Chapter 5: New Berlin
“There’s something wrong with this place.”
I’m leaning in to talk to my friend, like I’m telling her a profound secret. I feel exhilarated that I know something is wrong, that I’m about to tell her. And I also feel exhilarated about the wrongness itself. I love the process of discovering all the wrongs in people and places. They remind me that the world is big and full of bad things and there is something terrifying and safe about the inevitable unveiling of it all.
I watch horror movies for sometimes 6 hours a night, watching faces get slashed and goiters get popped and vomit – there’s a lot of vomit in horror movies, have you ever noticed? I don’t exactly understand my appetite for horror movies, but it feels unnatural and meaningful. Sometimes I think I watch them because I can sense violence all around me, but it’s folded into tiny places and words and looks and I can’t see it all the way. Somehow watching someone poke another person’s eye out feels like catharsis, like honesty.
“Yeah, San Francisco is dead. Everyone interesting is too broke to do anything interesting anymore,” she says with authority. She’s interested in culture and scenes, finding the newest ones. She’s a connoisseur of novelty.
“Right yes, totally,” I am saying while I trace the word “interesting” in cursive on my thigh. It’s this compulsion. I can’t stop myself until I catch people watching me do it and then I feel weird. She looks at me do it, and then I stop, quickly proffering something up to distract from my leg writing. “I mean, sure the art scene is dead but it’s more than that. Like the people here are pathologically ambitious. It’s ambition for ambition’s sake. The other day I started freaking out because I was worried that my curtains weren’t nice enough and that they were going to drive down my neighbor’s property value and they were going to call my landlord and say ‘there’s this fat lady who lives across the street from us and her fatness as well as her curtains are driving down the property value of our home and we’d like if it you moved her out.’ Like, I had a legit meltdown about it. It gave me anxiety dreams and I went out and bought better curtains. I mean, the fact that I even thought about it means something, right?”
“Yah,” she says smiling with those blue cat eyes. I’m not novel enough. I can tell. “Well, I’m moving to Mexico City. D. F. Deh Effe. I went down there to write an article and shit was crazy down there. Wild. It’s the new Berlin. You should come see me. I can teach you Spanish. I speak really good Spanish.”
I feel that old shame. I think my grandparents wanted to teach me Spanish but they didn’t know how to teach anyone anything. I could tell they were kind of trying, and my failure to learn Spanish somehow compounded their failure to teach. I wasn’t sure who felt more guilty.
My grandfather would lecture me on the value of being bilingual. He would show off, speaking Spanish and then English. “See?” he’d say, as if this had been my first lesson. It was always my first lesson.
“That would be great,” I say. “Maybe I can come down there in the summer.”
“I’m leaving next week. I’ve already put my apartment on the market. I realized I was working 2 jobs just to make rent, and I had no energy to do anything. I thought it was bullshit. So, I made a decision. I can’t live in a place this boring anymore.”
“It’s really hard to be around people whose primary purpose in life is to accumulate wealth. Or a Tesla. But then everyone feels the same way and then I feel like the weird outlier with cheap curtains who, like, mostly wants to go to the beach and eat buttery toast.”
“You care too much.” She says it with maybe disdain, or boredom? I can sense that I’m boring her with increasing speed and I tell her I should go. I’m walking down 24th Street, past panaderias and Philz and shops that sell Mexican religious fetishes, and that little place with the soda fountain and the counter.
I’m thinking about the way she said “care.” I wanted not to care. I wanted to be ok with just being a toast-munching iconoclast, but I couldn’t do it, not all the way. It made me uncomfortable being so simple, wanting so little. I was just like my grandmother and my grandfather and my mother. I was addicted to the story of myself, and it couldn’t be without turmoil. It had to be difficult, punctuated by martyrdom, disappointment and despair.
I hate that part of my relationship to my family, the way that it feels like I never know what I am going to get. “Am I talking to the real you or the story-you?” I could never ask because there was this thing between us. Some people might have called it a language barrier, but I knew it wasn’t. It manifested through fumblings with words, changing from English to Spanish, a lot of “huhs?!” (or more like “eh?!”) but the problem wasn’t that they spoke Spanish and I spoke English. The problem was not the words themselves, but what was between them and what was holding them together.
I was American and they weren’t. Americans believe in the cult of the individual. Americans don’t talk about death at the dinner table.
They were Mexican and I wasn’t. Every Mexican knows another Mexican who’s died of sadness. Mexicans believe that fate is God-made, not man made. We fundamentally did not understand each other, and no amount of translation could fix it. My inability to speak Spanish was both a product and a cause of our stunted intimacy.
I pulled out my phone and started looking up flights to DF.
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ABOUT THE BOOK
I release a new chapter a week on Thursdays - unless I'm exceedingly overwhelmed or whatever I write is so epically terrible I'm too embarrassed to put it on the internet.