A Novel by EJ Spode.
Chapter 6: The Cartagena Diaries
I put away my turtle diaries and thumbed through some other notebooks. One just had deconstructed advertising copy and fake adds. Example: there was a storyboard for an advertisement to sell the little springs you find in ballpoint pens. There was also a book of drink recipes I had written with my College Freshman year roommate, Colin Sullivan. It was called “New Drinks for Old Friends.” I thought some of the “recipes” were humorous.
The Copper Squirrel
Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis is perhaps best known for its drug dealers, prostitutes, and pornographic bookstores. But tucked away in an alley behind these signs of moral decay is a little bar called the Copper Squirrel, where they believe in family values, and the drink of choice is, like the bar itself, called The Copper Squirrel.
Shot of vodka
chase with mixture of cola and o.j.
“After you try one, you’ll certainly have several more.”
The New Beige Cocktail
We’re told that this is what the flyboys at Minot air force base ask for when they go into downtown Minot for some R&R. It’s a real deicer for those long North Dakota winters.
ice cold gold rum
garnish with frozen ginger snap
“This drink will make your afterburners glow!”
With the advent of social media, trends travel quickly across America. Designer mineral waters, for example, can even be found in Iowa. Here’s a drink that health conscious Iowans ask for when then belly up to bars in greater Aimes Iowa.
The Honey Hush
“One sip and you’ll bellow like Grendel’s mother.”
I tossed aside the drink recipe book and grabbed the next notebook in the pile. It was an orange cloth-bound notebook, and I immediately recognized it from the Colombia trip with Penny. During her second year in college (that would be 2009-2010) Penny super depressed from the winter weather and the sheer desolation of it all, so during our winter break I bought two plane tickets to Cartagena, Colombia. There, we found an apartment, and stayed there for three weeks. It was an incredible time, although it ended badly. We spent a lot of time writing and reading to each other. Seriously, we spent whole evenings at our kitchen table drinking white wine, smoking weed, and writing prose and poetry together.
Cartagena was a town on a beach on the edge of a jungle. It was hot and humid and full of lost souls from all over the world – just as lost and as fucked up as we were, and the town adopted us for those weeks, and ultimately rejected us. For a minute, though, it was mad fun excellence.
Things with Penny eventually got rough, though, and we both tried to work through it in our writing (in our ways) but like I said, in the end, things turned out bad.
The Cartagena notebook began like this:
Dec. 20, 2009
Paper and Pen
This beautiful paper.
My pen wants to communicate with this paper.
My hand wants to communicate with this pen.
I want to know what this pen and paper have to say.
and the first half of the notebook was crazy romantic and hopeful.
Dec. 21, 2009
Penny says it is all about prosetry. She says it in-habits that nether-word between prose and poetry were meter counts but rhyme doesn’t because rhymes are embarrassing and I can’t argue with her about that. Or, in any case, I don’t want to.
Dec. 22, 2009
The Clocks of Memory
The Clocks of Memory might have changed.
Well…yeah…ok, I guess that sounds right. But anyway, just how do you change the clocks of memory? Do you forget to wind them? Do they lose time? Or is it like you have to reset them when you change the time zones of memory? You know, you remember it from here and then you remember it from there. From a different zone. I rather think the clocks of memory must reset themselves. But sometimes it takes us a while to adjust.
Dec. 22, 2009
I just like love trinkets. And you know, in Colombia they hire the dead to make them. I know, because like, I went to the factory where the dead make the trinkets. Hell I even talked to the dead as they made their trinkets and here is the thing. The dead, when they talk, have these looooong beats — I’d say pauses that go on for 3, 7, 10 beats maybe, but not beats like the way we pause for a nanosecond, like, for effect. No, the beats of the dead are loooong.
Dec. 23, 2009
Hart Crane said that love is a burnt match skating in a urinal, but as I write this there are three burnt matches on the table next to my notebook. The room is illuminated by candles. On the table, next to the burnt matches, is a cold glass of white wine, sweating from the Colombian humidity. Next to the wine, Iberian ham. “Dark was the Night” is playing on a loop. Penny is moving about tending to shrines and candles and window treatments. We have been reading poetry for days, and the burnt matches are so beautiful…
Dec. 25, 2009
This micron pen…
……this wine……this music… this bread…
This cheese…this Iberian ham…
…this minute that is never going to end…
…this friend…this beauty…this perfection…
Around a third of the way through the notebook my writing evolved into me trying to process the tension between us. Originally there was just a lot of anger – none of it directed at Penny. I read through those pages, thinking they were an awful lot like the turtle diaries, but with a patina of despair.
Dec. 28, 2009
People ask me, so what is it with you and Penny and I explain, well, like she is my MUSE and then people are like what the fuck is a muse and I’m like whatever nevermind but then they are all indignant and saying shit like no I wanna know so I say she is this force that makes me want to write – she is the energy source/she is everything and then they are like ok thanks I think I get it.
Dec. 29, 2009
The Nether Word
I dreamt/dreamed/whatever that I died and travelled to the nether word. Yeah, exactly, nether *word*. What is that you ask? It’s this space where word meanings go when they die. I was met at the obsidian gate an aardvark named Cerebus – not Cerberus, Cerebus – and I guess he was an ok guy but a bit cynical for my taste. Just sayin’. Also, I couldn’t understand a fucking thing he said.
Dec. 30, 2009
People use this word ‘raw’ all the time and I’m like what does it even mean, you know? Once I asked that question and I swear – I swear this happened – someone said “whoa that question is raw!” and I’m like “are you fucking with me?” And the guy was like “whoa dude don’t get raw with me” and I was like “what? Whatever.”
Dec. 30, 2009
so i go to the store and the clerk is like what, are you e.e.cummins or something and I’m like WHAT? and he’s all like well you came in asking to buy tiny hands for the rain and i’m like no you fucking imbecile i asked if you have something for a clogged drain and he’s like oh sorry my bad.
In the final third of the book it was obvious I was trying to process my difficulties with Penny. I don’t know; I just played with the slights and the pointless outrages and tried to tame the language by putting it on paper and finding comedy in the resulting prose. I tried turning the insults and outrages around – to direct them outward – but in the end it was clear that things were not right.
Jan. 4, 2010
Honestly did it ever occur to you that the ceiling might need to be waxed today? Don’t even answer that because I already know the answer; it was obvious from the stupid lust in your turtle soup appetizer that no it didn’t occur to you. It wouldn’t, would it, because all you care about are your soups and cabbages and cakes and pies. But the ceiling needs to be WAXED!
Jan. 5, 2010
So my girlfriend sent me to the local strip mall to get sushi, which I did. But when I got home she was all like what the fuck is this crap, and I was like it’s SUSHI, which is what you asked for, and she was like what the fuck, what kind of sushi is this even and I was like gallium arsenide sushi what does it look like, and she was like you know I hate this and fuck, look, it doesn’t even have seeds on it!
Jan. 5, 2010
Brick by fucking brick his brain fell apart and all I want to know is why. SHE said there is no brain no brain to fall about no brain to mourn. SHE said it was his soul that began to fail as souls sometimes do.
But I’m damn sure he had a brain and I’m damn sure it fell apart and I’m damn sure he had no soul, nor ever did.
Jan. 6, 2010
One day I went for a walk with Penny and out of nowhere she was like, “what if you leave me?” And I was like “I’m not going to leave you.” “But what if you do?” “Why would I leave you, you are perfect?” And she was like “yeah I know I am but I just don’t trust your judgment.” So I asked her: “Is this about the gallium arsenide sushi again?”
“That’s just one example EJ.”
Jan. 8, 2010
Seven times and hour
we go on adventures.
Seven times an hour
we stop. And we think. And we say: Seven adventures an hour is not enough.
Seven times an hour
Seven times and hour
it all lies in ruins.
And in the ruins you say “let’s go on an adventure!”
And I say, Yes!
Jan. 10, 2010
The Typing Point
This book has reached a typing point.
The fruit on the table has reached the rotting point.
The point of the typing and the point of the rotting is the same point.
It’s like, eat it or throw it away.
But the thing is – that rotting fruit is so beautiful.
And this shitty prose can only get better as it rots on the page
in this humidity
in this jungle
in this time.
I wasn’t about to say that the writing in the Cartagena Diaries was good, but it sure did trigger a lot of memories. Some memories were excellent, some were bad, and the worst memories involved the end; the worst part of it came at the end.
I don’t know what we were trying to accomplish, but that trip Penny was all about experimenting with an open relationship, and like I say I don’t know what we were supposed to be accomplishing with that. Still, it would not have been so bad if Penny had just gone out and gotten laid when she needed to or even wanted to. The problem was that it became critical to her that I knew just how much she was getting laid, and it was even more critical to her that I see that she could lay anyone she wanted any time she wanted. So she was routinely hitting on waiters and bartenders and taxi drivers and bar owners and just fucking name it. And I wanted to say “hey, I’m sitting right here” but when I even started to raise that objection she would become upset at me for “policing” her life and storm off, no doubt to get laid by one of the losers she had collected.
Still, the trip had started so well, and it had been so meaningful to me that I kept clinging to something in the relationship, even while it was becoming less viable by the day. I would buy her gifts, and think of gestures that might make her happy.
Then, one day after spending the day at the beach alone, I picked up some flowers for Penny and came back to the apartment. She was not there. Nothing of hers was there. Her clothes were gone. Her trinkets were gone. Her artwork was gone. Her notebooks were gone.
I wandered about the apartment in a kind of fog – I felt my knees going numb; my stomach knotted up. And then I found a piece of paper on the kitchen table. I picked it up, and everything went quiet. The noises in the streets just stopped. It was a perfect silence. I felt the heat of the room – but the heat was like a tangible thing. As I picked up the paper I heard the noise of the paper on the kitchen table. The paper was the only noise in the universe at that point, and I could hear the fibers in the paper humming.
Penny had written her letter in cursive and then drawn a line through every word of it. Why. I sat down and struggled to read the letter.
Upstairs, I heard the dogs scampering. Outside, I heard a car alarm. And as the dogs scampered and the car alarm sounded that was the time when it all changed. It was the time when I took you in my arms and asked you to hold me back to pull me into you but you couldn’t and you wouldn’t, as the heat and the humidity surrounded us and I begged you to hold me tighter and the Colombian breeze came up and the curtains flapped like flags and the candles flickered and they were all telling you to hold me to take me to pull me into you but you could not you would not do it. You could not do it because you smelled of her sex, because you could not defile me with her sex, and the dogs scampered upstairs and the car alarm sounded and the wind blew and I did not care about her meaningless sex all over you I did not care that you gave yourself to her I only wanted I only asked that you take me into you, but you couldn’t you wouldn’t. And Yes I was hurt and yes I pushed you away but it was not your infidelity – that was you accusing you of that; that was your trip that was your guilt I did not place that on you while the dogs scampered upstairs and the alarm sounded outside I did not put that guilt on you I only asked that you take me as we were, with her sex all over you, and that you show me your hunger for me but you would not and you could not even as the dogs began barking and the alarm stopped sounding and the curtains stopped flapping you could not do it. In the days after I could feel the distance growing between us – every minute I could feel it growing. The breeze tired of blowing and the curtains went limp and the humidity swallowed us up but I tried, I cooked Colombian food for us we read Kundera to each other I asked you to choose the music I asked you to roll me a joint to pour me a glass of wine but even in the romance I felt us drifting apart in the heat in and humidity in Colombia. I began to cry, I began to snap, and we began to push each other’s buttons; we drank and we made up and then drank more and pushed each other’s buttons more and we drank and smoked and did not sleep and it was just falling apart. When did we start hitting the beaches of Cartagena to fuck other people when did we decide that was the solution, and the pain rolled in like a maritime fog and I woke up in the arms of other boys and I wanted to cry because I had lost my center and as I lay in the arms of a boy and as I gave myself to that boy I wondered where you were and what you were doing and I felt I was no longer at the center of it all I felt lost felt nowhere, felt dead. And then the jealousy and the fights and the misunderstandings came and it all began in that minute – that minute when you could not you would not take me, you would not you could not devour me like I needed – because of her sex on your body – that sex that I did not care about – that sex that ate away at you like a cancer – slowly at first until it consumed you and left you rotting and black in the Colombian heat and humidity. And here is what we lost, we lost a life together at the center of everything a life of art and love and eros and adventures and triumphs and failures and new friends and experiences we lost all of that because you were ashamed of her sex on your body as the dogs scampered upstairs and the alarm sounded and I needed you to pull me into you and you could not and would not do it.
And that was that. Penny had gone back to the States. I hit the streets and wandered a bit and stopped for some drinks and I thought about getting laid, but it seemed just utterly pointless.
When the numbness wore off, I decided maybe it was for the best that she left, and I felt that Penny was clearly wrong about some things. I don’t know why she thought the guilt was something of my making. And if she was going out and getting laid because of her pain, well she never explained that to me. As far as I knew she just needed to get laid by different people to put me in my place. And finally, I did metaphorically push her away when I came home one day, but it was not because of my sense of guilt. I was simply grossed out by the choices she had been making. She had tried to project an image of herself as a goddess, but ended up demeaning herself, and our relationship. In that moment I could barely look at her.
Setting down the orange notebook, I lit a joint to process it all, and remembered the reason I had dug out the notebooks in the first place: Athena telling me I was off my game/I had squandered my potential. Or something like that. But the thing is I didn’t follow that line of thinking either. I mean as a kid I had a good enough ear for language, but I had no sense of story at all – my writing didn’t resolve. I couldn’t put together a proper narrative to save my ass. Even in college, I couldn’t do it. I learned how to do that at Cornell. So I decided that Athena was either probably wrong or just being difficult or whatever.
A seed popped in my joint, which sort of made me mad at myself for not cleaning the weed better. Penny would have been all over my nuts for that. Cleaning weed was a ritual for her. She was the master spliff roller. I hit the joint extra hard and found myself saying “miss you” for some reason.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Images: Jana Astanov
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 4th, 2016.