question:

Whom does it serve?

If the answer is you or the hands that feed you, force yourself to take a step back.

Let’s get back to Cat, where a running theme was mendacity–the inescapable condition of civilization, it seems. Only two ways to evade it: drinking or death. Brick chose the first, at least until it led to the second. He was like Cordelia from King Lear, refusing to peddle for inheritance, refusing to add to the mendacity of the world. And with that knowing smirk, he was also like The Comedian from Watchmen, the only one in on the joke.

Big Daddy understood this delicate relation to the world via mortality. Act Two, while sandwiched in the middle, dominates the play like uncured, applewood smoked bacon. Here, Big Daddy tells Brick: “Ignorance of mortality–is a comfort. A man don’t have that comfort, he’s the only living thing that conceives of death, that knows what it is. The others go without knowing…and yet a pig squeals, but a man sometimes, he can keep a tight mouth about it.”

It’s of course fitting that he understands it as such, since he is on death’s door, yet lied to about it. We are all just “Lyin’, dyin’ liars.”

Whom does it serve? Everyone. And no one.

Barthes, “Money” Mayweather, and the Spectacle of Performance

Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao boxing press conference, Los Angeles, America - 11 Mar 2015

“We are all working from the same dog-eared script” (Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl). I’m certain Roland Barthes, forty-some years ago, would have said the same. And although Floyd “Money” Mayweather may not express this in quite the same terms, he certainly performs it.

The historic (though anti-climactic) fight between Mayweather and Pacquiao this last Saturday reached proportions of a lesser National holiday.

In his essay The World of Wrestling, Barthes differentiates boxing from wrestling, saying that while the former is a proper sport, something one can bet upon the outcome, wrestling is pure spectacle, not far removed from the Greek tragedies of Old. I’d argue, however, that boxing (along with other spectator sports) has long since merged with performance theory. In wrestling, Barthes continues, “as soon as the adversaries are in the ring, the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles” (17). This is of course perfectly punctuated by the boxers’ entrances and attire–the choice of music, the trunks, the characters in their retinue. While Pacquiao had on a simple T-shirt with his Christian rhetoric (“Jesus is the name of the Lord,” I think it was?), Mayweather had on gaudy gold and silver gem-studded robe and trunks. Manny took a selfie with his life-long trainer and emerged all smiles. Floyd came out frowning–and sparkling (fitting, given his moniker)–flanked by such celebrities as Justin Bieber. I still don’t get how Bieber lends any kind of cred to Mayweather’s persona, but there it is. This is just a culmination of countless documentaries that detail Manny’s humility and Floyd’s grandiloquence (to borrow from Barthes). Their identities have been commodified–Manny as the under-dog most people root for, Floyd as the one you’d actually put your money on, no pun intended.

This is how the “mythological fight between Good and Evil”(23) occurs–the quintessential battle between the Good of modesty and the Evil of greed and excess (though we as a nation fall prey to it as much as people like Mayweather perpetuate it). So it is that the villain becomes the victor in spectacle, for they can “irritate or disgust, [but] he can never disappoint” (24). They are the ones we love to hate. One thing we cannot deny him: he certainly is a shrewd business man–builds up hype, sustains the image, draws out the awaited night.

This is a big, sordid “what if,” but indulge me: What if Mayweather only plays the asshole card? What if his egregiously misogynist and puffed-up persona is just a caricature–one that sells tickets rather well?

This performance is inclusive of Pacquiao. The walking embodiment of modesty, the Filipino Rocky, a boy from the streets who rose to stardom, who can take hit after hit and is honored to do so. Add to this a Christian fanaticism that places him as the protagonist of some Messianic narrative within the boxing genre.

If news networks have turned from real journalism to sensationalism for the sake of ratings, is it so hard to believe that two boxers would do the same–that is, go from sport to theatrics? It is Greek tragedy disguised as boorish sparring, framed in its own micro-economy of million-dollar bets. At the center of the drama is the “good guy” versus the “bad guy,” a duality that has stood, and continues to stand the test of time.

White Cuban-American Privilege and Why It Needs to End

Image credit: Eleanor Taylor
Image credit: Eleanor Taylor

And yes, this coming from a White Cuban-American. A friend at work shared a NY Times op-ed article by Ann Louise Bardach entitled “Why Are Cubans So Special?”, knowing that I’d remain objective despite the title’s thinly veiled sarcasm.

Many of the younger Cuban-Americans join me in disavowing a strict adherence to Right-wing politics, (a position that is misguidedly held simply because of its supposed diametric opposition to Communism). It’s difficult, however, to reconcile with the older generations, to which many of our parents belong. For these Cuban expatriates, agreeing that Elian should have gone back to his father, saying that JFK was not the Socialist spawn of Satan, against the embargo, or that the Cuban Adjustment Act (which gives special status to Cuban refugees) should be revised, is nothing short of cultural sacrilege.

This is not to deny that the situation in Cuba is pretty dire. Bardach tells us, “Cuban authorities have demanded an end to the Cuban Adjustment Act, claiming the policy causes a brain drain. (Of course, they never acknowledge why more than a million Cubans have risked their lives to escape.)” Her parenthetical aside is hinting at the undeniable wretchedness of being a Cuban citizen.

According to the Human Rights Watch 2013 report, “Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent.” Th enforcement of forced political homogeneity takes on many forms: (1) political prisoners (the very idea!), most of which are non-violent, who are detained indefinitely and without due process, (2) Arbitrary detentions for “questionable” activities, (3) Freedom of expression (or lack thereof), particularly when it comes to the rare and often dangerous gem of indie media outlets, (4) human rights activists are simply not allowed–indeed, beaten and detained. Enough said. (5) Travel restrictions, especially dissidents, like the well-known blogger Yoani Sanchez, (6) Prisons that are “overcrowded, unhygienic, and unhealthy, leading to extensive malnutrition and illness” (HRW.org). If prisoners have the brass to criticize the government, they are subjected to increased beatings, solitary confinement, denial of medical care, restriction of family visitation, and whatever else the guards can get creative with.

And then there are the less dour, yet still troubling issues, like scarcity and rationing. As a personal anecdote, my mother’s ration of baby food included nothing but carrot puree for an entire month. As you can imagine, my skin was a bright orange at the end of that month. The jury’s still out on whether this caused other physiological traumas.

Alright so I jest! True story though.

On a more serious note however, the HRW highlights the absolute counter productivity of the embargo: “the United States’ economic embargo on Cuba, in place for more than half a century, continues to impose indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people, and has done nothing to improve human rights in Cuba. At the United Nations General Assembly in November, 188 of the 192 member countries voted for a resolution condemning the US embargo.”

So how does this all tie back into “white privilege”? It’s congressmen like Marco Rubio who, despite heritage and “diversity” platforms, represent the antithesis of most Latino experiences. He is the type that will dismiss professions like, say, public school teachers, as a waste of a good education. This again comes from firsthand witnessing. You could practically see the smirk, the well-manicured hand swatting away the thought like a pestilence. I suppose it’s also easy to support the privatization of education when you have the same PACs supporting your campaign and when you have the financial wherewithal to send your prized progeny anywhere you’d like. Ransom Everglades, anyone? This is why Bardach cites anti-Rubio slogans like “No somos Rubios;” a crafty pun meaning that the voters are not blond, but more importantly, that they do not share his privilege and values.

So, while recognizing the veritable crimes against the Cuban population, we must also acknowledge those perpetrated against a host of other countries (most notably for us in Miami, Haitians and Venezuelans). Bardach asks, “Are Cubans seeking a better way of life really more deserving than, say, refugees fleeing death squads or drug cartels?” Valid question. It seems that the more egalitarian approach would be to ease immigration restrictions for all. Oh, but I’ve forgotten. It seems Emma Lazarus’s sonnet in 1883 has sadly become empty words inscribed on our Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Lana del Rey: A Beautiful Lie

lana in concert

A student was recently surprised to hear of my taste for Lana del Rey, given the stark feminism I spew out on a regular basis. The contradiction is not easily explained away, other than the acknowledgment that sometimes we live within contradiction. At a certain level, you might recognize female objectification in lyrics, and on another level, you might still shake your rump to it. Why? Maybe because to completely annex yourself from mainstream pop culture is a lonely gesture. Or maybe you don’t want to become that friend–the pedantic one no one wants to go to a movie with because they’ll deconstruct every plot line and character (I have to seriously restrain myself with Nicholas Sparks movies, or any blockbuster action film that’s not Batman).

But let’s get back to my girl Lana. I’d like to believe that there’s intentionality behind her self-portrayal. She willingly fashions herself into a caricature: the glamorously drug-addled, domestic violence glorifying, deadbeat former beauty queen. Her music is described by Ian Daly from Maxim (December 2015 Issue) as “moody and lush songs about the intersection of sex and violence and money,” (61) securing her position as the “anti-pop pop star” (61). He goes on to describe her trademark style as very much in line with such a label: “The videos with which she made her name traffic in the faded imagery of American nostalgia and decline. She combines a classic, sultry beauty with a heavy dose of all-American alienation–the head cheerleader gone desperately wrong.” What make her songs so magnetic is not just their ability to envelop you in a mood, but also a character study. Daly likens her songs to dioramas: “tiny, insular worlds where the atmosphere is more important than the facts. Much like her life.”
As though in corroboration with such a claim, Lana says, “there’s a lot to be said for pretending, you know?” (61).Yes, I do know. As the French novelist Andre Gide said, “Believe those who are seeking the truth.. Doubt those who find it.” A “truth” is always relative, sometimes irrelevant, and oftentimes boring.

lana middle finger

Just a little flash fiction

Last night I had a dream of that second-wave feminist epitaph, the “zipless fuck.” Well, almost zipless, and almost a fuck.

He was some long-standing friend of the family. We were both in our first semester of college. I was being an Internet vagabond while he actually studied. Unabashedly, I wasted time, got caught in YouTube’s embarrassingly intuitive web of related content, and ate more shit than I care to admit.

All the while he continued to study. It appeared to be math of some sort, though I couldn’t have guessed—much less solved—if my life depended on it. We had the house to ourselves for the day since our parents were on some fabricated getaway—a fishing trip, they called it. We were generally sullen and had acquired that slow-building averseness to our parents that peaks until the moment you move out, so we flatly refused to partake of sun, salt, and conscientious parents refusing to let us drink (even though they knew we did since we were sixteen).

The last rays of the sun made their way through the west windows and I realized that Mark was still at it. Barring a couple trips to the fridge and the bathroom, he had remained statuesque.

For the first time since our childhood Freudian encounter (“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”) I really looked at him. I imagined he had grown substantially since that day, but I pushed the thought out of my head, embarrassed by my waywardness. I blamed it on those YouTube videos.

He didn’t notice me looking, so engrossed was he in his figures, calculations, and scrawling pencil. My mother had mentioned something the other day about his intent to major in Biomedical Engineering, which I enjoined with an indifferent, “Hm.” This prompted her to embark on a rant about me being an indecisive, liberal waif. “Self-discovery only takes you so far. You have to be marketable,” she would say. Charming woman. Perhaps if I sold myself as a modern-day indentured servant she would finally have something to brag about at her dinner parties. Fuck society, I muttered inwardly.

I continued to study him—the arc, or rather, length of his nose. It had, if you’ll allow, a rather “masculine” gravitas to it; aquiline and imposing. Not a single blackhead, and the color coordinated seamlessly with the rest of his face. He kept biting on his bottom lip every time an equation stumped him. The act made his bottom lip bright pink and chaffed in its plump center. I imagined biting down on it even harder.

Was I ovulating?

Something tipped him off—probably the turn of my thoughts—and he met my gaze. He questioned my stare with a furrow of his brows. I took it as an opportunity.

“What has you glued to that chair since morning?” My voice seemed hoarse and foreign to me. I wasn’t the least bit interested in his response. It was a ploy, though I had no idea where I’d take this.

“Calculus I.” There was a glimmer of interest in his reply, and maybe this was imagined, but in the curve of his smile too. The mischievous audacity of that mouth might have put Da Vinci’s portraits to shame. I wanted to dash all decorum and tell him how good his overgrown dusty brown hair looked draped across his forehead, how I wanted to pull it as I…

But all I managed was: “I’m proud of you.”

Lame. Lame. Lame. I receded back into my chair, cursing myself.

“Thanks. I heard you’re doing really well in all your classes, too.”

“Oh. Yeah, sure. My mom thinks it’s all a waste until I pick a major.”

“She’s wrong.”

The conviction of his reply made me look at him. His mouth again formed that enigmatic curve and he rubbed his shoulder awkwardly. Before giving it much thought, I stood and went over to where he sat at the head of the table. I put my hands on his shoulders and began to impress my thumbs in circles. His muscles visibly relaxed.

“Wow. Thanks.”

After a minute my thumbs slid up toward his hairline and he tensed. Mortified that he had caught on, I removed my hands. But just as they dropped, his hand grabbed one of mine. I became acutely aware of the electricity humming along the wires from the appliances in the kitchen. And perhaps beyond. He pulled me so that I faced him. I looked down at him and my bravado evaporated. He swallowed an invisible lump in his throat. We stared at each other long enough to convey a combined sense of dread and anticipation. Moments like these turned into prolonged temporal spaces, devoid of objective reality. You never really knew if it would end in an embarrassed shuffling off, or what you wanted so badly it hurt. And so it stretched before us, laying bare all the possibilities. I decided to take it, slamming into his lap and closing my mouth over his. And since dreams feed off irony, that’s when I woke up.

Making Tuition

a-massive-new-club-wants-to-throw-all-night-dance-parties-in-williamsburg

Another short story, slightly longer than the previous one. Also part of the screenplay/novel. Enjoy…

I’m sitting in one of the classes inside the English department building on the south campus of NYU. It’s late morning, but that doesn’t prevent many stifled yawns. Most are slumped and generally unkempt, including me, but attentive in that pseudo-intellectual, undergraduate way. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage tuition this semester, much less stomach the antics of frat boys and sorority princesses. The smell of draft beer still stems from the pores of the guy sitting next to me.

British poetry, and we’re in the latter end of the semester. The professor wants to create a graduate aura, so we are sitting on desks arranged in semi-circle. “We are all scholars and equals,” and that sort of nonsense. Each has a stack of books piled on our desk, the “Used” stickers, in various colors, sizes, and conditions, boldly face their consumers as a symbol of subculture. Our graying, still hot professor is propped on top of his desk, facing the class. He strokes his chin in thought like a parody of his profession. Looking at each of us in turn, he drums his fingers against the open page of Keats: Collected Poems and Letters.

“Why do you think Keats wrote women as agents of destruction?”

The class avoids making eye contact with him. Many delve back into the text in search of a witty response.

Professor Abel prompts further.

“Take into consideration the last assigned poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci, for instance. Look at the way she seduced the knight, then rendered him a ghost.”

Blake, the quintessential quiet kid in the corner, musters up the courage.

“Well, I’m not sure, but—“

“Don’t qualify your answer, Blake, just give it.” Abel is anything but coddling.

Blake exhales nervously, visibly regretting his self-imposed martyrdom.

“I think Fanny Brawne made him that way.”

The class reacts with ill-concealed dissent. The girl across from me visibly rolls her eyes and scoffs. But Abel seems interested.

“I see. So you think Fanny Brawne was to blame for Keats’s misogynistic tendencies?”

Blake scrambles to re-direct his inadequacy.

“Not directly, no. And certainly not intentionally. I just think that—maybe—Keats couldn’t handle his feelings for her. You know, sleeping in the next room and not being able to touch her. It must’ve been unbelievably frustrating.”

Some students lean back to consider this.

At the penultimate word his gaze shifts momentarily to Cam, sitting next to him, and then back to his laptop screen.

Cam was short for Cameron. She was the prototypical college boy’s wet dream. Thick strawberry blond hair that cascaded in artful waves against her chest. Actually enjoyed Monday night football and quipped with the best of them who the next draft pick should be. Snorted white lines like a genuine cocaine cowgirl. In short, a girl that practically patented the effortless cool.

Cam bites her lip as she looks at Blake. He sees her and swallows hard. Then she looks at Abel with a smirk plastered to her face.

“Personally, I think he was tripping off all that laudanum.”

Class laughs on cue.

Abel betrays a smile while shaking his head.

“Alright, alright. Ever since Mark and Courtney gave that presentation on Keats’s unfortunate affair with opiate derivatives, the general consensus has been that he wrote everything on a bad trip.”

Several in the class guffaw.

Mark quips, “You got that right,” then directs his response to Abel.

“Well, doc, it does explain a lot. C’mon. Ode on Indolence? It’s like reading a junkie’s journal. If they were awake long enough to write, that is.”

Again the class erupts into gratuitous laughter. What a mindless herd, I think. Meanwhile I am writing feverishly in my notebook, transcribing some lines from the ode by memory, whispering as I write: “how is it shadows, that I knew ye not? How came ye muffled in so hush a masque?…benumb’d my eyes; my pulse grew less and less…” It’s always been a strange habit with me—whispering to myself. I’m startled out of my audible transcriptions when Abel calls on me.

“And you, Margot? What are your thoughts?”

He raises an eyebrow, expressly looking in the direction of my notebook. I stifle a gasp and try to wet the inside of my mouth but my tongue is suddenly parched. Stupidly, I look to both directions for an escape route, or maybe as a silent plea for someone to jump to my rescue. No such luck. I purse my lips and look down at my writing, which doesn’t help at all.

“I—uh, think whatever Keats had inside of him was more powerful than any drug.”

Bullshit, but the class sobers. Though some roll their eyes. Just then, Abel gets a phone call. He looks briefly at his phone, fully intending to ignore it, but a wave of fearful recognition passes over his features and he pales.

“Sorry everyone. I’ve, uh, really got to take this.”

He goes outside to take the call. The door latch is broken and allows to overhear his conversation, but no one is interested. Something compels me to listen in, but the whispering between Mark and Cam forecloses any possibility of eavesdropping on Abel.

“So, you going tonight?” says Mark.

“Depends.”

Mark presses.

“On?”

Cam whispers something muffled in Mark’s ear. As soon as she is finished, Mark abruptly leans away from her, voice rising.

“Oh, no. Not that. You said we wouldn’t have to anymore.”

Some ears, including mine, perk up like Meer cats.

“Keep your goddamn voice down!” Cam hisses.

Mark looks at her in consternation. Cam looks to her sides, but everyone is back in discussion about the odes and acid trips. Everyone except me, who is ostensibly trying to bore a hole in the middle of my desk. She returns to meet Mark’s gaze and furrows her eyebrows. She takes the notebook off his desk and I’m able to glean her large, slanted, hurried letters: “It won’t be someone you know this time.” She passes it to Mark. Mark reads and studies her. She rolls her eyes, takes back the notebook, and adds: “Promise.” Mark chews at his bottom lip. Cam narrows her eyes, frustrated with his hesitation. In her large, confident penmanship, she adds: “You’re acting like someone who has a choice.” Mark looks up at her in undisguised dread and she just arches her eyebrows. Finally, looking down at his desk, he nods. The chatter from the class, previously reduced to the background, presently seems to rise.

The guy a few desks down nods eagerly.

“Mine’s was a bad trip. I thought the piss on the floors of the club restroom was sodium hydroxide. It’s like it had a mind of its own, coming to melt my flesh. I ran out of there so fast I didn’t even have time to zip up my pants.” He chuckled. “My boys thought I had gotten some.”

The girl next to him looked confused.

“What the hell is sodium hydroxide? An acid or something?”

“Actually it’s a base. Saw it on a show once. Mix it up with some water and throw it on a corpse. In a few minutes, all you’ll have is something resembling horseshit, and smelling worse. Totally unidentifiable.”

Something compels me to look at Cam at that moment. My intuition is rewarded.

She raises an eyebrow at Mark, evidently interested. He looks back at her uneasily. My mind started to unravel the knots of possibility that brief exchange just tied. What was she involved in? Whatever it was, it was enough to emasculate Mark’s frat boy pretenses, so it must’ve been heavy. I needed some air. I ripped out and crumpled a page from my notebook and shuffled out of my seat. As I do, I get that prescient feeling that someone’s gaze is on me. I look back quickly, and see it’s Cam. Only she doesn’t turn away as most people would, she merely smirks at my discovery. My face burns as I find my way back to my desk.

Abel re-enters the class, looking at his watch.

“All right, everyone, it’s that time. I know you’re devastated,” he adds in mock regret. “Make sure you finish the Odes and a reflection paper on one of your choosing by next class.”

The class files out. Some hang back for predictable extracurricular planning. As I debate whether I should ask Abel a nagging question about one of the Odes, everyone has shuffled out and I decide to leave it for an email. Emails are my preferred method of contact with people that are much smarter than me; it makes me feel less inadequate since I can deliberate on my diction for a quarter of an hour before hitting send. As the door closes behind me I realize that I’m actually the second last to go. Cam is still in there. For once, I sing praises to the University Commission that opts for board member kickbacks instead of fixing the facilities. I squint to see through the sliver in the door frame.

Cam bends over to pick up something that she probably knocked over in the first place. The neckline on her airy tank is, of course, low enough to reveal her snug fitting pink bra. She purrs in faux innocuousness.

“How long do you want that paper, again?”

Abel is making himself busy with the papers sticking out of his tattered books, but the bra was not lost on him.

“As long as an effective argument calls for.”

Cam turns up the smug factor as only she can.

“Well, you know how pithy I can be—”

Abel seems amused but wary. “Go on! Don’t show up with a paragraph or I’ll drop you from the course.”

“Sure thing, Doc,” Cam says, grinning. As she squeezes past the desk where Abel is standing, she intentionally brushes her breasts along his back.

“Oops. ‘Scuse me.”

Cam is the kind of predator you can’t help but watch, enraptured. Abel goes rigid but says nothing. The last thing I see as Cam walks in my direction is Abel furrowing his eyebrows and smoothing his paisley tie in an effort to recompose himself. I turn the corner just as Cam pushes the door open and slinks out in her glorious “fuck-me” stride. I am still reeling with my bewilderment when she stops abruptly, about fifty paces from me, and turns in my direction. She looks directly at me, but I cannot read her usually transparent expression. I am rooted to the spot. She walks toward me in an uncharacteristically neutral gait. Standing in front of me now, she studies my features at leisure.

“Listen, I was wondering – do you have something in mind for the group project on Keats? Like, are you working with someone yet?”

There is detectable condescension in the tone of this last question, which is meant more as a formality than anything else. I bristle a bit.

“No, but I was thinking I would just ask him if it’s okay to work alone. It tends to be better for everyone that way.”

Cam waves off the rejection like a winged pestilence.

“Oh c’mon! I never see you talking to anyone. It’d be good for you. Plus, I haven’t read so much as a sonnet all semester.”

“Keats didn’t write sonnets.”

“You’re missing the point, Margot. The point is, we can help each other out.”

I consider a not-so-subtle reply, like walking away, but then I remember her earlier conversation with Mark.

“Fine. Where and when?”

“Coffee shop on the south side of campus. Noon tomorrow.”

I nod and turn to go. Her voice stops me again.

“By the way, me and Mark…we’re heading over to Clap tonight…you know, the place in Williamsburg…”

She spoke slowly, making sure I’d get all the details. Had she noticed me reading their notes?

“Can you can make it?”

The more dignified part of me that wants to say no, fails miserably.

“Sure.”

As soon as I give in to her, she disengages.

“See you tonight. Say my name at the door,” she adds, already halfway down the hall. She disappears behind a corner and all at once, I hear the gaggling of people all around me. Had they been there this whole time?

***

I’m mildly dolled-up, at the club in Williamsburg. I’ve gotten past the bouncers and I spot Cam. She’s wearing a silver sequin top, cropped right below the bust, along with tight black jeans. Just like after class, she somehow catches me looking at her and turns to face me. She waves me over with her erotically charged smile. Anything but reassuring, it feels like she’s going to eat you alive. The music is pounding, a combination of indie punk and techno. Wall to wall–it’s crammed. I have to squeeze through a series of gaping guys and girls who reluctantly move aside for me. The club has a kind of Shoreditch hipster vibe to it, where everyone exhibits the kind of modern sprezzatura that allows you to wear a $40skinny tie and still appear indifferent. Treading leisurely down the dim hallway like she’s in her house, Cam indicates a space for me right by Mark. He looks at me and smiles in a way he’s never done before. Must be the alcohol. Cam stops by some people lounging on the adjacent couch with a few bottles of gin on ice in the center table. A couple of them are smoking menthols and have a sleepy disposition towards everything. Two newbies are looking antsy, watching the writhing crowd below spilling drinks while attempting to dance. They are both wearing, with only the slightest variation, The Bandage Black Dress—the one so short and stretchy it hardly allows one to dance but gets the right kind of male attention, which, in their cases, clearly takes precedence over comfort. Their heels, in keeping with their dresses, can best be described as impossible. Cam smiles wanly at the sight of them as she sits down between them. They are surprised by this intrusion, but Mark quickly introduces them.

“Girls, this is Cam. She tends to pop in out of nowhere.”

As he says so, he gives Cam a knowing smile and a wink before returning to his drink and self-deference. He ostensibly leaves their names out of the introduction. The girls are now smiling up at Cam, not even noticing the omission.

“You girls smell great, like vodka and bubble gum. What are you wearing?”

Girl One seems all too eager in what is apparently her area of expertise.

“Something by Vera Wang. “Princess,” I think it is?”

A look passes between Cam and me, and just like that, we’re confidants—at least for the time being. Cam sidles over to me and whispers in my ear, “Figures.” Her warm breath makes my follicles stand in alert. How can she do that? Then, returning her attention to the girls with faux delight, she says, “You wanna dance?” Girl One nods maniacally and Girl Two exclaims, “Oh-my-God, we’ve been dying to get out there!”

Cam rises indolently, grabbing my hand as she does so. The girls are already teetering down the steps like drunken flamingos. The four of us enter the fray of thrashing bodies, dodging bouncing behinds and flailing arms to find an adequate space.

Cam starts dancing with the girls to some fast rhythm, gyrating and pumping, sandwiched in between them, when a well-dressed young man approaches. Just as he does, the song transitions to a slower beat. His hair is closely cropped and light brown eyes twinkle in sharp contrast to his dark olive skin. His friends are already there to take care of the two girls, and me, though I less-than-politely decline. He asks Cam with his eyes, and encircles her waist. She makes her body pliable to his as they start dancing. I remain close and listen in.

“I hate to go for the obvious, but what’s your name?”

He means to purr in her ear, but with the music so loud it’s more like a scream.

“Isabella,” Cam lies smoothly.

“Don’t you want to know mine?”

Cam laughs blithely. “Sure. Why not?”

He seems to enjoy her irreverence. “Arihant.”

Cam looks genuinely interested, for once. “Is that Hindi? What does it mean?”

Arihant matches her earlier laughter. “Now look who’s predictable?”

Cam playfully narrows her eyes at him.

Arihant smiles and presses her closer. “One who has killed his enemies.”

Cam raises her eyebrows. Then, catching me off guard once again, she leans over and whispers, “We’ll see,” to me as if I’d been part of the conversation all along. What was she playing at? How did I turn into her unlikely ally?

“Did you say something?” Arihant asks her.

Cam smiles reassuringly. “No, nothing.”

She looks over to the two girls and sees they are in consensually binding positions similar to her own. Smiling again, she glances at her friends on the couch and catches Mark’s eye. He has been looking at her the entire time. She gives him an almost imperceptible nod, which he returns. He doesn’t seem to notice that I am privy to the whole exchange, or else doesn’t care. Taking a small baggy from his pocket, he slips it into one of the mixed drinks on the table. The powder turns the liquid a blackberry red for a few seconds, before returning to its original color. The song starts coming to a close. Cam grabs Arihant’s face and slowly kisses him, just enough to leave prospects dangling. As the kiss progresses, slowly, the last third of “Tricksy” by Lark is amplified.

“Come. Have a drink with us.” She includes me in this proposition by tenderly tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear. Arihant looks at both of us appreciatively and nods his assent. She leads us by the hand to the table where Mark is. When she arrives, she ducks down and whispers into Mark’s ear.

“I’m Isabella tonight. We got ourselves a live one.”

Mark laughs.

Immediately I notice the change in Mark as he introduces himself to Arihant. He is playing the colorfully gay friend.

“You two were quite the item on the dance floor.” He stops to cross his legs and then remembers something. “Oh my God, I just had this brought out, (indicating a drink) but as you can see, I’m already done for!” He laughs and slaps Cam’s thigh for emphasis. “Ahh-ree-hant,” he over-stresses every syllable, “Do me the honor. You do like G&T’s, don’t you?”

“Not my first choice, but a close second. Thanks.”

Arihant takes the drink and raises it in cheers, taking a generous gulp. Cam and Mark smile at one another knowingly, then Cam includes me in their web with a long-lashed wink.

She knew I couldn’t—didn’t want to—stop her.

Before long, Arihant was slurring every other word and nodding off. Cam nodded at me and Mark, and stood. Mark flanked Arihant at his right, propping him up under his arm. I followed suit on the left side. We follow Cam to a private room behind the red floodlit bar. To everyone, it must appear like we’re graciously helping our debauched friend. The room is lined with royal purple velvet from top to bottom, accented with brushed gold baseboards and crown molding. Mark and I deposit Arihant on a single armchair with leather pincushions resembling Morpheus’s from The Matrix. From the shadows, a group of five men in tailored suits emerge. They approach Arihant, who by now is catatonic and slumped over the armrest. One man, the eldest, nods at Cam and hands her a briefcase. She returns the gesture and the men carry Arihant out of the room, leaving the three of us alone.

“Cam, what are they going to do—“ I begin.

She shushes me gently, placing her forefinger on my lip. She opens the briefcase, and I quickly estimate about twenty stacks of crisp Euros inside. I recognize the image of the Baroque arches on each note; one hundred.

I stifle a gasp, but my breathing quickens at the sight.

Cam grabs four stacks and hands them over to Mark. He takes them, stuffs them inside his blazer, and gives her a quick kiss on the mouth before taking off. Cam says nothing and divides another four stacks from the lot.

“Cam—“ I start again.

Before I know it, she stuffs her hand, along with the money, down the front of my jeans. She pushes me to the wall and I feel the soft velvet against my neck and the pressure of the money on my lower abdomen. Her thumb latches onto my panties and stretches them up, making it unbearable. Her lips graze against mine as she speaks.

“Are you in, or out?”

She continues to stroke her thumb against me, waiting.

“In,” I whisper, closing my eyes.

Fall tuition: check.

 

© 2014 Laura Ortega All Rights Reserved

 

When the lights go out…

Night Visions - Colorful Street Art - East Village - New York City-XL So the following is a short story that’s adapted from a novel I’m working on. In turn, it’s also part of a screenplay I registered with the Writer’s Guild. Feel free to share your thoughts!

It’s just before nightfall and I’m walking down East Bushwick street. My parents are probably sipping coladas in the Antilles at this very moment. I tell them I live on campus but that scene just isn’t for me. Instead, the money they send goes towards this dingy studio above a number of East Asian establishments. The rest is carefully allocated to my growing fondness for malt liquor. The laudanum of my time, I suppose. I’m just a modern-day Keats.

I don’t even lift my eyes from the ground as I trod homeward bound. Last week I almost got into a ridiculous scuffle with some pregnant woman (her fourth at twenty-one) over allegedly looking at her “hard.” Some men are loitering by the corner liquor store, alternating the amber bottle covered in a paper bag, taking swigs in turns. I hesitate as I approach them, but then continue, since they’re half blocking my entrance. As I squeeze by, the men deliberately place themselves as a blockade. The Alpha of the posse swarms round me, a ruddy-faced, bearded fellow in his mid-thirties. His clothes reek as though they’d been starched with sweat many times over, but his breath smells like fermented honey. Stiffening as he pulls up close, I continue to look down.

“We’ve seen you a couple times. Seems you live in this, uh, fine establishment, mm?”

The other men break into laughter at this pitifulattempt at sarcasm. I remain quiet and wait for this to blow over. Wouldn’t be the first time. The man looks at the others incredulously, only just realizing he’s being ignored.

“Well, it seems someone’s forgotten their manners!”

The group nod and grunt their assent, not taking their eyes off me. The tone has changed. I start to wonder if all the malt liquor in the world is really worth dealing with this every other week.

Alpha has a menacing smile for me.

“What are you, fucking deaf? I asked you a question.”

He gets in my face now, smile evaporating. After a few tense seconds where his boys look at him expectantly for the next step, he bursts out laughing. It is a cackle, thrown in all directions, inviting the others in. They easily fall in, like hyenas, though a few seem confused.

“Bitch is probably mute. I don’t do charity cases, anyway. Proceed, my good lady,” he says with mock reverence. He even twirls his wrist to show me the way in.

The hoots continue as I make my way through the thicket of them, careful not to touch the vermin. I waste no time in darting through the door and racing up the stairs to the third floor. I trip on a loose floorboard and nearly lose my footing. I gotta get out of this place, I think for the umpteenth time. I arrive at my door, at the end of the hall. The fluorescent lights above buzz and flicker, casting everything beneath it in a sickly greenish hue. An insidious case of black mold has taken over the area surrounding the heater by the fire escape. There’s the dull rumble coming from the neighbor’s television, which he leaves on every night as a backdrop to his cooking meth. The fumes escape through the slit at the bottom of the door, and presently I cough loud enough for him to hear. I turn the key slowly, and step inside. Right before I get to kick the door closed, I’m thrown forwards and the door handle clangs against the inside wall. My chin lands hard on the filthy linoleum, but I ignore this and turn quickly around. The men have already shut the door and are rifling through my kitchen. One pulls out a steak knife, satisfied with his discovery. But the Alpha does not join in the fun; he merely looks at me jeeringly.

“So, not much of a talker, are we? That’s ok, neither am I. I’m more of a doer, you know what I mean? I can do things that might just…loosen your tongue.”

It’s clear he enjoys the effect of his last words. My breathing is ragged; I hardly recognize the voice issuing from my lips. “Please—“

The Alpha chuckles at my plea and starts eagerly unbuckling his belt.

“Got your tongue back, eh? Shame it’s too late for manners.”

The men crowd around him like children waiting their turn. The Alpha inches closer until he is standing directly above me, and that’s when I black out.

***

My eyes open to the still of twilight.

There is something I’ve neglected to say, and any psychologically well-adjusted, mentally sound reader would have picked up on just now. How is it that these flashback episodes don’tcome to—how should I say it—fruition? You’re not anxious to envision me getting gang-raped, and yet, you’re still reading. Good thing I blacked out, right?

When I was about seven, the symptoms behind my condition began to manifest. I’d be running out in the field during recess one moment, and the next I was hailing a cab like I had seen my father do. The space in between the two events was an abyss in my mind. Fortunately, I remembered perfectly who I was and where I lived for the good Samaritans to help me find my way back. The psychiatrists, with much pomposity,referred to their recently updated diagnostic bible and classified it as a Dissociative Disorder with elements of amnesia and fugue. During the sessions, my parents finally had to come clean about the possible onset. In a span of six years, we had moved about thirty two times—always at night. I was a deep sleeper and never witnessed the transition—just the abrupt switch from one life to another. For protection, my parents found it necessary to lie. I would distinctly remember the details of our previous home, the neighbors, and so on, but my parents vehemently denied this, fabricating rationalizations for my “confusion.” The therapist explained that this particular form of instability and misinformation was a form of psychological abuse and it had certainly led to my current state. My father recoiled from this medical opinion and decided to take matters into his own hands. From then on, I was home-schooled by my mother. They no longer lied to me about the moves, but the damage was, as they say, done. I still relapsed, often at the brink of some denouement or other, but now my mother was always close at hand to guide me back. They were hesitant when I said I wanted to go to college in New York. A significant portion of the money they send me monthly was also supposed to go to therapy and medication. And we all know where that went.

***

I am standing in a kaleidoscopic blur in front of my apartment building. It must be the wee hours of the morning, because there’s no one around except a young man in a green cargo jacket walking towards me. My stomach churns with nausea. My hands are cold and slimy. Looking down at them, I blink several times, only to see they’re covered in dark red. I look up again and see the young man is now a few feet from me. He seems to recognize me. Without warning, my body crumples to the asphalt. He runs toward me.

“Are you okay?”

That voice. Blake? From that English class? What the hell is Blake, of all people, doing here at this time?

“What are you…?

He seemed to anticipate the cause of my bewilderment.

“I read about these murders on the news today. I think they happened in this building right here.”

Blake was still fumbling to get me up and noticed the blood on my hands.

“Oh my God. What happened? Are you hurt?”

I shook my head automatically, knowing I must’ve had another episode but not physically hurt. Then whose blood was it? My mind races to put the pieces together. Suddenly investing in professional help and meds doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

“Let’s get you to a hospital,” Blake suggests in panic.

I shake my head automatically.

“No medical. Besides, I’m fine. See?”

I raise my shirt to expose my midriff and intact skin over major organs.

“Must’ve taken a spill, or something. Can you just help me get back to my apartment?”

“Of course,” he says as he helps me up and through the doorway. He props me up by my side as we climb the stairs and reach my door. He looks at the dubious surroundings and whistles low.

“And I thought I had it bad.”

Just as he says it, he realizes his imprudence and bows his head in shame.

“Um, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—“

“It’s fine,” I reassure him. “This place is a shithole, I know better than anyone.”

He grins consolingly. It’s then that I realize I cannot have him come inside.

“Hey, thanks again. I better get in. See you Tuesday.”

Ensuring my tone is very curt, I stand upright, waiting for him to take his leave. He responds better than I’d hoped, mumbling apologies as he slides past me and down the stairs. With a deep breath, not quite knowing what to expect, I enter.

Lamplight filters through the sheer curtains. Just enough to see the fresh blood smeared on the cheap beige carpet. Moans of agony are coming from the living area. My senses are reeling. The nausea returns in swells. Any second now I’ll disappear into the void again. Before going into the next room, I practically crash into the kitchen pantry, looking for an emergency stash of Valium. It’s expired a few months ago but I pray it’ll give me strength for a few minutes while I fend for my sanity. The groans continue—seem to grow louder—and I close my eyes as the pill shimmies down my esophagus. A few minutes pass, what seems like an eternity, before I allow myself to move. I grab a black duffle bag from the top shelf. It’s covered in dust and cobwebs, but it’ll do. I pack in a few non-perishables. As I do, I notice there’s something hard in one of the inside pockets. I unzip it and find several stacks of hundred dollar bills. I hug the bag toward my body, horrified at the implications.

What the fuck?

Shaking my head, I brace myself for the living area. Gingerly, holding the bag like a shield, I step onto the carpet that is now decorated with pink and maroon striations, all leading toward–

The men come into view, the men from earlier tonight. Or was it tonight? Where is the police unit that must’ve leaked the story to the news? Everything was as I left it when—when I blacked out. I advance.

The men are piled on top of each other, shivering on the floor. Every step pulls the bile higher in my throat. The trail of blood becomes thicker and pools around them like an engorged amoeba. It’s becoming harder to breathe.

What did I do?

The Alpha has his shirt lifted up, exposing his bloated stomach. There’s an enormous, jagged wound sown shut haphazardly with black cable ties. His head turns towards me. The moment his eyes meet mine, he wails in pure, unalloyed horror. As he does, blood seeps from the wound. I just can’t. Fuck my clothes. Clutching my bag, I turn and sprint out of there like the proverbial bat out of hell.

 

© 2014 Laura Ortega All Rights Reserved