Muralists begin by drawing on the body. She drew muscles on her arms. She drew birds across the blue sky of bruises appearing on her skin. Her bones became the balance beams her blood learned to dance on. On the edge of a cornice, or walking the ledge of a rooftop, she made the arch of her foot as appealing as that of her brow. She tagged the highest buildings. She ended relationships that made her feel small. Painting, her wrist was the ankle of a dancer. It pivoted her from one world into another. She lived in the Laundromat. She slept in unused dryers. She put shoes in the dryer to create a thunder like applause. Bed sheets unfolded into circus tents. She lowered herself into her cannon, a 240-volt Maytag washer. Other people’s forgotten sweaters, shirts, and gloves embraced her more often than her family did. “Fuck,” she said. The word flew off her lips like a hubcap every time her mood turned a corner. “Light the fuse,” she said. She aimed for an escape from life. Two exposed wires lay next to her. I connected them and shot into the air.
She spoke the way rain fell over the ocean. Her voice was the sound of something returning to itself in pieces. “Breathe,” she said. Clouds formed on a mirror she placed under my nose to show I was breathing. “You’re fine,” she said. “Get up.” Her cheekbones were so steep that little survived on them, especially not sympathy. Songbirds sang with the syrinx, a Y-shaped vocal cord that produced two sounds at once. She was a visual syrinx. She looked unnavigable and inviting, familiar and unreachable. Rain fell from the mirror. “Are you seeing this?” I asked. “No,” she said. Dust kicked up in childhood clouded her vision instead of texturing it. “What’s your name?” she said. “Rags. And yours?” I asked. This was a rescue story. And like so many others, it began with Mayday.
We painted murals to call out Attorney General Scott Pruitt. He looked good. His wrinkles were like pleats that didn’t make him look old so much as well dressed. White hair shot from his head like a receipt for his thoughts. He deregulated mercury and carbon. Mercury leaked into the water at the Laundromat. We got fucked up just putting our clothes on. The Laundromat was full of drunks asleep in the dryers, lost in a world that never ceased to spin. Rings of Saturn made of fireflies and nightingales spun around the building. Street urchins bled from glass misting off skyscrapers. Tenants leered out of bleary windows and broken eyes. Mercury poisoning, at its beginnings, looked like alcoholism. It was full of mood swings and a lack of coordination. A bottle shattered by my head. We top-roped up the building. Banana peels, coffee grounds, and spoons rained out of the windows. Used Q-tips, goldfish, and anvil-shaped toasters rained on us as we tried to paint.
Mayday shouted, “Watch out!” The flat brick wall suddenly bulged and shook. “Wall worms,” she said. “What?” I asked. “That movie about giant sand worms,” she said. “Yes,” I said. “They can hear you walk the ground, you know that movie?” “Yea,” I said. “Same thing,” she said. “But on the wall.” A spotlight from a police cruiser swept the side of the building. We were seven stories high. “Stay still and they can’t see you,” she said. I grabbed onto a gargoyle and did my best imitation. Given my looks, it wasn’t that hard. “I’m going to fall,” I shouted at her. “You’re fine,” she said. She opened a window. “Grab my hand,” she said. The spotlight swept towards me and I felt the brick wall pitch and swell.
She unclipped her harness from the belay keeping me safe on the wall. “You ever hear about Lady Jane and Incas?” Mayday asked me. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Lady Jane and Incas were two parrots,” she went on. “They lived in the Cincinnati Zoo. Incas died in 1918. He was a Carolina Parakeet, the last species to migrate from Latin America and survive winter in the U.S.” I gripped the building tighter. I started to get dizzy and panicked. I shouted at Mayday to clip back into the belay. I’d fall seventy feet off the building we were painting if she didn’t stop the fall. “They were shot for sport,” she said, “and to protect crops. They were also shot for their feathers that were popular on ladies’ hats.” The pitch we were climbing was only a 5.7 but she watched me sweat in terror. “They flew around a wounded or dead companion rather than deserting them,” she said. She kicked a hole in a window. “It made it easier for hunters to shoot the surviving spouse.” Mayday grabbed my hand and pulled me through the glass.
She looked older in the dim light. Sunlight seen through an ocean wave filled her eyes with a beauty made visible by its collapse. “What is this place?” I asked. “My son lives here,” she said. “He takes care of me,” she said. She went back to the kitchen. “He’s just washing up from work,” she said. The apartment floor moved. It was covered with small cockroaches and translucent ants. “He pays my cable, my groceries.” Little legs moved over pots and pans. “Your son isn’t here, is he?” I asked. She put on clothes from the Laundromat and let her pupils dilate. We looked out at the cityscape. Spotlights swept across the walls of the city. “We don’t speak to each other anymore,” she said. “Where is your family?” I asked. “They are all far away,” she said. “What will your mural look like when you’re done?” I asked. She showed me a photo of her mother. She took it with an old film camera. “How does the camera work?” I asked. “Light hits the film. The image doesn’t appear until the film is dipped in chemicals.” Developing film was the same story of her family harvesting the fields. They hit a border black as film. Organophosphates, 2-4D, and other chemicals bathed their bodies until an image developed in our food. She handed me a red hat from the hamper. I put it on. Language drifted across the mind like sunlight across a forest floor. Branching memories defined how much filtered through. Mayday had lost more than most. She knew the left- and right-handedness of pain. Memories of loved ones held her, but with the non-dominant touch of someone who has let them all go. I started to find it harder to connect with her. She was all frays and no rope. Her top lip was as thin as a piano string. My body was the melody it let go of.
She kept painting until my hair thinned and my bones became scaffolding instead of structural support. Wrinkles rippled on her skin where her younger self dove into the pond of her body. She studied those wrinkles for clues to whether that girl would ever resurface again. To her surprise, aging did not gentrify pain in the body or push it further away from the heart. The pH of her sanity had simply acidified. The dreaming coral in her brain had bleached. Scars on her body had begun to measure in pain something she could not fathom in health. “To love” now resembled “to loot”: a riot or disaster followed by theft. Anything of value was taken from the ruins of past relationships. Her vision of a better life had become illuminated by the static electricity from the friction of producing it.
She knew better than to stay with me. She was a historian, not of the past but of those who wanted to forget it. She’d studied enough men like me. We turned her hair gray. Her gray hairs became pulleys, lifting the emotional weight of her remaining black strands. That’s what I thought, anyway. I projected too often onto her. She loved her gray hair. She compared the mural of her mother’s face to her own. The braided light in her eyes had untwined. Doubt had stripped the copper wiring from her eyes, leaving them less conductive of an inner light. She smiled but didn’t look any younger. This was the trouble with wonder. It had no age in a body that did.
She began taking her meals by herself in the bucket lift of her truck. She organized crumbs into pictures that told stories of breakfasts left, like her body, untouched. “This isn’t working out,” I said. “Yes, it is,” she said. We left each other. Scuffmarks on her kitchen floor began alphabetizing new ways of writing about people she no longer shared meals with. Her mother was a few half-made turns towards her on the linoleum. Her sister was the straight streak headed for the door. Her floorboards gave more beneath her weight than her father had given to her in years. I was just another wick in her hate-wax. A lifetime of disappointment came to light through me. She didn’t want to keep sleepwalking through her body or down the hallways in her arms. She wanted to feel the cool night on her face. She wanted to paint on the exterior walls of the tallest buildings with the wind in her hair. She wanted to dance on the ledges of her body, her lips, and her eyelashes. She wanted to move between her body and the world as a dancer moves through her routine, turning stillness into poise, movement into grace.
She had mirage-colored eyes. She always looked far away. Iridescence required a rough, fractured landscape at the microscopic level and she had been broken to shine. The relationship fell apart and we felt pressured to look at our wounds like botanists, asking what balm we might extract from them, or what lesson we might learn. She refused to make compass needles out of the splinters of a life whose directionlessness was a condition of the country she found herself in. She preferred murals, photographs, and cartoons. Of course, if she read this, she’d roll her eyes and look wealthy with the amount of contempt she’d have for me.
More spotlights swept the walls where she was painting. “Come on down, Mayday,” I shouted. Even after we’d separated, there was a motion sickness in her name. I spoke it and got ill with the sensation of being carried away. Bridges I built in conversation were weight-restricted. I could convey only so much of myself across in words. Mayday preferred visuals anyway. She started to come down and handed her brushes over to her body. The body painted fewer muscles. But she had less loved ones to carry with them. The body drew larger ears. But she listened to the quiet more than the people who gave her a need for it. The body drew inflamed knuckles and arthritis in her joints. But dexterity benefitted those holding onto love, not those letting it go. Neither of us apologized for aging the other so quickly. Forgiveness, in English, was a request to be given something, as though it were a transaction. But desculpame, a Spanish translation, decoupled a person from blame. The verb had the connotation of breaking. It better mirrored the emotions involved. It was easier to forgive in languages we had ceased to use. Wind blew in the trees around us. Shorter pine needles produced higher pitches in the air. Longer needles made deeper tones. The length of time that our wounds were in healing also changed our tone of voice. At times, we said “I forgive you” with optimism. At other times, we said it with that long insolvent plea of one person letting another one go.
Venegas James is a civil rights attorney for migrants.