Monday, January 30, 2012

Letters From South America #3


For a town of such condensed architectural beauty, Arequipa has a lot in common with sacrifice. In the heart of the city square the ghosts of the Santa Catalina Nunnery live within its chambers, where the second daughters of the wealthy colonial families were given over to the nuns and the mercy of God, thus completely cut off from both the pleasure and danger that thrived in their outside world. Their duties were to pray for not only their own souls but the souls of their families, that flitted precariously between the vices of the human condition and guilt ridden restraints of religion, and who all the while were able to take comfort in the fact that they had someone to pray for them when they could not bare to face God themselves. Why must it always be the women who have to repent for the sins of the patriarch who, without the tree of knowledge to sustain their unquenchable  curiosity, would have deteriorated into that which is now deemed uncivilized and thus their duty to conquer and correct?

In Arequipa I sit on the window sill of my hotel room as the city flows below me like an ocean of bodies moving in and out of taxi cabs. I feel suspended above my own life because I am in love in a foreign city; my body is here, but my soul is travelling to her on the back of an albatross across the Pacific ocean.

My father was the next man to leave my life, but his temptation was not disguised as death, but dressed plainly as another woman.  His absence from the house was not immediately noticeable because he spent most of his time at his office anyway; he worked long hours in advertising. He was very good at persuading people, I had to admit. He had persuaded my mother to think that he was faithful to her, hadn’t he?
 Yet soon the emptiness began to spread, sporadic, like a fungus in the corners of the rooms, starting from the study where he used to spend most of his time when he was at home, into the living room where his armchair sat empty, and through the kitchen to his seat at the head of the dining table.  But I think it was not he himself, but the removal of his things from the house that had the most impact on me; the framed photographs of his race horses, his coats in the hallway cupboard, the change on his bedside table. That’s how I knew that he had really left for good. It was the sentimentality of these objects; when removed from your life, it is that sentimentality that remains to remind you of their owner’s absence.

 I knew I wouldn’t be able to bare it if he told me he had been fucking his secretary, simply because it was so cliché. I hated myself a little for having that thought, especially because it turned out that he had left my mother for one of her friends; not a close one, but close enough to give the phrase ‘the wife’ a face and a set of feelings that she should have had the decency to acknowledge before she wrapped her own, perfectly symmetrical legs around my father. She even used to give me her old clothes because we were both a size 6. My mother is a size 10, and looks nothing like me. Our feet are the same, but I can’t wear her shoes.

When he left, my mother was so hell bent on making sure that it wasn’t because of me and my condition that she ended up taking all of the blame upon herself, to the point where she walked stooped with the weight of my disease and my father’s sin. She would move about the house like a ghost, so disheveled and despondent that she was unable to have an impact upon anything, except to fill the house with outbursts of sobbing at erratic intervals during the day; she certainly couldn’t take care of me. It was like we had been travelling on one train for our whole lives without being taught any of the emergency procedures in the event of an impending disaster.
So I tried to take some of the blame off her by letting her know that I wasn’t really a perfect, helpless daughter, and that it wasn’t her fault in the hope that she would stop feeling so guilty. I started smoking cigarettes, and I would leave the butts all around the house for her to find, and I wouldn’t bother taking mints to cover up the smoky scent on my breath when I kissed her goodbye. I stayed out late, way past my curfew, drinking malt liquor with boys I didn’t really know, and I would let them kiss me in the back of their cars.
I did cocaine once at a party, but it interfered with my regular medication and caused me to go into spasms of intense pain, so I never tried it again. I stopped turning up to my doctors appointments, I was rude, surly and mean. I still went to Church though, every Sunday; I didn’t want to rule out the possibility of there being a God that could absolved me of all this sinning later on. But the more I tried to pull her out of the downward spiral of debilitating depression, the further she sank, and the less she noticed me. She swept up the cigarette butts without a word, she stopped checking my room in the mornings to make sure I was there, she rescheduled my doctor’s appointments. She clung to the remains of her routines like a shipwrecked sailor, instead of using the wreckage to build a raft and rescue the both of us. 

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