Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Caporetto

Caporetto



Thanks to an invitation from Adriano Ossola and his annual event, éStoria, I was finally able to visit Gorizia and Caporetto and many of the other towns that are featured so prominently in my grandfather’s novel “A Farewell To Arms”. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and Ernest Hemingway and his brilliant, anti-militarist, portrait of the Italian defeat at Caporetto have not been forgotten.

As anyone who has read his book knows the young protagonist Frederic Henry gives a very detailed description of Gorizia and of the Austrian front and most people assumed when it was first published that like “The Sun Also Rises” here was yet another autobiographical novel from the young American author. But Ernest never visited Gorizia or Caporetto, nor did he ever set foot in the town of Plava where Frederic Henry is wounded in the knee from a bomb blast. Nor did my grandfather stagger away from that blast with a bleeding Italian soldier over his shoulder, at least not on that front. He was wounded near Fossalta di Piave almost a year after the battle of Caporetto.

Still, even today there are many people who are convinced that Hemingway was there. In Gorizia a volunteer at the event told me that he had proof that Ernest had been in town and that there was a photograph of him standing next to his ambulance with a group of friends. “Era qui! Proprio qui!” He said excitedly, “right here”, forgetting as many admirers of my grandfather often do that Ernest was as good a journalist as he was a writer.  He researched his books extensively and in this case he interviewed people who had fought in the battle of Caporetto and he read whatever accounts of it he could find.

The battle represented a turning point for the Italian army, its nadir, which would then be followed by a renaissance in terms of tactics, leaders and general good fortune. Over a hundred thousand soldiers would be killed or wounded on both sides. The destruction was immense, with whole towns and forests pounded to the ground by non-stop shelling, the dead bodies of men and animals littering the roadsides and mountains and the river Isonzo. To go there today it’s hard to imagine the kind of insanity that had gripped this part of Europe for so many months. The trees have grown back, the towns have been rebuilt, the Isonzo is as clean as it ever was with its emerald blue waters that are the delight of fly-fishermen the world over, myself included. But traces of the war remain. In the woods and by the riverside you can still find pieces of shrapnel and bullets and occasionally, if you have to dig, the odd unexploded shell.

Fishing on the Isonzo

On the morning that I went fishing it was a beautiful day with a few clouds that were covering the highest peaks in a white mist. The water was ice cold with the snow-melt from the mountains and as I cast my line out into the stream I thought of the scene from my grandfather’s novel where the Carabinieri (the military police) are interrogating and summarily executing all the ufficiali or officers who had somehow lost their units, whether it was through desertion or just the chaos of battle, it didn’t matter to them. Frederic Henry hearing the gunshots understands that if he doesn’t move he’ll die and he runs as fast as he can towards the river, diving in and staying under water for as long as he can hold his breath to avoid the bullets above him. This is not his war he tells himself and all the things they say to get you to join up about honor and bravery, king and country are obscenities.

He had made his separate peace.



John Hemingway Copyright 2014


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Taking it to the streets



I recently returned from Spain and I have to say that one thing that I really like about the Spanish is that when they get fed up with something, usually having to do with their government (local or national), they protest. And when that doesn’t work, when their elected representatives either ignore them or tell them where they can go stuff it, they riot. Of course, for someone like myself, politically more an anarchist than anything else, this kind of “in your face” response to bureaucratic obtuseness is most refreshing. In fact, when I heard about the recent riots in Burgos (250 kilometers due north of Madrid) and the 40 people who were arrested and the 11 injured policemen and how it went on for three days I wondered why nothing like that ever happens in the USA? Burgos, a town with a population of 179,000, is currently a half a billion euros in debt, and because the town doesn’t have a lot of money to throw around many of the social programs that its citizens depend upon have been curtailed or eliminated. These are hard times in Spain and while most people can certainly understand the need for frugality, the decision by the city government to build a parking lot under the town’s main road to the tune of eight million euros is not being frugal and was probably seen by many of the protestors as the straw that broke the camel’s back.



But as I was saying, if this can happen in Spain, in a small town with serious cash-flow problems, why aren’t people in the USA taking to the streets in the towns and cities that have filed for bankruptcy? Why aren’t the citizens of Detroit in Michigan and San Bernardino and Stockton in California as mad as hell and burning cars and trash cans like their cousins in Spain? Not only are their cities in debt (in Detroit’s case for over 18.5 billion dollars) but their government in Washington has been spending trillions since the crash of 2008 to bail out the infamous “too big to fail banks” and to fund the country’s never ending wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Some observers have called this orgy of “quantitative easing” (printing money like there was no tomorrow) the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the history of mankind. But in the midst of this historic theft, with all this money going to the Nation’s defense contractors and bankers why haven’t Americans reached their point of no-return? Why haven’t they taken to the streets to demand a fair share of what their tax dollars have been subsidizing all these years? I hate to sound like a communist, but if the wealth of any nation is created by the people who actually live and work in that country then it seems to me that the average American is getting royally screwed.

Indeed, for all the vaunted superiority of the American system and way of life we have forgotten that the government belongs to the people and that if it doesn’t respond to our needs and to our communities then it must be changed. In Spain they haven’t forgotten this and I am sure that as the economic crisis grows so will the protests.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Monday, February 4, 2013

Spain Again, Seventy Years After

Here's my latest article on Collier's Magazine.


Spain Again, Seventy Years After

Before leaving Montreal for Madrid a friend gave me a heads-up. He had traveled to both Russia and Spain this year and told me that the Spanish police were much worse than their Russian counterparts.  He said that if I was within striking distance of a cop and his truncheon, whether I was involved in a protest or not, I would be considered fair game, and also that being with the press or wearing something that said prensa would not protect me. With 25% of the country out of work and fed up with the government and its austerity cuts or recortes, the police, he said, were showing no mercy. Men, women, teenagers, it didn't matter; if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time you could expect to be hit. Someone had given them a green light to get the job done the old fashioned way, and it showed. On the 25th and 26th of September, the Spanish were shocked to see news reports of the Policia Nacional savagely clubbing and shooting demonstrators with rubber bullets in front of the Congreso de los Diputados. For a country that had endured 36 years of Fascist rule, it was a bit much. Police brutality was not something to be taken lightly, and while the transition to democracy after Francisco Franco's death had for the most part worked, it didn't mean that the secret torture chambers and the unmarked graves of the fascist era had been forgotten. The memories were still there and with every clash between the police and the protestors, the Spanish could judge for themselves whether or not anything had changed since the 1930s.
But was history really repeating itself, I thought? Was Spain, as it struggled to survive in a worldwide economic crisis, on the brink of something catastrophic? And if so, who or what was to blame and was there any solution to these problems? Certainly a case could be made that the country in 2012 has more in common with 1936 then it does with the period immediately preceding the Wall Street collapse. Before the crash everyone was making money, and in the small town where I lived in 2006 just east of Malaga, it was obvious why the British had jokingly renamed the Costa del Sol the “Costa del Crane.” Everyone was building. There was a mad rush by anyone with any kind of land to sell it as fast as they could to the developers of the Nuevas Urbanizaciones (the new subdivisions). They were springing up in an almost Brazilian way wherever you looked: European favellas complete with structural faults and in some cases no running water. My own apartment building had been built on a hill and had a large visible crack dividing the upper section from the lower section. You could see it in the outside wall, and I asked one of my neighbors if the structure was actually splitting in two, but he assured me that it was just the ground that was settling and that it would take a while.
Like all property bubbles this one didn't last and when it collapsed the economic engine of the country disappeared with it. Unemployment skyrocketed, people started to default on their mortgages, and the mood of the country went south. Since 2008, over 400,000 have been evicted from their homes and my grandfather would have certainly recognized the anger and frustration the average Spaniard faced with such bleak economic prospects. He would have also recognized a government that is essentially powerless to stop the international forces that are bearing down on the country, but that at the same time are aiding and abetting these forces as it soldiers on with the austerity budgets demanded by the Germans, the IMF, the E. U. and the big banks.
The Andalusian writer, Antonio Muñoz Molina, who was the head of the Instituto Cervantes in NYC and now teaches at NYU, is not a friend of the Rajoy government, nor does he approve of its austerity policies. “There are 6 million unemployed in Spain and many of them have no government support whatsoever. The government is simply following the E.U. game-plan and pushing its own right wing agenda.” We were speaking in a bar near the center of Madrid and I asked him how things had changed in the last four years. He said that there is an immense sadness in the people. “Whereas before the crisis there was energy and hope for the future, now there is none.” At the same time he cautioned that this generalized feeling of depression could easily change to populism. “For example, look at the Catalan independence movement. It is their new fantasy.  As a country it would never be viable and in fact it has never existed as a sovereign state. It has always been a part of Spain. Now they are saying that their region gives more to Madrid in taxes than it ever gets back in funding for its social programs. But when the economy is bad everyone starts to complain about that. The real problem is that there is too much bureaucracy in Spain. There are simply too many governments when you add up all the local, provincial, and regional entities. And all of these governments are redundant and cost money, because we are looking at a lot of salaries that have to be paid for a lot of useless bureaucrats. That is what we need to cut, not our health, education or social programs.”
Strangely enough, Rodrigo Rato, an ex-managing director of the IMF and a former minister in the conservative Aznar government (PP), agrees with much of what Molina has to say. They are about as different as you can be politically but they both believe that the sheer size of government in Spain has to be reduced if the country is ever to recover financially. Rato also thinks that Catalan independence is unrealistic, but not because you can't change the laws (presently it would be illegal under the Spanish constitution) but for economic reasons. He gave the example of the port of Barcelona. It is the largest and busiest, not because it is in Catalonia, but because it is in Spain. Put that port in an independent country and its business will suffer. He then mentioned the problems that they would have using the Euro and repaying their share of Spain's national debt. He did think, though, that the push for independence was being exacerbated by the bad economy and that the Catalans were right to a certain extent in expecting more from Madrid.
Unlike Molina, Rato is in favor of the government's austerity policy as a solution to Spain's economic problems. Still, he thinks that the government working on its own is not enough. It needs the active support of the European Central Bank (ECB) as a lender of last resort, similar to what we have in the USA with the Federal Reserve. This, however, would require a European banking union, with a unified system of supervision, he said. I asked him if the Germans would agree to this and he answered that he thinks so, that eventually they will have to. I nodded and as he started to explain the need for “mutualizing (bank) losses on a European level,” I thought that it was actually quite surreal to hear Mr. Rato talk about the merits of a unified system of supervision, considering that recently he and thirty others had been indicted in Spain for banking fraud, falsifying documents, and embezzlement. As president of Bankia (an enormous Spanish savings bank) from its creation in 2010 to May of this year when it reported losses of 4.3 billion Euros, it would have been his responsibility, in theory at least, to have an idea of what was going on where he worked.  The meltdown, after all, was quite a scandal. The bank had to be partially nationalized by the Spanish government and here in front of me was a man who had perhaps looked deep into the center of this financial black hole. A man who supported, without hesitation, a program of austerity and budget cuts that would never affect him (he is quite wealthy) and who, as president of  Bankia, stood accused of nearly destroying an institution where tens of thousands of ordinary citizens entrusted their savings. Every man is of course innocent until proven otherwise, but it occurred to me that should eventually he be found guilty as charged and convicted, Spain would have succeeded in doing something that the United States with all its courts and lawyers seems incapable of doing: actually bringing to justice one of the bankers responsible for this huge mess.
Later that day when I met Toni Cantó, an actor turned member of parliament with the Union Progreso y Democracia (UpyD), he said that if I had spoken with Rato, then I should know that the money used to bail out the banks that he was connected with was public (which I knew). But that this was totally normal in Spain because the two major political parties are inside the banks (which was something I didn't know). “In the Cajas de Ahorros (the savings banks) Rato and company were running the banks, controlling them for their own uses. Making a lot of money and using them for projects that they could utilize in upcoming elections. Construction projects, like the city of lights in Valencia, the Castellon airport, have you heard anything about that? It was built but it isn't open, because it isn't being used, no one actually flies there.”
What I needed to understand, said Cantó, was that in Spain half the banks are private and the other half are public and the political parties thought of the public banks as a kind of gigantic ATM machine.
“This is true,' agreed Pablo Gallego, one of the founders of Los Indignados, the Spanish group that was the inspiration for the activists of Occupy Wall Street, “But part of the reason for this stems from the fact that after the dictatorship there was a political change, but there wasn't an economic change. Franco himself said that he had essentially left the regime intact. And now everyone is talking about this economic immobility. The same oligarchy that controlled things under Franco is still in control. The families that ran the banks and the building industry in Spain when Franco was alive are still there.”
But it gets worse. According to Gallego, many of the leaders of the present political parties are sons of those who were members of the Fascist party. “Rubalcaba, the head of the socialist party, is one such person. For the Falange he was a black sheep, but no one on the left ever held it against him that his father was a fascist. But this guy now has a million euros in his bank account so what kind of socialist are we talking about? People are talking about this. They don't trust these politicians and they don't trust the system, which in turn favors the fascist parties in Europe. Look at what is happening in Greece with Golden Dawn.” I asked him if there was anything similar to Golden Dawn in Spain and he said that there wasn’t, but that there are some members of the Spanish delegation to the European parliament who now openly say that Spain was better under Franco.
But what do the Spanish really want; more or less democracy? In the end would the Spanish favor a group like Los Indignados or the Greek Golden dawn party? “That is the question. We asked for more democracy. I know what happened to Occupy Wall Street. How the US government got rid of them. Here in Spain we had some meetings with the police, the police union. These cops told us that we had to be careful because the government has spies in our organization. In the end what we really want is a democracy that is protected from economic power.”
But are people in Spain beginning to wonder if they even need a government considering the lack of success Prime Minister Rajoy has had in reducing either unemployment or the deficit? “Well, during the Civil War there were over a million anarchists, a really a huge number. We have a tradition of that here. We had Franco, but we also had anarchists. If you ask me, though, it's better to have a state, and a government.”
As for Los Indignados, he thinks that they have to evolve from being protestors to citizens. They have to ask themselves just what kind of society they want. In his opinion, most people would say that they want equality, justice and an end to corruption. Unfortunately, he admitted, while a lot of people want change, they don't want to get involved because they are afraid of another coup d'etat. “Spain has had a history of this.”
To get a better idea of how the crisis was affecting the average Spaniard and indeed how it was moving up the economic ladder I spoke to film director Alejandro Toledo. Toledo has had a very successful career directing TV commercials for corporate clients and I asked him about the advertisement he filmed for Caritas, the Catholic Church's main charitable organization. It is a very powerful clip that shows a young man in his thirties walking through the streets of Madrid with a little girl who isn't more than five or six. The two of them are homeless and the man is tired and worried, not so much about anything that might happen to himself, but because of his daughter. He doesn't have any money and she doesn't understand why they can't go home, and she wants something to eat. The first thing you notice about him is how normal he seems. He is not at all what you would think of when you think of a homeless person. His trousers and his jacket are neat and clean and his hair is cut, and even the suitcase that he's pulling along gives him more the look of a tourist than a man who has just lost his job. This is a story about the new poor in Spain, about the middle class that is finding it harder and harder to get by in the big cities and that is increasingly turning to organizations like Caritas for help.
It is a very moving and realistic commercial and I asked Toledo how he came up with the idea. What inspired him to do an advertisement for Caritas? “It's based on a true story” he said. “One day I was walking along a street in Madrid and I saw this guy who I hadn't seen in ten years; a film producer like me, walking into a Caritas food dispensary with two of his kids. I was so surprised to see him that I stood there and the next thing you know the three of them were walking out again carrying bags of food. Of course, I understood immediately that he was taking that food because he needed it for himself and his kids and it hit me that this man was a professional and that if it could happen to him, if he could lose his job, then it could happen to anyone, myself included. And it was then that I knew that I had to contribute in some way. I couldn't just stand by saying nothing.”
When I asked if the Spanish resented the immigrants who were still there and receiving unemployment benefits he said that none of these people are stealing from the system, that everyone is just getting what they paid for. He was categorical in his support for them. “This is a crisis that is affecting our own but also all these immigrants. We have millions of them here who came to work in the construction industry during the boom period. They have put down roots in Spain, with kids too, and they are covered by the system. So, what I noticed when I was making my movie was that the crisis was relative. Most of the people are covered by social security and health care is free. Of the five million that we have here who are unemployed, three million are covered by social security. It is the other two million who we really need to think about.”
All of this is manageable, he said, so long as the government continues to pay for benefits like unemployment and health care. The money is there, it's just a question of how the Spanish decide to use it. Caritas does a lot to help those who don't have any kind of coverage, but even more important is the traditional role of the Latin family in taking care of its own. “In a Latin country, you have to ask yourself with 5 million people unemployed why aren't these people on the streets, why isn't there already a revolution? It's because of the communities that exist, with the family doing their part, this is what Latin is, this is the Latin mentality. If you go to the USA you don't see many Latin people who are homeless in the streets. In Miami for example you don't see Latin homeless.” He did have a point about Spain. Many people who I spoke to while in Madrid told me that if it wasn't for their families it would be much more difficult to survive in the crisis.
So the safety net in Spain was not just the government. Individuals and families still counted. Recently a couple in the Basque Country, Jose and Isabel (their last names were not given) posted an insert in a local newspaper offering their vacation home for up to a year to any family in economic difficulty, free of charge. The turning point for them was the suicide (one of many due to eviction) of a woman who was about to be removed along with her family from a house not too far from where Jose and Isabel live. In one interview, Jose said that at this rate “Spain will become a country of houses without people and people without homes”. He said that they were not millionaires. That life, however, had been good to them but that they were no better than anyone else. Something had to be done and this is what they decided to do. Their example has inspired many. The city governments of both Madrid and Barcelona, for instance, have now decided to allocate some of the houses that they have to people who have been evicted from their homes. Perhaps all of this could be seen as a new trend and evidence that people are waking up to the fact that strong measures, and not just more austerity, need to be taken with the crisis and the pain that it has generated.
Some, such as UGT union leader Cándido Méndez, whom I interviewed the day of their general strike in November, understand that it is going to take a long time, perhaps ten to twenty years, to rebuild Spain's economy after the collapse of the housing industry. Culture, the Spanish language, and agriculture are some of the strong points that he sees in Spain's economic future, but this is going to require a lot of investment, he told me.
Others, such as the 70 year old Enrique de Castro, are not waiting for the money and are taking matters into their own hands. De Castro was certainly one of the more interesting people I met while in Spain. A Catholic priest, although he doesn't like the word “priest.” “Jesus,' he says, 'abolished the priesthood like he abolished the temple, like he abolished the intermediaries between man and god. In the Bible this is very clear, even if they try to hide it.”
De Castro has been serving the parish of Vallecas, a suburb about 10 miles outside of Madrid, for 31 years. During the transition period to democracy in Spain he denounced the torture that was still being carried out by the police, even during the socialist González government. He has always taken the side of the weakest in society and he and the other priests in his parish came out in favor of the laws legalizing divorce and gay marriage and this obviously created a lot of tension with his superiors. “We were talking to journalists in the newspapers and on TV and telling them, for instance, what we knew about the world of drug dealing (his parish is in a section of greater Madrid which has always been a problem area for drugs). Namely that there were economic interests, even political interests, in putting to sleep, so to speak, a whole generation of potentially rebellious youth.”
“What we supported and what we were against contrasted stridently with the image of other priests and especially with the church hierarchy, but our job was to take care of those who couldn't take care of themselves. Finally I remember that an auxiliary bishop from Madrid came to see me and asked me to sign a document that was written by Ratzinger himself. He was already Pope, even if this particular document was from his days as a Cardinal in the Santo Ufficio. The bishop asked me to read and to sign that document if I wanted to be in communion with him and with the cardinal. But I realized that if I signed it I wouldn't be in communion with my people, because basically it was saying that homosexuality was against nature, that they were depraved, etc.” And so he didn't sign it.
I asked him what he thought about the austerity program of the Rajoy government and he said it was affecting in a negative way everyone. He has personally worked with many Moroccan teenagers, even taking some into his own home. The cutbacks meant that all of these boys could no longer receive medical treatment because they didn't have proper visas. He knew of a few who had been receiving treatment for cancer or AIDS and they had had to give up their treatment.
I asked him what he thought would happen to Spain and he said that in his opinion things would get worse. The government would continue with its austerity measures and the labor unions would hold their one day strikes that affected no one. “I am convinced that the only solution to our problems is living in small groups and doing the best we can within these groups. In our parish we have created this kind of community, one of mutual aid and respect for others. The only revolution that we need to start is the one based on caring, on feelings, and generosity. It is the only revolution possible, because if you seize power you become that power and there is no difference between you and it. This was the tragedy of the countries of Eastern Europe, they made a revolution with the people and they then governed without them.”
Spain, I knew, would be different. It would survive the crisis because of its people. “True faith,” De Castro told me as I said good-bye, “is believing in others.” The strength of the Spanish had always come from the small communities, from people taking care of each other and believing in their essential dignity as human beings, and it would be no different in 2012. In a time of crisis, everyone is given the chance to discover what is essential in life.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Desire

Here is a short story that was published in Chum Literary Magazine last August.



Desire




As she moved his hand to her throat her blue eyes expanded in ritual fright and desire. The less she could breathe the more she knew she would feel him and if his penetration was true then abortions would follow. It had happened this way three times in the space of six months and while the abortions weren't exactly Celtic cannon she had told him nothing. In her own way she may have even loved him, expressing herself in a comfortably confused pot-pourri of ideas that she'd acquired from her father, grandfather and the internet.

The bedroom where he would take her faced the beach and the Gulf Stream and was on the twentieth floor of a high-rise next to the shipping channel. She would have preferred an imitation Bauhaus with sweeping white lines and protective stonewall, but the waterfront was public property and even with all her wealth there apparently were limits to what you could buy in America. Looking at her building from the beach he often thought that like his lover, its unblemished, blinding white façade was far too distant and severe and whispered of future disasters.

She was not from Miami, but appreciated its lack of traditions and the way that men looked at her when she drove her Aston Martin down Ocean Drive or parked next to one of her favorite boutiques in Coconut Grove. They loved her eyes and her diamond watch, her legs and her small but well shaped breasts. But most of all they could never get enough of the way that she would look at a man. As if he were the only person in the room or on the street and as if nothing else mattered. Her focused but ephemeral attention giving each of them their 15 seconds of fame. It was a drug and she needed it as much as they did.

The monthly events were altogether different from the chance encounters. Only old friends were ever invited and always in groups of three. Three being the minimum number for a Celtic quorum, even if you couldn't really call it a quorum in a deliberative sense. It was more a celebration of humiliation and dominance, although in that particular sect they liked to refer to it as a “trust building” experience. With just three friends for dinner they'd use the ropes. But with six or nine or twelve they could take turns holding her down. There was always an objective and the objective depended on the month and the ancient saying for that month, the father is fear, trust derives from pain, what to do when Leos collide, etc. It was difficult to remember everything but from the age of six she'd been raised for this, following the old ways, the ceremony and their language (a mix of pre-destination and romantic brutality). Her friends after all were depending on her for guidance and she had never let them down.

She believed in her cult and its future and initially had chosen him as a kind of designated pinch hitter. This Italian-Cuban native of the Keys would bring new blood to her decadent line of Uber-menschen businessmen. He was relatively young, younger than her, and poor, certainly compared to what she had, and this she figured was a good match. He was a barman on a cruise ship and that was where she'd seen him serving mojitos and daiquiris. She drank a lot and paid in cash when she was alone, which wasn't too often. She had a foreign accent, German or Swedish, and she liked the company of men.

The cruise was to the far reaches of the Lesser Antilles and Suriname, and on the fifth day out of Miami she arrived later than usual, ignored the others who were hovering about her and waited for him to finish his shift. “Take me back to my room” she whispered as he brought her her last drink. They stopped briefly on the deck to look at the sea and the full moon and he felt her waist and her hands, which were small and fine. They didn't have much to say. It was time and they knew it and at the door to her cabin he pushed her into the room and onto to her bed where he took her from behind, making her feel his pain. She, of course, appreciated the gesture and remembered, as he drilled into her, that there had never been a moment in her life without fear and that the fear had tempered and protected her from the things that would bring her down. Hadn't her father himself told her that he would always love her and that if another man even so much as looked at her that he would take the matter into his own hands. Wasn't this fear on his part? And wasn't he instilling it in her, wondering as she always would as a girl if any boy who ever looked at her would live to see another day? And didn't he also teach her how to come from the age of four, fingering but never penetrating, preparing her for the eventual public deflowing? Indeed he had, and she was as grateful as a Celtic daughter could be, given the circumstances.

In the world outside their tribe they called it incest and rape, child abuse and a host of other distasteful terms, but from her vantage point as a five year old it was just love, pure and unadulterated. If a man wanted to take a woman and be truly married to her then it had to be this way, in the circle of trust, from behind, with an initial thrust that would demonstrate once and for all who belonged to whom. That she belonged to her father was clear, or at least that was the plan. They would marry when she was twelve in a conservative rite with vetted friends, good food and wine. As a girl she had dreamed of this, of being united with her father as only lovers are. Deliriously happy as he would attend to her for hours in their wedding bed.

While those dreams never materialized all that had happened was hers to live with and cherish or despise, depending on the day and how she felt or who she was talking to. Of course, she told the pinch-hitter, Giacomo, about her upbringing and her father. At first affecting a kind of shame to see how he would react, blaming her parents and playing the victim. But as the weeks passed and their love-making blended with the drinking and the drinking with the pain, she told him more and he discovered that it was easy to get her to talk. She might not be telling him the truth but what she was saying had a certain coherence to it. He discovered that when she was drunk he could ask her anything and she would answer him so long as he was “matter of fact.” The most intimate details of her father's weekly sessions were his for the taking if his voice was neutral and clear. She liked easy to answer questions and on those rare occasions when he couldn't keep it simple he wouldn't get a response.

“When was the last time you were with your father?” he'd asked her as the two of them were sitting on the couch of her living-room. The apartment was quiet and the glass windows to the balcony were open and you could hear people shouting from the beach. She had half a bottle of Porto in her hand and was leaning against him naked and tanned as she took small steps into the twilight of her past. She had reached that blurred state she so often sought out in the evening, when her mind needed to wind down from the day and recover the stability she'd never had.

“We were with the lawyers and I was 11. It was in their office and they were wearing their robes and so you couldn't see much.”

“They worked for your father?”

“They did. And my grandfather, too.”

“He was also there?”

“No.” she said.

“And what were you wearing?”

“Nothing, of course,” and she told him that there was perhaps a film of the encounter because it was an official meeting and they had an interest in documenting these things for future generations.

Pedophiles with a need to set the record straight, he thought, with an expression that bordered on mild interest. There was a breeze blowing in from the ocean and he looked out the window and then back at her. He'd never asked her age, but assumed that she was at least ten years older than he was, just from the look that her eyes sometimes had. A tired gaze from too much experience, a mental fatigue she couldn't shake off.

“And what did your father do?”

“What he always did. I was on the desk, so that the lawyers could see and he was licking me. Slowly at first, concentrating on my clit and then expanding his scope to include the rest.”

“With the lawyers as passive observers?” he asked.

“No, not exactly,” she told him, “they participated, doing what they'd been told to do.”

“Which was?”

“Curious today, aren't we?”

“Sort of,” he said, feigning disinterest.

“Well, I'll tell you,” she told him taking another drink from the bottle, “but only because I love you, and because it really was beautiful, ceremonially speaking. They were the children of the goddess, Danu, and I became the Lady of the Lake under warm rushes of steam and liquids over my chest, neck and cheeks.”

“They were jacking off?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“You never told me that before.”

“You never asked” and he knew as soon as he'd said it that it was stupid but he couldn't help himself as he looked at his girlfriend and imagined her in a room with these men. It stopped him cold and as she went on describing the scene and its particulars he thought for a second that this was what insanity was like. Not being able to come clean or dislodge from your mind what could never be wiped away.

“Now I want you to fuck me like those old ugly lawyers never would,” she told him as she stood up and moved to the dining room, nearly tripping over a chair and dropping the Porto on the carpet.

“Get me another one,” she said motioning to him with her hands to come closer.

“Should I open it?” he asked, and she nodded a couple of times as she positioned herself against an antique wooden table. It was long and very heavy and he thought that it was the kind of table that you could jump or dance on and it wouldn't break, it was that strong.

“This is how it happened,” she said.

“What?”

“With my first husband, not here but many years ago.” And she was bracing herself with her arms stretched out of in front of her, her legs spread wide, ready for his pleasure, submitting to him the way she's been taught to.

“Anyone ever tell you that your skin looks good against live oak with termite holes?”

“No,” she said, “now take me, take me here.”

He uncorked the Porto and took a swig. She was re-enacting her wedding night, the one where she'd been raped by her spouse in a hotel dining room that had been rented for the occasion. At least sixty people had watched, and, if he was to believe her, it was something that she had really looked forward to.

Later on, because of the pain and the blood she wouldn't sleep with another man for 20 years, until the pinch-hitter. The excuse for breaking her vow of chastity was that she needed to conceive but she didn't like the way a fetus felt inside of her and got rid of them with abortion pills. The RU 486 treatments weren't cheap at $500 a shot but that was about what she paid for a bottle of pink Moet et Chandon and comparing them to one of her favorite drinks helped her to keep things in perspective. Life was expensive, but even terminating it had its costs.

She loved her man and if she wanted to continue making love to him then she would have to use the pill every time he succeeded in doing what she wanted him to do. Birth control just wasn't contemplated in her cult and she didn't waste any time worry about it. She was still fertile at 41 and she loved the way he could make her come for hours on end, never letting up, never letting her stop. In bed or against the oak table she would scream at him, act deliriously, swear at her father and her mother and all the Teutonic knights and witches that had come before her. They hovered above her in those moments, laughing at her and her education, her foolish pride and the childlike belief in a love that would some day free her from this carousel of shame.

He took her where she wanted it. Holding her hips and hitting her another home-run as he pinned her against the table and realized that in delicate moments like these he was thoroughly expendable. She didn't need him, she never did and five minutes after he'd finished she announced that it was time to go out. They dressed and she was surprisingly steady considering that it was nine and she'd been drinking since two.

Down on the street it was a short walk to the bar just off Ocean Drive. that had couches or quasi-beds for those who wanted to get comfortable. It was a place that was set up with canopies, which together with the palm trees and the sand gave it an almost Arabian feel. An oasis of booze and attentive waiters that always put her in a good mood. She ordered two mojitos and as the waiter came back and Giacomo paid for the drinks two young men sitting on another couch had already taken notice of her. They were both Cubans and tanned with black, gel covered hair that seemed to reflect light into the darkness beyond the bar.

After her second drink he asked her if she wanted to leave but she pretended that she hadn't heard him and one of the Cubans immediately ordered another round of mojitos.

“I want to live life to the fullest!” she said standing up with her glass in a toast to her new friends as the waiter marched back to the bar.

“A la vida sin compromisos!” said the Cuban closest to her.

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“Means damn the torpedoes.”

“Oh, but I want torpedoes,” and Giacomo looked on saying nothing, raising his glass whenever a new toast was proposed. He was drunk but it didn't matter. They were putting the move on her but he didn't care. She was damaged goods but they didn't know that and anyone could watch. She would want him to watch.

What happened next happened for no particular reason. She announced that she wanted to see the waves and the Cubans offered to take her there. It wasn't too far and he walked behind them as they staggered along in the sand with their mojitos in hand. The tide was coming in and you could hear the surf in the darkness. He followed maybe three feet behind them, the Cubans sometimes holding her, sometimes dragging her to the beach. She was kissing them as she moved along and when they were there at the water's edge she knelt down in front of the quiet one and unzipped his pants. The talkative one pulled her shorts off and came in her from the rear.

At that point Giacomo would have left but a floodlight appeared above them illuminating the scene along with a voice over the sound of helicopter blades and wind telling them to put their hands in the air and to stop what they were doing. The Cubans looked stunned and confused but his girlfriend turned her head for a second to see a camera on the nose of the chopper. The police were filming everything for posterity and she smiled, remembering the old ways and what a daughter had been told to do.

John Hemingway                       Copyright 2012, John Hemingway






Thursday, December 13, 2012

Destinations


Here's a new poem from John Lyons


Destinations


Hoy no ha venido nadie a preguntar;
ni me han pedido en esta tarde nada.
César Vallejo
We are destinations:
not Rome or Athens,
or São Paulo, or the zoo;
as friends or lovers,
sisters or brothers
fathers or mothers,
we are the destination,
and neither travel nor tourism is
an out-of-body experience;
we may take places to our heart
just as we take people to our heart
but we are always the destination
just as we are always the recipient
of the gift we give, of the giving,
of the love we make, of the loving;
we are the place where others
meet us, the point of arrival
and the point of departure,
our bodies and our senses
the theatre of our soul
in which our deepest dramas and
and most unworldly loves
are daily enacted; Barcelona
came to me one torrid summer,
many many years ago, the air,
dry as a whip, lashed my cheeks,
entered the deepest recesses
of my lungs, fed me with dust,
threw me into myself
like a discarded rag.
I was the destination
and nobody called.
Not a hair out of place,
not a stone unturned,
and nobody called.

São Carlos, 12 December 2012