Hello, Goodbye

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Photo by Stephen Silverman.

1.

I toyed around for a while with the idea of calling this piece, “Bonjour, Au Revoir.” I thought that A) it just sounded pretty hilarious, and B) the word bonjour has always had a sort of wonderfully pretentious French flair that I like. I guess au revoir does too, but I decided against it.

I decided against it because, funny as I thought it was, it was also kind of stupid and because, well, I’m not French. In fact the only thing French that has ever been a part of my life with the exception of the obvious–fries, cuffs, kisses, ticklers, toast, latex maid outfits and onion soup–was my ex-wife.

We married young. Her parents were racists and disowned her after the wedding. They were probably anti-Semites too but I never found out because I am not Jewish and we never really talked about Jews, or anything else. We just sort of stared at each other once or twice.

One time I found a porno they had. The story revolved around a bunch of black chicks in a barn getting double and triple teamed by guys wearing Ku Klux Klan outfits. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from that. Personally I didn’t draw any. I just watched it–a couple times.

My ex-wife and I were heroin addicts together for a few years. The first time we tried to get clean we came to New York. We figured that the city was so big and so exciting and that there was so much going on that we would forget all about the dope. Of course, the truth was that the dope was just twice as good and half as cheap and about a million times easier to get. In fact it was probably easier and cheaper back then to buy a bag of dope than it was to buy a bag of grapes and so, ironically, a few months later my girlfriend and I returned to Ohio broke and depressed and with a genuine, honest-to-goodness drug problem.

The second time we tried to get clean we went to Missouri where we figured we wouldn’t be able to get any drugs, and it worked, kind of.

We got clean. We got jobs in a chicken factory in the middle of nowhere, then moved on to a chicken factory in a small town, then on to a chicken factory in a larger town, then on to a turkey factory in the largest town in Missouri…well except for St. Louis and I guess Kansas City.

The work was hard and cold and wet and I lost both my thumbnails and the people we worked with were crazy because you have to be crazy to do that work, or desperate. I saw a woman–Betty–break her arm in a machine there. The bone broke through the skin and through her shirt and white smock and through the stupid blue plastic arm protectors we had to wear and just kept ripping through until it was pointed out and away from the direction it was supposed to be pointing when it was inside her arm. Her hand was basically touching her elbow. “Nooooooooo,” she had screamed. That was it. She was back at work in a cast three days later.

Crazy? Desperate?

I also saw a guy “accidentally” cut open his wrist. He almost bled to death before they got him to the nursing station one floor down. We had to stay and work extra late that night because they had to shut down the line to sanitize it.

I’d work extra hours on the weekends in the knee-deep stew of blood, fat, urine, shit and constantly running water that was the evisceration room. I hung the dead, featherless but still-warm birds on a line. First, you’d hang the neck, then flip the feet up into little hooks so the birds were hung with their tails pointing out at about face level. The next guy down the line would stick a little vacuum gun in their butts and WHOOSH, nothing left inside. Eviscerated: a word that belongs solely to the nightmare realms of poultry factory work and Slayer songs.

“Desecrated, eviscerated and time perpetuated!”

When you flipped the feet up into the little hooks, six times out of ten the birds would shoot out a stream of shit that usually hit you in the neck but would sometimes land on your beard net. Everybody, male and female had to wear a beard net, for sanitary purposes.

I worked extra on the weekends because a guy I knew had a White Blazer that he would sell me real cheap and a badass orange 65 Dodge Dart with black racing stripes that he would sell me even cheaper if I was willing to buy the cars as a his-and-hers set. The way I had it figured I could save up enough to buy them both just in time for my wife’s birthday and give her the cool Blazer as a gift, and that’s exactly what I did.

On the morning of her birthday I gave her the key and took her outside to see the cars. I told her what I had done and was proud of myself for having been able to keep the secret for so long. She looked at the cars and at me and said, “I can’t believe this. This is so perfect, because I am leaving you.” She went inside, started packing and was gone that night.

I left while she was packing and got drunk, and when I came back she was gone and the bad ass Dart was gone too. I found out later that she had snagged my keys while I was out and gave them to this guy she was fucking and he stole my car, but I didn’t care. I didn’t even report it stolen. I just moved to Minneapolis.

But that was all a long time ago, and you know what they say about time and wounds and we are OK with each other now. I was really surprised when I found out about all the infidelities and even more surprised when I found out that our house really hadn’t ever been broken into and that she had actually taken all my cool kitchen stuff—the juicer, food processor, the knives—and pawned it all for money to buy drugs then took the drugs and fucked a bunch of dudes while I worked on Saturdays, but like I said, time and wounds. Anyway, she was one of the only really French parts of my life and so calling this piece “Bonjour, Au Revoir” just didn’t really seem right. I mean, after all, it’s not about her. It’s about me.

Photo by Patrick O’Hare.

2.

I reacted to my failed marriage in the most mundane, boring, cliché way imaginable. I fell out of love with the world, and I got mad at women. It was years before I started dating again. I had plenty of great drunken sex though. With enough alcohol in me I could forget that I was furious at the entire female race for long enough to have a good time in bed. And thankfully, they were for the most part good times. My anger never manifested itself in the bedroom or the kitchen or the ladies room or the closet or that little patch of grass between those two houses or wherever we happened to be. I don’t know if I would have been able to live with myself if it had.

I got over it though, kind of. My first few dates were disasters. I have vague, embarrassing memories of someone who looked like Mary Stuart Masterson–that woman from Some Kind of Wonderful and Fried Green Tomatoes that looks like an eleven-year-old boy. And slightly more vivid embarrassing memories of a date with a girl who looked exactly like a lima bean with some sort of fuzzy red mold growing on it in a few spots.

And then there was Bronwhyn who was down to earth and wonderful and who, in a surge of that warm intoxication and easy camaraderie that inevitably follows a healthy bout of really vigorous anal-sex, I had once jokingly told that she was so skinny that her asshole was on her back, referring to her near total lack of butt cheeks. She didn’t see the humor in it. She was a good sport though and stopped slapping me after a while then started talking to me again a few days later and we remained friends. Which is more than I can say for several of the women I thought it was a good idea to kid around with post-coitus.

Elayne, like Bronwhyn, had been a good sport but kicked me out of her bed when I told her that sleeping with her was like sleeping with a librarian. And not a sexy, fantasy librarian from some cheesy porn mag or movie, but a real librarian. I hadn’t even been trying to make a joke that time. I thought I was giving her a compliment.

I know I shouldn’t do it. I know I should always, always keep my mouth shut after sex and just be happy that I’m getting some but I never do. I never mean anything mean by it but I think maybe women, many of them anyway, get a little sensitive and introspective after sex and I get loquacious and giddy as a schoolgirl and all stoked that I just had sex. And, I feel a sort of camaraderie that is rarely if ever truly shared by my partner.

I told one Ruben-esque beauty as we lay exhausted, spooning in her loudly-protesting bed after a well-cushioned triple-X throwdown that if she lost twenty pounds she could be a real high-end prostitute. Not funny. I mean it was funny, and not mean-spirited at all if you could see into my mind, what I was really thinking, but I suppose that’s a little unfair, to ask someone to see into your mind, or I guess my mind. She didn’t think it was funny, and even though she didn’t say anything I could tell. I’m that sensitive. A year or two later I bumped into her at a bar. She was drunk, and she confronted me. “You remember that time you said that if I lost twenty pounds I’d make a great prostitute? Well, I did lose twenty pounds!” She said and gave a little twirl.

It was true. Clearly she had lost twenty pounds. She looked great, but I mean, what exactly was she trying to say? I tried not to think about it. I just nodded my head walked away and felt awful for the next few years.

Driving through Minnesota. Photo by Hannah Rappleye.

3.

By the time I met Sarah, things were beginning to change in me. I was becoming less of an idiot, I guess, and she helped that change along simply by being who she was, or what she was: smart and understanding.

I had been on several dates with Sarah and slept with her nine times before I finally got a friend of mine to ask a friend of hers what her name was. I don’t remember how I managed to go that long without knowing it, but at that point I knew I was developing some real feelings for her and figured I’d better find out. Things progressed pretty quickly after I stopped calling her “Hey You” and within a few short weeks we’d moved in together. Sarah convinced me that what I really needed was a change of scenery, and eight or nine months after that we were in Livingston, Guatemala drinking Venado and eating matchuka in the Bahia Azul, watching beautiful black-skinned Garifuna women eat whole fried fish scales, fins, bones, head and all. That’s all it took. I was in love with the world again.

4.

I had a breakdown once. It was after my ex-wife and I came back from New York and had burned through the little bit of money my dad had left me when he died. My mom and brother would call once a week to check up on me. They’d ask how I was doing, and I’d make up these ridiculous lies that only a mother could believe about how my art career was really taking off or how the experimental stream-of-conscious novel I was working on was generating a lot of interest. They’d ask how I was doing with dad’s death, and I’d say I was dealing with it, which was the biggest lie of all. And then they’d say, “OK. Love you,” and hang up the phone, and I would immediately do everything I could to forget the conversation.

All of our new friends were second-shelf slime balls that lied to us and stole from us because they were drug addicts, but we’d lost most of our old top-shelf friends because we started lying to them and stealing from them. You know how it is. You’ve seen the public service announcements, the after-school specials. And somehow, somewhere in the midst of all that I had this breakdown.

I started baking cakes. Constantly. Five, six, sometimes seven or eight cakes a day. Coffee cakes, cakes with orange or lemon zest, upside down cakes, rightside up cakes, bunt cakes, burnt cakes, spice cakes, space cakes…whatever. I sifted flour endlessly and chopped walnuts and sliced almonds paper thin, and I melted sour cream and chocolate and brown sugar and peanut butter for glazes and sunken glazes and marble tops while my wife shot up, listened to the Pixies and masturbated upstairs. I’d leave the house twice a day to pick up and drop off heroin and shower once or twice a week, but other than that I spent my time in the kitchen. Our crappy new friends would stop by and eat cake on a pretty regular basis and sometimes they would bring their friends–real bottom-shelf people I knew or didn’t know, and those people would eat cake too, but it was never enough and I’d always end up running out to the dumpster to throw away a bunch of cakes I’d baked only hours before. I don’t remember anyone ever stopping me and asking, “Dude, what the fuck are you doing?” Maybe someone did but if so, I don’t remember it. I imagine our new friends were afraid they might interrupt their supply of cake if they’d said anything. I bet they’d gotten pretty used to the lavish lifestyle the money they were saving not having to buy Ho Hos and those icky jelly roll-up things and didn’t want to give it up.

One day at the height of the whole cake thing, my front door opened and my mother and brother walked in. My mom looked around and immediately began to cry. She said, “My God, what are you doing?”

“Baking a cake,” I said and held up the bowl of batter as proof.

I completely forgot about that whole thing until, one day, years later. I was with my friend Josh, one of the old top-shelf friends who’d stuck it out with me, and he just started cracking up out of the blue. I asked him what was so funny and between laughs he said, “Dude, do you remember when you used to bake all those cakes?”

“Cakes?” I said, and then it hit me. I did remember, and all at once I realized just how fucking honestly, genuinely insane I had been for a while. It was a scary feeling.

Going to Livingston with Sarah had a similar effect on me. I looked back over the last few years since my wife had driven off in her birthday Blazer and sort of saw them as one long slow-motion breakdown. I had been living through one long, sad, weak-minded, cakeless breakdown. But in Guatemala I was alive again, whole again, and I had Sarah to thank for that.

Livingston, Guatemala. Photo by Tomek Wiazowski via Flickr, www.flickr.com/photos/wjaz.

When I realized that I felt something well up inside me, an outpouring of emotions I had hidden from myself or repressed. For the first time I felt that intoxicated post-sex camaraderie without the sex. I laughed and hugged Sarah to me and for some reason I chose that moment to tell her the story about how I hadn’t known her name for the first few weeks of our relationship. A day or two later she left for El Salvador on the back of a motorbike with some Latin Adonis. That was in Todos Santos de los Cuchumatanes, 9,200 feet above sea level in the town where Henry Miller’s old girlfriend Maud Oaks had lived for a while. I was working as the coordinator for a school up there called the Proyecto Linguístico de Español y Mam and celebrated our breakup by bringing a tiny, white-blond, buck-toothed, jug-eared German who probably hadn’t changed her panties for about a week back from my friend Antelmo’s bar to my office conveniently located next door and performing oral sex on her vagina with my mouth. She came, then stood abruptly and said she had to leave. The only bus out of town left very early in the morning, and she wanted to be on it. I looked down at my boner and at her, and thought, not for the first time in my life, that the fucking Germans have no understanding of the rules of fair play, then started to laugh. I let her out and went back to the bar.

A Frenchman asked me if he could sit at my table. I shrugged. He introduced himself as Duane Revlon and asked me point blank if I’d gotten lucky with the German girl he’d seen me leaving with earlier. I laughed and told him what had happened. He laughed and bought me a consolation shot of Quetzaltecha, and then I bought him one, and then he bought me another.

From what I’ve heard, I started crying at some point, and then passed out. Duane kept talking to me for a while even though I was asleep, then got up to use the bathroom and fell flat on his face in the dirt and spit and cigarette butts that were the bar’s floor.

He woke up the next morning shortly after I did and brushed himself off. He looked exactly like an ashtray with a stupid French haircut. I laughed, then winced in pain. Antelmo came in and made coffee and poured us all a few shots and we helped him clean the bar and get ready for the next night, which was much the same as the last, minus the German.

6.

I rented a little house up the hill off the main street with some hooks on the wall for my clothing and a mini-gas stove and a plancha and an outhouse. Graciela, the landlady, had metal teeth. Whenever she came to collect the rent, I’d offer her a few sips of Venado, and we’d get drunk together sitting on my little hard bed, and I’d think about having sex with her because I’d never had sex with anyone with metal teeth. We’d get closer and closer as we talked and drank and I think I put my hand on her leg once or twice, but always before we got any further one of her 9,000 kids would come bursting in, or we’d see one of them peeking in the window giggling, and Graciela would jump up screaming and shooing them away stopping at the door to throw me a parting glance, and then disappearing again until the next month.

I became very good friends with my neighbor Josephina who made tortillas and had seven children by seven different men. She had metal teeth too, but sex was not an option. We were too close. One day I was sitting with her while she patted out perfectly round tortillas faster than you could imagine and all of a sudden I noticed out of the corner of my eye what I thought was a big black dog sniffing at my leg. Strange dogs were not uncommon in Todos Santos even indoors, especially if there were tortillas to be had, so I wasn’t too surprised but my heart nearly stopped when I looked down and saw it was not a dog but a naked woman on all fours with dreadlocks that must have reached well past her waist when she stood. I jumped and spilled my beer. The naked woman jumped and sort of cowered in the corner, and Josephina started laughing. She laughed and laughed while my heart raced and finally, when she had caught her breath, she apologized and said that she had forgotten that we had never met. This person was her “wild” daughter. That was how she explained it. She said they usually didn’t let her out when guests were around but we had gotten so close that she hadn’t even thought about it. She asked me if I minded. She asked me if I wanted her to put the girl back into her cage. I told her no and opened another beer and thought that the world was a very strange place filled with situations that were difficult to peg as specifically right or wrong or good or bad.

Of Josephina’s seven children only one was a boy, Peter. He wore his American sounding name the way one might wear one of those over-sized novelty foam #1 hands at a football game, but he was a decent kid.

Josephina had built an extra room onto her house (think creepy shed) and she would occasionally rent it out to students from the school I coordinated, but because of her daughters, she only allowed women. After Sarah left me, and I had Graciella’s little house to myself, the women who stayed with Josephina began with uncanny frequency to sneak out of her place and come over to mine. Mornings afterwards, Josephina would often give me a sly smile and I couldn’t help but wonder if she was encouraging these visits in some way and if so, what did that say about her and about the women who stayed with her? And about me? I was positive that there was at the very least something unprofessional about it. And then I’d think of Josephina’s “wild” daughter in her cage and again that the world was a strange place, and then, I’d usually drift off to sleep. This normally happened in Antelmo’s bar and several times it was students from the school I was coordinating who woke me up to say that classes had ended for the day and that all the teachers had left and that I should probably go lock the place up. I had a vague idea that this too was unprofessional.

Todos Santos, Guatemala. Photo by gtravels via Flickr.

7.

Duane Revlon, the ashtray with the French haircut, came back to Todos Santos and this time he brought friends. Jesus looked like a medieval bum with this enormous hair and a beard that always seemed to have some fish stuck in it and a tiny little retarded arm. Not withered or shrunken. Perfect actually, just really small. His hand however was totally normal: man-sized. It was kind of sad, because it was obvious from the way he sometimes tried to hide it that he was ashamed of it, but more than sad, it was fucking hilarious and we cracked on him about it constantly.

And Ben who got drunk and broke up a drum circle on Lago Atitlán throwing sand in everyone’s eyes and screaming that he would turn their circle of peace into a circle of pain.

And Juan Carlos who got us chased out of a town for breaking some furniture in a prostitute’s room.

And Armelle, who was tiny and trusting and beautiful and somehow put up with us and had the worst Spanish of us all and had one day wanted avocados and asked Ben and I what the verb was for ‘to find’ and we told her the verb for ‘to suck’ and she walked around the village all day asking people if they knew where she could go to suck some avocados. I suppose it is worth mentioning that where we were at the time, avocados was the common slang term for balls.

They all showed up in Todos Santos and convinced me to leave my job and I did and we traveled together for nearly a year through all of Central America getting drunk and then getting drunker and listening to a Manu Chao tape in every bar that had a tape player. We invented a story for ourselves. We told people we were vacationing clowns. We told people that back home we had a tiny silver car and that at the start of every act my dog would drive it out onto stage, and one by one we would all climb out of it. It caused quite a sensation, we said. No one ever doubted it.

In Monterico we stayed in a wonderfully shabby little family run place. We impressed the wife and the aunt and the three beautiful daughters–seriously there were three beautiful daughters–with the stupid bar tricks we’d picked up and with our ridiculous clown story and we got drunk with the dad and the uncle and kicked the soccer ball around and body surfed with the boys and became friends with every one of them.

Once while we were there I walked into town and bought the biggest fish I have ever seen in my life and decided to cook for us all: our makeshift family and their real one. It was a beautiful night. There were steps leading down to the beach and I sat on them alone scaling this enormous sea creature and looking at the moon shining down on the black sand, the black water and listening to the sounds of my friends laughing and lighting the fire behind me and the waves crashing in front of me, and then I heard footsteps. It was the oldest of the three beautiful daughters. She sat down next to me and didn’t speak for a moment and then looked at me and asked totally seriously, ”¿Cómo es la vida de un gran payaso?” What is it like…the life of a great clown?

I looked at her and was struck briefly by the absurd lie we had all been living. For a moment I thought I’d say, “We’re not clowns. We made all that shit up.” But instead, I was quiet, and then looked directly into her beautiful eyes and said, “Wonderful. It’s wonderful.”

Fin.

Contributor

Jason Wachtelhausen

Wachtelhausen has written for magazines including Wired and ReadyMade.

ADVERTISEMENTS