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"Like John Cheever's work, these stories are suffused with a sense of magic and the possibility of grace." --San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Leaving Mexico City for Oaxaca we got lost—circling, for over an hour, a neighborhood near the airport because we were confusing, we realized after stopping to ask directions for the fifth time, the word derecho (straight ahead) with derecha (to the right). "You see the importance of vowels," said Mister O'Connell. Finally a beautiful woman, seeing us go by her window yet again, like clothes in a dryer, took pity on us, ran out to our car, and told us to look for the sign that said "Puebla, Cuota." And, after giving her the carnations we'd bought outside a church, we found the highway to Oaxaca while Mister O'Connell sat in the backseat crying, "That was an angel! Literally an angel! An angel of God!"
No one was sure whether he meant this literally or figuratively since he seemed to be lingering in churches long after the rest of us had seen the altarpiece and were ready to go—having to be physically prodded, as he sat slumped in the back pew, staring into space or resting with his eyes closed, praying or in a trance. At first I thought he was just taking a load off his feet—Mister O'Connell had become fat—but when I finally asked him outside the cathedral in Mexico City why he was lingering, he said that he was happiest now in churches, or convents, or monasteries, and that last fall in Madrid, after visiting the museums, he had found a church not far from the royal palace, and had sat there for hours watching society ladies say their rosaries. This should not have surprised me, though so far as I know he did not attendchurch in New York. On Sundays he went to prison instead, where the young man who came and went in his life, sometimes answering the door of the apartment on East Eleventh Street when you least expected it, was incarcerated—for a reason no one dared ask. We didn't dare ask because there was something very private about this dignified, heavyset man who caught the bus for Sing Sing every Sunday morning in a dark suit and tie. (Sundays were very busy for him: Mass, prison, an AA meeting in the evening.) The man in 4B, we gathered, had a past. Though he now worked for a travel magazine, Mister O'Connell had worked for The Catholic Worker when Dorothy Day was alive, and had become more secular with each successive magazine, till now he was at Conde Nast Traveler. (Mister O'Connell, someone who had known him before us said, was "the beautiful ruin of a long Catholic education.") He always seemed to be in a rush, at any rate, except when he distributed homemade cakes to the people on his floor at Christmastime, and then he would sit and visit; otherwise, one had to catch him in his booth at Odessa, where sitting with him as he ate a huge plate of pierogi was like having a private tutorial—his mind, his manners, were so fine; a pleasure that appealed to young men of sensitive bent who knew they could enjoy Mister O'Connell's company without ever having to worry he would put a hand on their knee, since he was much too Catholic, and old-fashioned, for that, and interested only in Ramón.
This year the enthralled Celt was a medical student who had just moved in across the hallway from Mister O'Connell's small rent-controlled apartment—a tall, disheveled youth with blond hair and a gymnast's physique who was about to start his studies at Columbia, and who now kept exclaiming over the brand-new ribbon of concrete, the engineering marvel of the toll road to Oaxaca, which we had all to ourselves as we crossed bridge after bridge through the dry, empty mountains. All of us exclaimed, actually, as we drove south, we were so relieved to finally be on our way; yet something—the stress of leaving Mexico City, the spell of the arid, empty countryside we had driven through for hours, or just the fatigue at the end of a journey—reduced us all to a strange silence when we found ourselves seated that night on the second floor of a restaurant overlooking Oaxaca's central plaza. Everyone stopped talking, and felt sad, all of a sudden, as if a bolt of melancholy had struck us dumb. Some people explain such sudden cessations of conversation by the passage of an angel through the room; Mister O'Connell said it was probably the fact that beneath us in the crowd of people circulating round a gazebo in which a small brass band was just putting away its instruments was our exact fantasy of Mexico. "Perfection always depresses," he said.
There were four of us at table—Mister O'Connell, myself, a lesbian from Marietta, Georgia, whom we had met while checking into our hotel, and the young medical student who lived across the hall from Mister O'Connell in Manhattan. Beneath us was a much larger crowd amid the trees, gazebo, benches, and lampposts—mariachis in studded black suits with their violins and trumpets, waiting for some party to begin, young children elaborately dressed, the girls in frilly white dresses and bows, their parents and grandparents, teenagers in clumps of their own sex, ice cream and balloon vendors, women selling textiles and ceramics on the sidewalk opposite the cathedral. It was like that mural in the National Palace in Mexico City of Chapultepec Park come to life—a stage play in which one tried to figure out the actors, and what parts they were playing, and what play. "There is a line from Neruda," said Mister O'Connell, patting his lips with the linen napkin after taking a small bit of guacamole on his bread, "describing a paseo just like this."
"Which one?" said the med student.
"The one where he compares the homosexuals cruising to a necklace of palpitating oysters," said Mister O'Connell.
"Neruda is so brilliant," said the lesbian from Marietta.
"The trouble is, from up here I can't quite tell who's palpitating and who's not," said Mister O'Connell.
"Well, he is, I think," said the med student, pointing down at a young man in white who had just entered the square from the southwest corner. "And they are," he said, indicating two men with buzz cuts conferring while they looked over each other's shoulders at the crowd going by. "In fact, they were in the post office. They're Canadian."
"And who are they?" said Mister O'Connell of two men who had just come onto the terrace and were walking toward the table in the corner—the first a tall, silver-haired man in a green blazer with a lavender scarf around his neck, the second a short, dumpy man in wrinkled shorts and a gray T-shirt whose black beard and vulpine face gave him a rather sinister aspect. No one spoke. "This is why we travel, is it not?" said Mister O'Connell. "It's like a mystery by Agatha Christie—the other guests."
"I quite agree," said the lesbian from Marietta. "I think I saw those two in San Miguel. I've been running into many of the same gringos wherever I go. Tell me," she said, turning to Mister O'Connell, "are you enjoying Mexico?"
"Now I am," said Mister O'Connell. "This is entrancing," he said, waving a hand at the shaded square below. "But the capital! My God! When I left I said to myself: No matter what happens to you for the rest of your life, there will be one good thing—each morning you awaken you can say, `I am not in Mexico City.'"
"Was it that bad?"
"Appalling," said Mister O'Connell. "I hadn't been in thirty years—and what used to be a lovely, Parisian city is now so polluted you can taste the air. Another sad spectacle of a culture converting itself to the American model, when its own model, while different, was superior in many ways. I cannot understand it. Must everyone on the planet own a color TV and a station wagon?"
At this point yet another couple came onto the terrace, a man and woman in their fifties or sixties, who were escorted to the last table with a view of the plaza down below.
"And who is that?" said the lesbian from Marietta.
"That is a man I used to know in New York," said Mister O'Connell, "when he was an editor at the New York Review of Books. He is such a bibliophile that when we went to Egypt together he stayed in his room and read a book about the pyramids rather than go see them. We no longer speak, however. We had a falling out."
"Over?" said the med student.
"John Cheever," said Mister O'Connell. "Odd duck," he muttered, staring at the square below as the man and his wife passed behind him.
I suppose we were all odd ducks; anyone who travels is—stripped of their context, their native habitat, people seen abroad are like words used in an unfamiliar way; you have to figure them out, removed from their usual setting, as if you'd never seen them before. The next day we went to the pyramids of Monte Alban; Mister O'Connell took the tour in Italian, to hear the language, and, he told me when he returned, to be near a handsome man with a thick black mustache, who was wearing a pink polo shirt. Later, in the dry, sunny stillness he fell into another trance—and finally off the ledge; but he was not hurt and was in good spirits when we got back to the hotel we had chosen near the main square after two others more popular with foreigners refused us because they were full. The most expensive—a converted convent up the street—we only visited after dinner to look at its gardens and courtyard. To our surprise, the couple we'd seen in the restaurant the night before—the tall, silver-haired man in the blazer and the sinister man with the black beard—were at a table in the small courtyard when we turned into it; the tall, distinguished one, his face quite angry, was saying to the other in an intense voice that carried easily over the plash of the fountain as we passed: "Give me the bone! I want it and I want it now!" Mister O'Connell turned to us with raised eyebrows, as he placed a hand at his throat, and, when we had reached the colonnade on the other side of the fountain, turned to us and said: "What do you suppose that meant? `Give me the bone!' What were they talking about?"
"They're probably archaeologists," said the med student.
"Lo dudo," said Mister O'Connell. "In Peru, yes, Peru is full of bones, they are constantly discovering skeletons in tombs, the dry, desert air is a perfect climate that preserves both textiles and the contents of ossuaries, but Oaxaca is not a place one comes to for bones. Of that sort. No, I wonder if we have not witnessed something else. An obsession of a cruder sort. For some reason, that little exchange reminded me of Robert de Peu."
"Robert de Who?" asked the med student.
"A very handsome Texan who lived in your apartment before you. A bright, wonderful young man who arrived in New York full of ambition and dreams and then got waylaid when he met a man on Fire Island his first summer there. A very tall, dull, nice but otherwise totally unremarkable insurance salesman from New Jersey whose sole distinction was an exceptional appendage," he said. "For which Robert dropped out of the Ph.D. program at NYU so the two of them could take a cruise around the world that lasted six months. When Robert got back, he was a nutcase, a shred of his former self," said Mister O'Connell. "There was no point in his enrolling in classes. He had lost all joie de vivre, and muscle tone, his eyes had a mad, haunted look, he was ill-tempered, thin-skinned, cynical and bitter, and a total alcoholic who had to clean friends' apartments to support himself. It goes without saying, he never finished his dissertation on Gertrude Stein!"
"Because he was obsessed! Addicted! Because he had reduced life to mere aesthetic considerations! Because he, too, demanded a bone—in many places just like this—in just the way that man in the courtyard did. And of course the man who had the bone ended up boring him to death. Waking up in hotels in Kuala Lumpur, Aswan, and Singapore with that lump, facing him every night across one of those little tables with the snow-white linen and nine courses—all because later in the cabin he knew he would get his bone. By the time the ship docked in Long Beach, Robert de Peu was, I'm told, incoherent! He had been drinking constantly for six months. He was a wreck, a ruin. Which is what happens when you let that particular carnal obsession rule your life, as it has apparently that man over there," he said, nodding at the couple across the courtyard, still in deep argument, as the man pounded his hand against the table, and his imperturbable companion sat there with a smile on his lips. "Seneca called sexual desire `a cruel and insane master.' There's living proof!" he snorted. "The things you come upon in Mexico! Could it be more Night of the Iguana? This country draws some truly deadbeat Americans."
Or so he thought till later that evening, when just the two of us were left on a bench in the Zócalo, reluctant to go in, even though the mariachis were all putting their violins and trumpets into their cases and the Indian women who had spent the day selling statues and painted goblets were walking home with their babies on their backs and their toddlers hand in hand, and the waiters had come out and taken in the chairs and tables before the restaurants, and the man selling balloons was walking forlornly away, his face a mask of fatigue, and the two Canadian boys we'd seen earlier were the only foreigners out, still walking by, looking behind them, stopping to confer with an air of suppressed excitement. ("I assume it gets gayer as it gets later," sighed Mister O'Connell, "like everything else.") Even we had decided there was no point in sitting there any longer when the tall, silver-haired man in the green blazer walked into the square alone and sat down on the bench across from ours. "I would guess La Jolla, or Marblehead," murmured Mister O'Connell as we looked at this handsome man of about sixty-five. Crossing his legs, now this way, now that, surveying the square with a distracted, impatient air, he seemed to be reviewing mentally the scene in the courtyard—part of which we had witnessed or some other problem that was making Oaxaca beside the point. Eventually, since there was hardly anyone else out at that hour, when he had calmed down somewhat and allowed his gaze to focus on the foreground, his eyes came to rest on us: Mister O'Connell and myself, sitting right across from him. At which point Mister O'Connell smiled and gave a little wave.
The man nodded curtly, but that was enough for Mister O'Connell. "Enjoying Oaxaca?" he called across the space between us. The man seemed dumbstruck by the question, either because it had never occurred to him, or he could not find appropriate phrases to express what he really felt. "I know," said Mister O'Connell, "it's a mixed bag, like all of Mexico, though I find, given the changes the country has undergone, it's a miracle something as charming as this still remains. I'm rather over Mexico myself, this is my sixth visit in thirty years, and if I ever come back, it will not be within three hundred miles of that metastasizing tumor called La Capital. Were you in Mexico City?"
"Just to change planes," said the man.
"Lucky you," said Mister O'Connell. "I don't know how long it can go on."
"I don't either!" said the man in a tone of clipped fury.
"I mean Mexico City," said Mister O'Connell.
"Oh," said the man.
"You meant something else," said Mister O'Connell.
"Well, yes," said the man, standing up, coming over and sitting down on our bench as a streetsweeper came up to his bench with a broom. "I'm afraid I'm embroiled in a little situation of my own that has made me indifferent, momentarily, to Mexico. I'm having difficulties with my—traveling companion."
"Believe me," said Mister O'Connell, laughing, "you are not alone. It happens to the best of friends eventually. One travels with others at one's peril. There's nothing like a trip to ruin a friendship. One must be very careful. What, exactly, is the problem?"
"It's simple, really," said the man. "He has something I want."
Mister O'Connell looked at me.
"And he won't give it to me!"
Mister O'Connell looked my way again with a roll of the eyes, then turned to the man and said, "I'm so very sorry. But—I suppose you must ask yourself—is this thing really so important to you?"
"Yes!" said the man.
"I see," said Mister O'Connell, with downcast eyes.
"And he knows it," the man said. "Which is why what he's doing is so cruel!" Then he blurted out: "And he's a Jesuit!"
"A Jesuit?" gasped Mister O'Connell.
"Yes," said the man. "Of course he only teaches at a college in Missouri, and the reason he's a Jesuit is because thirty years ago he wanted to get a deferment to avoid Vietnam, if you ask me. But still! He's behaving very oddly for a priest."
"Indeed," said Mister O'Connell.
"He said he refuses to give it to me till our last night in Mexico, and then he said I'm going to have to make him give it to me."
Mister O'Connell's jaw dropped.
"Give what?" I finally said.
"My lover's bone," said the man. "The bone from my lover's ashes I scattered on Monte Alban today. Donald had just finished reading from the Book of Common Prayer, which is the reason I asked him along in the first place. I'd finished scattering the ashes according to the instructions my lover left, I'd done all he asked—after waiting six years, because I just couldn't bear to do it, to part with his ashes. And then Donald leans down, picks up a piece of bone, about two inches long, and puts it in his wallet. I said: `What are you doing? Put it back!' And he just smiled and said: `Protestants like you always have a problem with relics.' I told him I was not a Protestant. And he said, `Well, then, you agnostics,' and I told him I was not an agnostic. I told him I was a scientist. I told him I was not even a Christian. I am an atheist. He said he knew plenty of people who were scientists and good Christians and I said they were lying to him. Anyway, he kept the bone and won't give it back to me! Said I'll have to force him to give it back on our last night in Mexico. Then I slammed him against a wall of one of the pyramids, and threatened to kill him, but that only made him happy."
"Because he's a masochist, and now he can't wait till I threaten to kill him again, which I refuse to do, of course. But when I ask him nicely for the bone he says something like, `Now is not the right time.' Well, when is the right time? I could strangle the shit."
"Oh no," said Mister O'Connell, "it's what he wants you to do."
"I know that," said the man. "By the way, my name is Richard."
"How do you do," said Mister O'Connell, introducing himself and me, and then, rather than make the small talk that accompanies introductions, he returned immediately to the subject they had been discussing. "Couldn't you steal the bone instead while he's asleep?" he said.
"Steal the bone? It's my bone! Or my dead lover's! Anyway, I tried that but he's hidden it somewhere, it's not in his wallet, where I saw him put it when he picked it up. I looked. I must say the whole thing leaves me feeling very edgy. This is not what I had in mind for my farewell to Larry."
"And in such a sacred place," said Mister O'Connell.
"Exactly," said Richard. "Larry always felt Monte Alban was a source of great energy."
"You've been here before, then," said Mister O'Connell.
"The year we met," said Richard.
"And that was ...?" said Mister O'Connell.
"1962," said Richard. "We were together thirty years. And it's taken me six to be able to even think of giving up the ashes. Which I thought I had done," he said. "Till Donald picked up the bone."
"Why do you think he did it?" said Mister O'Connell.
"I don't know," said Richard. "Years ago, I slept with him. But I had no desire to do, it again, and I think he always held it against me. People like him are not used to other people not being interested in them."
"He has what the Taiwanese call `instant fame.' Or at least the biggest dick in Minneapolis. I think it's bothered him all these years that I didn't want to sleep with him again, much less become romantically involved, and now it's almost as if he's flirting—he's like a seven-year-old girl who takes something from a seven-year-old boy and makes him chase her around the room. It's just so silly. Unless he has some mystical angle on it I don't know about. I refuse to ask, frankly, because I'm furious. It's just not done. You do not pick up someone's bone whose ashes have been scattered and put it in your wallet. The scattering of ashes is a sacred moment. Why does he want that bone? And why should I even have to ask?"
"Shall I ask him?" said Mister O'Connell. "You don't want to, you're too angry, but I could. Come with us tomorrow, we're going to the ruins at Mitla—in the next village. They're marvelous, the bus leaves at ten. I'll chat him up there."
The next day we all set off in a van for Mitla, which, when we got there, turned out to feature another church, with an open-air market next to it where women swarmed our vehicle to sell us painted ceramics, plates, and dolls. "I feel like food left out on a picnic table in a cloud of flies," Mister O'Connell muttered as we walked along. "It is demoralizing after a while." The ruins themselves were strangely impressive, however—much smaller, less grand, than Monte Alban, but somehow more evocative: the dull red paint still on part of the temple, the precolonial frieze, the big, square courtyard where the victims were sacrificed, the tiny room one was allowed to enter where the priests had stayed. I sat in a far corner of the courtyard and watched a busload of French tourists take over the site for an hour, and then drive off, and then spotted Mister O'Connell walking deliberatively across the open sunlit square of earth. "You can feel it here, can't you," he said. "It's that little room, that dull red color, it's much more Maria Montez than the other, something happened here, you can actually imagine it, and it was blood sacrifice," he said with a sigh, sitting down beside me. "And the church," he said, looking at the twin domes that rose directly behind the ruined temple. "You know, the Spanish built their cathedrals right on top of the temples they tore down, to let the Indians know: This is your religion now. It could not have been more arrogant or brutal. What Europe did in the name of religion is astonishing. And now what is our religion? Travel packages. Two weeks in Cancún. Seinfeld. MTV. The point is, Dostoyevsky was right—if God is dead, then everything is permitted. The world is only recently awakening to that fact. Oh, Mexico," he said, lying down on the stones. "It has so much more history than we do, and it's such a big, big mess."
"He's coming this way," I said.
"Who?" he said.
"Ah," said Mister O'Connell, sitting up. He waved. We watched the priest walk slowly across the grassy rock-strewn courtyard, pause to look into the entrance to a burial chamber, and then resume his way toward us in the dry, white sunlight. "The Jesuits are the reason Pascal wrote the Provincial Letters," said Mister O'Connell in a somnolent murmur. "They were very slippery creatures even then. They're awfully smart. And you know where intelligence leads you...," he said.
"Where?" I said.
"Directly into S and M," he said.
"That's what he looks like, actually," I said. "A man in a leather bar, utterly average, though there is something louche about him, something sly."
"Very evocative, don't you think?" called Mister O'Connell when the Jesuit came near.
"Very," said the priest.
"I was just saying the Spanish always built their churches on the foundation of the temple they tore down. Rather cruel."
"Rather," said the priest. "But then the human race has been politically correct only a very short while."
"So true. Weren't you people in fact expelled from Mexico in the last century?"
"Almost," he said. "Persecuted, certainly, and confined. But some of us remained."
"Mexico has had this schizoid history," said Mister O'Connell. "Both very devout, and rabidly anticlerical, depending on the period. I am so impressed by the few churches we have visited, how they are still used, by all kinds of people, all ages, both sexes, all hours of the day. In the National Cathedral I saw a young man take his baby to the foot of a statue and press the hem of the saint's robe to the baby's lips. They are still very devout, whereas we are so very rational. I asked a friend only last month, a Presbyterian minister I know, if he believed in God, and he laughed, and said: `That's a very Catholic question.' Can you imagine? A very Catholic question! I should have thought it was a very human one. But in the United States, science, or applied science, rules. Do you actually have a parish and a flock?" he said.
"I teach," said the priest. "Linguistics. Foucault."
"Ah," said Mister O'Connell. "Not two of my favorite subjects. Is this your first time in Mexico?"
"Yes," said the priest, sitting down beside us.
"You must admit it has quite an ecclesiastical history," said Mister O'Connell.
"It really does," the priest said.
"And a pre-Catholic one," said Mister O'Connell. "And that's why it's fascinating. Or used to be. I'm afraid it's becoming too second world, too American, now. A bit too much hustle and bustle. Mexico used to be different. Now it's all leaded gasoline and soap operas on TV."
"Well, that's history, too," said the priest.
"And what is your history, if I may inquire?" said Mister O'Connell. "How do you know each other, you and your friend?"
"What is this, confession?" laughed the priest.
Mister O'Connell went white and smiled. At that point someone waved at us from the van and we realized we were leaving. "The caravan moves on," said the priest, and we got down from the wall and crossed the blazing courtyard in silence, several yards apart. "You don't interrogate a Jesuit," muttered Mister O'Connell as we drove back into town. "Did you hear that? `What is this, confession?' I know when I've met my match. This is obviously going to be tougher than I thought," he said, and he was silent till we got back to the hotel.
The hotel was a rather small four-story building right downtown between a jewelry shop and a bank—which explained, perhaps, the presence of soldiers with machine guns on the sidewalk nearby. Its atmosphere was not that of the luxurious converted convent, or even the bougainvillea-covered pension popular with Americans up the street. Its atrium was plain and the people in it mostly silent: a mix of German youths reading their guidebooks before setting out for Monte Alban, American women traveling in groups, with visors and sensible shoes, writing letters beside cups of tea, and Mexican businessmen reading the contents of their briefcases. It was a hotel whose noise was that of maids and janitors, the slap of pails and mops, and echoing voices as they cleaned rooms that were quite spartan—simple furniture, a ceiling fan perpetually revolving, not the slightest decoration—and redolent of disinfectant, a bit like a hospital; very clean, with gleaming tiles and just-washed floors. Mister O'Connell's room was on a short, dark hall with a broom closet leading to another smaller courtyard. The med student thought they should change rooms, after our first night there, so he could sleep late during the day—since Mister O'Connell was not going out at night, and the med student was, wandering around Oaxaca at two in the morning trying vainly to find a gay bar—but Mister O'Connell showed the reed student how to close the shutters and the double doors, draw the curtains and stuff pillows round his head, so that whatever noise the street produced would not penetrate. Latin cultures were always noisy, said Mister O'Connell, if you were not very careful.
Unable to sleep, the med student and I went to the plaza to watch people. When we went to wake Mister O'Connell after his nap a few hours later, we found him still in his underwear, and he went right back to bed while we sat down on a bench in the corner. "Do you like your room?" I said. "Like it!" he said. "This room is my dream of Mexico. This room is right out of Graham Greene," he said as he lay there watching the ceiling fan revolve overhead. "This room is made for the dark night of the soul. It's the room all Americans are secretly seeking when they come to Mexico, even though they think they want the Hyatt. This room is a confessional," he said. "It reeks of God."
The med student said all he could smell was Lysol.
"God is Lysol," said Mister O'Connell. "Both at the beginning, in childhood, and at the end, when one has put away things of the flesh—when the hospital bed has to be fumigated and the corpse cleaned. God is Lysol," he repeated, waving a hand in the direction of the ceiling fan. "I can understand perfectly why Morris stays in the hotel and reads about the ruins rather than going to them. It's the room that does it. It's the room that casts the spell. It's the room that asks Pascal's question—why do men leave it, to go out?" He sat up. "Have we eaten all those cheap coconut cookies we bought in the market this morning?"
"Yes," I said.
"Then that answers Pascal's question," he said, falling back with a sigh. "We must go buy cookies. I shall commune with the dead after dinner. I shall have my religious crisis here later tonight."
I said he must be thrilled having a Jesuit so close at hand.
"Not really," he said. "Ten years ago, yes. But I've heard so many stories about them now. A friend of mine in Los Angeles has a Jesuit friend who comes to visit—they go to nude beaches together and pick up men. Can you imagine? The last one they saved, inadvertently, from suicide, it turned out. He had gone to Black's Beach to drown himself. My friend and the Jesuit, I must say in all fairness, were probably the two best people he could have met at that moment—a therapist and a priest! God works in mysterious ways. They brought him back to their tent, and a more hopeful view of life. But to go to a nude beach in San Diego to pick up men—is not my idea of a priest. Even if God may have sent him there."
"Isn't that a bit sentimental?" said the med student.
"Not at all!" said Mister O'Connell. "That is just how God acts—through other people. All we can possibly know of God is embodied in other people! God can only be other people!"
"Sartre," said the med student, "said, `Hell is other people.'"
"Well, of course," said Mister O'Connell, "though I think what Sartre meant was, `Hell is other tourists.' Or, `Hell is being a tourist.'"
"Do you really feel that way?" said the med student.
"Don't you?" said Mister O'Connell. "Don't you have these terrible moments when you are traveling abroad, far from home, of absolute panic—when you suddenly realize you are far from home, that you are basically nobody, or simply a rootless little consumer with precious few elements of identity who ventured too far out on a limb, and the limb is now about to crack?"
"No," said the med student.
"Never?" said Mister O'Connell. "You never have these moments when you are traveling of realizing that you have sinned, sinned greatly, and the only thing you can do is return home immediately and do penance?"
"What sins?" said the med student.
"The sins you are evidently too young to have accumulated," Mister O'Connell said, "but which I suspect you inevitably will. The sins that cluster like stamps on your passport when you have traveled a great deal," he yawned. "When I was young that's all I wanted—lots of stamps on my passport. That was my sin. I should confess to the Jesuit—though I'm very old-fashioned in these matters. I find this one a bit much."
"And slightly sleazy," I said.
"Sleazy's the word," said Mister O'Connell. "Whatever his original motives for picking up the bone, to use it now as a tease is beyond the pale! For that's what he's doing. So foolish, considering the man has no desire to sleep with him. And there's the irony. It is the atheist who refuses to be corrupted by the presence of a large reproductive organ. Rara avis. You'd have to go far and wide to find someone like that, especially in these times, which grow, as you know, more and more pornographic. So pornographic I often think a religious revival must be just around the corner. The country used to have them every twenty years. But now that science, and the entertainment industry, are regnant, it is hard for the religious impulse to express itself. We believe, alas, only in the here and now."
"But what else is there?" I said.
"The not-here-and-now," said Mister O'Connell. "The so-called other world. The one we can neither see nor hear. The one where presumably those we love who have gone before us hover and watch. The land of the dead. You are young, dear boy, you have not had much experience of death, I presume, or rather, the only deaths that have any impact, of those we love. Well, someday you will experience that. Till then, enjoy. After that, join the club. What do you suppose he will do with the bone?"
I said I couldn't imagine.
"It is the first thing that has interested me in a long, long time."
"But you travel so much," I said.
"Oh," said Mister O'Connell, with a wave of his hand. "Travel is completely pointless."
"It's just another form of consumerism," he said, yawning.
"People buy trips now the way they buy automobiles and blankets. They get on a plane, are transported to some hotel, like the one in Ixtapa, or a beach in Vietnam, and all they've done is exchange the scene they saw on the television screen or the magazine cover for the real thing. Cancún, Bali, Miami Beach. What's the difference? The experience of traveling—which used to take weeks, months, which used to be full of danger and difficulty—is gone. There is no traveling anymore. There is only container cargo. And the cargo is tourists. Unless drug smuggling is a form of travel," he said, putting a finger to his lips. "Maybe if you're landing at Kennedy with twenty condoms filled with cocaine in your lower intestine, any of which may burst and kill you instantly, you feel a sense of adventure—more, anyway, than the poor slobs in Manhattan who are going to buy the cocaine and use it. But that's it. Otherwise, it's over."
"Because of television, dear boy, and the jet plane. To come down from one's room in Machu Picchu, as I did last November, and see the concierge watching Bobbie Batista on CNN describe a freeway pileup in Atlanta—it's over. There is no travel anymore. There is no there to go to. The whole world is now Atlanta. It worries me. I often wish there would just be a flood—to just wash it all away. Tell me—if you were God, would you spare the earth because of one good man, or would you drown it because of one bad man? You could go either way, it seems to me."
"What are you talking about?" said the med student.
"The fact that we are so decadent," said Mister O'Connell. "That Americans are so rich, and bored, and trivial, and selfish, and therefore doomed."
"Intellectuals are always saying that," said the med student. "But America just goes on eating hamburgers, having babies, and building shopping centers. The West is booming."
"Not in my view," said Mister O'Connell.
"But you're not Bill Gates, are you?" said the med student.
"No," said Mister O'Connell. "I'm not Bill Gates."
"So you may be decadent. But that doesn't mean the country is."
"But it does, it does," said Mister O'Connell. "Because I've had all the advantages. I was the middle-class son! I was given the education. And here I am in a hotel in Oaxaca wondering why a Jesuit with a big dick picked up the bone of a man whose ashes were scattered by his homosexual lover beside the pyramids of Monte Alban. I am a biopsy of the larger culture. In a democracy decadence does not arrive when the aristocracy becomes effete—it shows up in the life of the average man. Americans," he said, "are too damn sophisticated. You'd never know we once had sumptuary laws. You'd never know the Puritans had rules about how you could dress. Now we've got Marky Mark on the bus shelters in Calvin Klein underwear—and queens who actually buy the stuff! We've come a long way, baby. To the point where the only thing interesting anymore is what the Jesuit plans to do with that bone."
"What do you think he means to do?"
"I don't know," said Mister O'Connell. "There's no telling what people do with ashes nowadays. Now that cremation is so à la mode. You could write a book about the things queens have done. A friend of mine was left ten thousand dollars to scatter his lover's ashes in twenty separate places! By the time he was done, he had racked up a hundred thousand frequent flier miles, and a new boyfriend from Sri Lanka. Queens consider ashes a reason to party! The Church, on the other hand, has never liked the idea of cremation. And she has always been very fond of relics. Churches are built on relics. A church must have one to be consecrated. So perhaps that's all it is. In an age when you no longer go to the grave, or hear the clods of earth striking the coffin, in an era when I can no longer distinguish between a funeral, a cocktail party, and an encounter group, we may be facing nothing more than a Jesuit's natural respect for relics. An ancient respect for bones the rest of us have lost. We must consider all the possibilities," said Mister O'Connell.
"Which are," said the med student.
"One," said Mister O'Connell, holding up a finger, "he took the bone merely to flirt. Two, the Jesuit could not bear to see a man's mortal remains left on the ground for the wind to scatter, even at a place as dramatic as Monte Alban. Three, it's because it was Monte Alban, a pre-Christian shrine, that he could not allow it. Four, he thinks someday Richard will want a memento, something to remember his lover by."
"That's quite creepy," said the med student.
"Not at all," said Mister O'Connell. "Just because you were raised in a country that has quite banished the presence of death from its culture—bones are a big part of human history, dear boy, a big part of human history. The bones of the saints—don't get me started! Battles, cities, crusades, massacres, history itself, have all centered on bones. Peru is loaded with bones."
"I somehow don't think anyone wants his lover's femur sitting on a shelf next to the stereo."
"Be that as it may," said Mister O'Connell, "I want to know why."
"But I thought you were going to ask him."
"I was," said Mister O'Connell, "till he mocked my natural tendency to interview people. Once they do that—once they put up the warning flag—I can go no further. I will not be rude. He fired a shot across my bow, this afternoon at Mitla—queen to queen—and that is that. I respect boundaries. One must."
"Then how are you going to find out?" said the med student.
"You are going to ask him," said Mister O'Connell, sitting up.
"You're young, you're attractive, you have universal appeal—everyone is attracted to you. You have that thing a young gay man has when traveling which puts travelers' checks to shame, you have that quality which does make travel an adventure, even in the age of container cargo—you have desirability. Good looks. Work it! My time is past, you're on the dance floor now. It's the sort of question I see most naturally occurring in a postcoital embrace."
"If he's trying to get his seventy-something friend to sleep with him," said the med student, "I don't see why he'd want to go to bed with me, at twenty-seven."
"Oh how I wish I was twenty-seven," said Mister O'Connell, "and could do it for you."
"Of course," said Mister O'Connell. "I saw you, dear boy, in the square last night get looked at by that handsome Mexican father walking the two-year-old. He didn't look at me. I foolishly went nowhere when I was twenty-seven. I was so addicted to Manhattan at the time, I wouldn't even go to Brooklyn, much less Brazil. I was too busy being gay. And now that I am traveling again, I'm too old to be part of the paseo, the way you were last night. Be part of the paseo, dear—sleep with the Jesuit!"
"I find him unattractive in the extreme," said the med student.
"That's not the point," said Mister O'Connell. "The point is to use your gifts while you have them." He fell back on the bed. "Take it from one who knows. A few years ago I read the life of J. R. Ackerley, the British writer, who discovered Japan when he was older, and realized how much he liked the people and their manners. I'm half afraid to travel now, half afraid to—"
We stopped to listen to the maids in the hallway; they went on.
"Discover my Japan," said Mister O'Connell. "The place that will make me realize I should have gone there sooner."
"Well, why don't you find that place now," said the med student with a calm, unflappable air, "so you can start enjoying it?"
"Because that is the moment when you are destroyed!" said Mister O'Connell, sitting up. "When the sea you have been walking through, like the Israelites escaping Egypt, suddenly comes crashing down upon you. When you finally understand just how and why it was that you wasted your life! Most people cannot bear to face such truth! This is why I won't go to Portugal!"
"Portugal?" said the med student.
"Yes," said Mister O'Connell. Then he said in a quieter voice: "I have a suspicion that Portugal is it."
"The place I should have gone when young. Though of course," he said, standing up, "it is quite possible this place does not exist at all. The point is, we are here, now, in Oaxaca, whose square I find a little bit of heaven, and we have a mystery to solve—why the priest pocketed the piece of bone. Please think about your assignment and reconsider," he said to the med student, and with that we all went out to have dinner. It was early. We first chose one of the restaurants on the square and drank beer while we watched the crowd circulate, and the soldiers with rifles outside the bank finally jumped into the back of a truck that came down the narrow street and drove off. The shops were closing up. A concert was beginning in the square on a stage in front of the church—two singers accompanied by a quintet of guitar players. It got darker. The lights came on. Men with clusters of balloons wandered around through the crowd of children, grandparents, tourists, teenagers. It was impossible not to feel a sense of anticipation, that something wonderful would happen in the square that night, that you would meet someone and fall in love. Instead, we went up to dinner in the same restaurant. As we were walking to our table, the Jesuit and his friend were leaving theirs; and just as we were sitting down, the Jesuit made a slight detour and came over, leaned down beside Mister O'Connell, and said: "The reason I did it, I'm not sure. I don't know why I did it. It was one of those things I can't explain, except perhaps that I could not bear to see him left in a foreign place, so far from his own country, because of some New Age superstition. I can't tell that to Richard without hurting his feelings, and so I'm going to keep the bone until I do know what is best, and if it makes him angry and no longer a friend, then that is that. So now you know," he said with a smile.
"Yes," said Mister O'Connell, with wide eyes.
"Good. Because I knew you were a knower," said the Jesuit. "Good night. Have a safe journey home."
And with that we all sat down, and for some reason fell into the same sad silence we had been overcome by the first night we got there and stared down into the square; a silence even I cannot explain, unless it was one of those sudden pockets of depression that people fall into when they're tired of travel, and far from home, or it really is an angel passing through the room.
|Sunday Morning: Key West||75|
|The Man Who Got Away||89|
|The Sentimental Education||105|
|The Hamburger Man||151|
|Someone Is Crying in the Chateau de Berne||173|
|Innocence and Longing||195|
|Joshua & Clark||233|
|In September, the Light Changes||295|