SO, ALICE, WHERE SHALL we be off to today? The train game, again? Then the train game it shall be. Pick a platform, any platform! I know: I’ll close my eyes and let you sniff it out. What do you smell, Alice, ol’ pup? The sweat of Buenos Aires playboys in the midnight heat? Fruit rotting in the dirt at the bazaar in Istanbul and the musky perfume of the stall-keeper’s son, humming a movie tune, just barely seventeen? The tinny scent of blood at the old butcher shop in Rome and the butcher’s hands, each as big as your four paws put together? What do you smell, Alice, my friend? Where in the world shall we go next?
It started in Athens. Alice and I had been together four years. The vet said Alice was dying, said she should be put down before it got any worse. I listened, and nodded, and all the while plotted how we’d make our escape. Athens was getting old, anyway. Hell, it was old. Everything was musty and crumbling and years over-baked. It couldn’t help but go bad and take you right along with it. You and your little dog, too. Time to move along. Alice was ready.
There are so many deaths that are not my death, not your death, Alice. Each place has its own variety. In Mexico you can get kidnapped for ransom and decapitated by the henchmen of an enemy drug cartel. In Afghanistan there are suicide bombers pushing ice cream carts. In sub-Saharan Africa you have a one in six chance of dying before you reach the age of five. In India there is malaria, starvation, buses plunging off Himalayan cliffs and slipping through cracks in bridges that open like hungry mouths and close just as quickly, but at least you can have your soul set adrift in the Ganges and reincarnated to some more wizened form. There are hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, all the great rumblings this weary earth calls forth. Oh, but I love life. I’ll save you all with my love. Come, Alice! Come jump into my bed, curl yourself against me, your wet nose warm against my belly.
In Madrid there was Alex. Alejandro, he said, sounding it out, making me repeat it. Alejandro, I said with a wave of my arm like a matador sweeping his red cape from before the barreling snout of a bull. But in bed, he let me call him Alex. Alejandro, tall and lanky, fluid like a dancer, an added shoulder roll, hip thrust, sashay in every step. Skin the color of milky tea and black hair long enough to ball in your fist. He was sassy and forward at the club off Plaza de Chueca, blockading his body before me so close I could feel his breath on my forehead, heat and Marlboro Lights and rum that sugared the corners and inner rim of his lips. “American men are my specialty,” he purred. But once we got to his place , his demeanor changed completely. He was silent in the bright elevator. He fumbled with his keys and held the apartment door open for me with a shy smile; cracked cans of Cruzcampo, apologizing that he had nothing more to offer. Disappeared into the bathroom for a long ten minutes.
His cave of an apartment. One square room with a low, sloped ceiling, bare walls, cardboard-colored carpeting stiff beneath my bare feet. The couch pocked with burn marks and a coffee table scattered with overflowing ashtrays and soccer magazines. When he exited the bathroom I took him immediately on the floor. Alex, I said. He mewed like a wild, injured beast; reared and bucked as I clutched his mane. His back slick with sweat; his eyes squeezed shut. Alex.
After, I held him on the couch, his head in my lap, combing his damp hair with my fingers as he fell asleep. Some late night Spanish talk show played on the television. There was a woman, probably in her fifties, seated beside a teenage boy in a long black t-shirt and baggy jeans. She was yelling at the boy, waving her arms about, shaking her head, her face red with exertion.
Before I slipped out the door, I used his bathroom and was surprised to find cologne bottles of every shape, size and color lining the narrow shelf that spanned the length of the wall. A bulbous blue glass bottle with a silver stopper and icy white lettering; a squat, rectangular container that looked like it was made of cork. I counted them, forty-two bottles total. Somehow, it made me love him even more.
Alice in the photo I used to carry in the vinyl sleeve of my wallet. It was just a few weeks after we adopted her and she was maybe eight weeks old, black ball of a thing with huge white paws, pretty, dopey eyes, that long whip tail that was already knocking over every wine glass or coffee mug or flower vase in its path. Enzo’s sitting on our bed, rocking her in the crook of his arm, the gentlest look on his face, his hand bigger than Alice’s head and nearly as dark. So tiny was she. This before the Dane erupted out of her mutt gene pool and she shot up into a spindly black giant.
Alice! Enzo! (I freeze in the bustle of some city square, a vendor hawking newspapers in one language or another, people pushing around me.) Alice was tiny and we were young and dumb and perfect. Enzo, I think, was thirty. I was twenty-six. Our damp, little basement apartment in Boston where we huddled under swaths of blankets while the Autumn rain pounded the window and we made up stories. Enzo would make up one part and then nod and pass it to me and I would take the next part, and we could go on like that for hours. We’d read them to Alice when we finished. If she stayed and listened, it meant she liked the story. If she left the room mid-way through, it meant we had failed and had to win back her favor by plying her with treats. She often left, but I think it was because she knew she’d get biscuits and belly rubs.
Alice used to love: Licking peanut butter off my fingers. All the smelly, sapid things that dredge up out of the ground after a good rain, including lost socks, bloated earthworms, half-eaten sandwiches, bird carcasses. Belly rubs and biscuits, of course. Me. Enzo. (But she likely forgot who he was after a while.) Waking up somewhere new and somewhere new and somewhere new and rushing out into the clamoring scents of an unknown city, all coy for her attention. Everything worthy of her endless love. Dog things.
In India, there was Prakash. Prakash of the Oranges. I found him inside an enormous orb where I was sitting cross-legged on a mat amidst devotees and students of Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother,” trying, unsuccessfully, to meditate. Or to “concentrate,” as was the vernacular of the strange international community in Tamil Nadu – part commune, part ashram, and part mini-democracy – where I’d landed. I’d never meditated before and, honestly, didn’t think much of the practice. The idea of attaining some sort of divine, egoless emptiness through forced stillness seemed contrived, contrary to the buzzing, humming, throbbing constancy of a world that was more than I could possibly partake of in a lifetime of motion. Why stop? There would be plenty of time for stillness when I was dead.
But there had been a dearth of English teaching opportunities of late. My money was running low and I was growing disenchanted with India’s cockroach-laden, cold-bath-in-a-bucket, budget accommodations. Auroville! Sung my fellow travelers. Where students are welcomed with open arms! With cheap and luxurious villas! With feasts of abundance!
Light and clouds shooting through circular cutouts in the walls of the dome. I could feel him staring at me across the circle, looked up from my fidgeting and met his gaze. I recognized him from the cafeteria the night prior. A group of us babbling on in broken English, so many accents, and he’d sat down at the end of the table with a few empty seats between him and the rest of us. On his tray: a large wooden bowl filled with orange slices, a smaller, empty bowl, and a glass of water. I watched as he peeled the rind, slowly, methodically, from each orange slice, picked out any seeds, placed the rind and seeds in the empty bowl, ate the slice, sipped a bit of water, and then moved on to the next slice. He did not look at us or acknowledge us at all. When he finished all the oranges, he removed his tray and walked off.
Prakash, his face gaunt and long nose slightly crooked, head shaved to a dark stubble and black eyes blazing with intent, a combination of mischief and challenge more focused than anything else in that would-be concentration chamber. He cocked his head toward the staircase leading down to the dome’s exit. Rose to his feet, so tall, so thin, because he eats nothing but oranges, I thought. Walked away without looking back.
In his little cement-block cell of a room in the long-term volunteer housing, he stripped off his clothes as soon as he’d shut the door behind me; lay down across the thin cotton mattress that covered half the floor. I shed my clothes, also, and lay beside him.
Prakash of the Oranges! Prakash, fifty-two years old, as I later dredged out of him, but lean and taut, rippled with smooth muscle and purple veins along his biceps and calves from his daily routine of running and pushups in the early morning fields, with only a few grey hairs on his lower back to show for his age. For an hour, at least, we lay without touching while he read me poems from a Hindi volume. I couldn’t understand a word, of course. But his voice. Hushed and melodic, almost a whisper, and then, suddenly, playful and emphatic, as if he was reading to a child. As if he was saying, Oranges! I like to eat oranges!
I wanted to laugh. I wanted to sing. The wind billowed the white sheet that hung across the single window like a sail. Warm breeze and flickers of afternoon sun across our bare skin. The smell of fresh cut grass and a tinge of something pungent and burning in the distance.
Finally, Prakash reached for an orange. There were nine of them, scattered on a small, blue-cloth covered table beside the bed. He peeled it slowly, stacking the rind in a neat pile on the table, removed a segment and held it to my lips. So impossibly sweet. I didn’t wait until I finished chewing. I snatched the remainder of the orange from his other hand and crushed it with my palm over his chest. At first he looked wild, angry, like he might strike me. But then he smiled. Rolled and pinned me to the bed with his body, the sticky mess of juice and pulp between our bellies, the sweetness on our tongues. We didn’t leave his room all night and all the next day and all the night after. We pissed in a plastic bottle and poured it out the window. We ate only oranges. The book of poetry lay unopened. We left only because the orange-soaked room was attracting flies.
A lesson on your wild, yearning heart, Alice: mute it. Suppress it. Toss it beneath trains. Hang it from rickety ceiling fans above soiled guesthouse mattresses. Shove it out the doors of moving buses. Fling it before rampaging packs of bulls. Leave it out overnight in desert rainstorms with no shelter in sight.
In Amsterdam, I’d just bought myself a vanilla soft serve cone from a sidewalk stand when the rain started. Just a few drops at first, but within a few seconds it was pummeling down, soaking my canvas coat, washing ice cream onto my hand. I looked around for somewhere to duck inside and that’s when Alice started going crazy, jumping and twisting side-to-side as if she was surrounded by a pack of imaginary predators. She crouched low on her front legs, snarled at nothing, then reared up, pounced to her left and snarled again.
I tried to keep a hold on her leash that was ripping into my palm, but I lost my grip and, simultaneously, my cone flew from my other hand and splat onto the wet concrete. Save me! This wild, incomprehensible beast. You played me for your confidant, but something else rages within you. Growling and hissing and then Alice was on her back, writhing, grinding herself into the muddy patch of grass between the sidewalk and the street, legs flailing in the air. Beast! Beast! I grabbed the leash, crouched and placed my hand on her belly and she snapped toward me, teeth bared. For an instant, I was gripped with terror, but then her eyes met mine and her whole body relaxed and we sat there, rain streaming over us, while Alice’s breathing slowed to normal.
Enzo and I made it for over two years. Longer than I’ve ever stayed with anyone else. Things were really good – that’s the sad part. We had simple pleasures, routines: Sunday morning lattes and bagels and a crossword at Pavement while Alice lazed on the sidewalk outside; getting drunk on cheap beer and laughing at late-night Oprah re-runs; the fresh pasta shop on Newbury St. where we bought noodles for Enzo’s famous lasagna that I insisted he make at least once a week. You know how it is when everything in a city is infused with a person? When you can never go back or risk falling to your knees at every corner? Wrapping yourself around every streetlamp?
When I left for Japan on a nine-month teaching grant, we cried at the airport. What a sight. Enzo sturdy and dark like a great Cherry Wood Tree, he was just getting seriously into weight training and his body was bulging in unexpected places we’d discover together, sobbing just a little less effusively than a drag queen at a wedding. And little, pasty-skinned me, burrowed in his arms, the good Boy Scout with my new backpack, white t-shirt and khaki shorts, leaving a big, wet splotch in the middle of Enzo’s track jacket. I told him he wasn’t allowed to wash the jacket until I returned. I made him set his phone alarm for 1:30 p.m. and I set mine for 9:30 p.m. so whenever they went off we could spend a minute simultaneously thinking of each other and willing our big love across the divide. I warned him that Alice and I might pick out a cute, little snotty-nosed orphan tot to bring home and we could all be the perfect, modern, double-daddy, interracial, international McFamily. I kissed him with some twisted martyr-like combination of real grief and self-flagellating deception because I knew, even then, even weeks before then, that I wasn’t coming back.
I gave it about six months. Let my correspondence slow. Too busy so very busy the time difference is difficult the phones unreliable the Internet café closed and moved to another street a parallel city an alternate universe I sent a letter three weeks ago a very long letter you never received it? Stupid-ass foreign postal system, awash with bureaucrats and cronies, dispassionate to the exigencies of true love.
Then I told him I’d fallen in love with one of my students. I told him in an email, Alice. It was terrible. Cowardly. I know. I know.
I remember from my college abnormal psych course the concept of “insight” in mental health as the degree to which a patient is able to recognize and reflect meaningfully on his own disorder. This ability to separate rational from irrational behavior, to gaze on ones’ lunacy from a clinical distance, even while still tangled in the throes of it, is a measure of recovery, of at least some semblance of sanity. Well, I had insight, Alice. Reams and reams of insight. Sufficient insight to build an escape ramp right out of my cell and into the great, wide world of the free.
My heart is a cheap fuck, a weepy bastard.
But oh, to be free.
I’m bored, Alice. Bored with London, bored with France… Sometimes I think we need to go home, fall in love, settle, save for retirement. Yes, Alice, I’ll have a wedding. A wedding! And at my wedding I’ll wear a red bow tie and he’ll wear a black one. We’ll each hold a single red rose. We will feed each other from chopsticks, Alice! We’ll slow dance on a ballroom floor while everyone watches. All our friends and family, they’ll gather round our cake table laden with doll figurines in costumes of all the countries of the world and they will eat cake. Later we’ll make a slideshow set to cheesy music and post it on the Internet. We’ll move to a pink castle in Hawaii…
At the Hotel Continental in Tangier, as I sat in the breakfast room eating my cornflakes and milk, someone turned the television to the English-language BBC news and the reporter announced that Oprah had just aired her final show. A breeze rushed in through the open window beside me, blowing my paper napkin to the floor, filling the air with the scent of sewage. Outside, I saw that waves of garbage were washing up on the shore; a line of wolves were winding their way, steady and silent, up the stone path through the old city toward my hotel atop the hill. I had planned to stay several more weeks, but I checked out that day. The taxi driver who took me to the port in his ancient Mercedes told me a complicated story that concluded with an appeal for help purchasing a new inhaler for his ailing mother and hell, I’d heard it all before, but I gave him all the dirham in my wallet, the equivalent of about fifty dollars, and he pressed his palms together. Thank you, my good friend, thank you, thank you. Later, counting the bills, he’d wonder at the photo, tucked into the pile, of the big, dark man cradling a black and white puppy like a first-born child. He’d stick it in his glove compartment amongst various other treasures left-behind: a heavy, gold-colored pen engraved with Hotel Majestic Barcelona; a women’s wristwatch with a broken clasp; coins from countless countries. He’d look at it every now and then, consider throwing it away, decide to keep it.
In Johannesburg there was Derek. I hated Johannesburg. Sprawling and dim despite its sunshine. Razor wire and gate opening onto gate opening onto gate. Scarred city. I only went there for Derek. A few sordid nights chasing each other about in the sand on the Costa del Sol while he was on his annual European holiday. But at home, affixed behind his desk, his towering bookshelves, his serious Professorship of Private Law at the University of Johannesburg, he was just as dour as his city. His research focus was land law, specifically burial rights.
Over dinner, Derek would explain to me how they are running out of graves in Johannesburg because so many people are dying of AIDS. Graveyards are populated overnight, solemn new cities erupting from the fields, springing forth from hillsides. The living and the dead squabbling for precious real estate.
They are struggling to find solutions. Upright burial. Stacking coffins three or four deep in a single grave. Extending some cemeteries and erecting new ones. A Burial Conference of international experts to study the issue. Recycling gravesites by digging out old bones, bagging them, and burying them deeper so the site appears fresh for the newly deceased. Illegal cemeteries are surfacing on private land. Authorities are trying to dissuade people from burying relatives in their backyards.
The city has piloted a mausoleum project, but very few people want to be cremated. Derek said this is because their culture holds that the grave is a sacred dwelling; a house for the bodies of those who are still alive but can no longer be seen. Even death seeks a place to reside.
Enzo once told me he wanted to be cremated. If I outlived him, he wanted me to choose a fitting place to disperse his ashes. What would I do with his ashes, Alice? Already, I carry yours. I don’t want to be a walking mausoleum. I don’t want to haul a train full of bones.
In Prague, there was Oliver and Tomas. Brothers, believe it or not. Twin brothers. Yes, I know it sounds like the opening to some bad joke. They ran a little stand in the open air Christmas market in Wenceslas Square selling langos – a tasty, fried flat bread I’d been snacking on all across Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. I paid for one and Tomas handed me a strip of waxed paper bearing a puffy sphere slathered with brown stuff.
“What the fuck is this?” I asked.
“Nutella,” he said, grinning. “You try. You will like. Very good.”
I was livid. Langos are supposed to be savory, that’s the point. Cabbage, yes. Sour cream, yes. Mushrooms, eggplant, cheese, yes. But not Nutella, of all things.
I shoved the thing back toward him.
He pushed it across the counter at me, still grinning, this adorable, doughy, dimple-cheeked grin. And that’s all it took.
I returned the next night and Oliver was behind the stand, but I didn’t realize it was he, and not Tomas, until it was too late.
I guess it all was kind of a bad joke. Sometimes, Alice, that’s the way it turns out.
There were lumps growing on Alice’s left leg. I kept having them removed and back they would come. Three years after Athens and it all came down to a windy, April morning in Krakow. Alice had spent the entire night bleating and falling, eyes crusted shut, ripping at her raw leg. In the morning, she lay heavy and still, already relieved, as I lifted her from the car and carried her into the veterinary clinic. The room was tiled and sterile with a metallic counter. I lay my head on Alice’s neck, ran my fingers through her damp, matted fur and thought about where I would go when I left that room. The answer was home. But I realized I didn’t know where the hell that was. I held that dog tighter and closed my eyes.
She would always start tugging against the leash as soon as we rounded the corner onto Marlborough Street. Her black nose would quiver and her ears alert and she’d stride with eager purpose. I used to take her for that same walk just about every evening before dinner and it happened each time we got to that corner. As if it was the most exciting moment ever; as if she couldn’t wait another second to cross the threshold into our yard, a block away.
What do you smell, Alice? That cherry blossom tree, bare of its pink petals, but still perfume to your supersensitive snout? The neighbor’s white cat, breath hot with the stink of whatever bird or mouse she’s caught, as she arches her back and scurries from our path? That overgrown lot a few houses away, dense with weeds and dandelions and other dank treasures? The little clay pots of mint and basil and thyme we used to try all summer to convince to grow on our steps?
What do you smell, Alice? Ah, is it the scent of the lasagna he’s preparing for our dinner? Slow baking for hours in the oven, now wafting out the window as we approach, welcoming our return?
Find our way home, Alice. Find our way home.
Shana Graham hopes that if she closes her eyes and counts to eleven, you’ll appear on her doorstep bearing a big, steaming platter of tater tots and feed them to her one-by-one. Ready… set… GO! You can find more of her work and connect with her at www.supershana.com.