It must measure more or less 60 by 120 feet, but at night the lot looks bigger than it really is, and then I look out the window and imagine it’s really a large thicket. When I was young I also lived next to a vacant lot, in Cuernavaca, that all the local kids called the Thicket. (It wasn’t the damp house I mentioned earlier but another one, my father’s.) In contrast to my childhood lot, this one has a wall separating it from the street, so you’re hardly likely to be aware that the waste ground exists if you’re only passing by with other things on your mind. For that reason, I went around noting every lot that might be overgrown with shrubs until I found an apartment for rent next to one. It took me months, but I wasn’t in a hurry.
As I don’t have many belongings or many visitors, I didn’t mind that the place was really a small studio, and not in a very good state of repair. If I had more free time outside of work, I’d think about moving somewhere bigger and in better condition so I wouldn’t have to spend hours listening to the downstairs neighbors’ untimely arguments. But as I have little free time, I don’t mind much, and have even come to feel a certain delight in listening to the disputes of those neighbors, who, late at night, make me feel that I’m not alone.
* * * *
Today, as I was leaving the museum, I decided to walk home rather than take the metro for the four stops that separate downtown from the station nearest to where I live. I’d never done this before. I hadn’t even considered the possibility of walking all the way here. I’d always imagined the various zones that make up this city, or the part of the city I know, as being unconnected on the surface, like islands that can only be approached from underground, on the metro. Walking, discovering that the pedestrian level is also a continuum, was a strange experience.
It’s curious how a small, apparently innocuous detail like walking home from work instead of taking the metro—a good hour and a half on foot, at a brisk pace—can precipitate events or influence the direction of things in a way that is perhaps irreversible. I’m surprised, truly surprised, that the greatest concepts, and also maybe some of the most vigorous spirits in history, were, in essence, determined by a particular afternoon when a man decided to do something slightly different. On a smaller scale, that’s how the decision to walk home now seems to me. I don’t mean it has converted me into a twenty-first-century Napoleon, but I have the feeling that the order of something deep in my chest has been irrevocably subverted.
I avoided the main avenues and made my way along back streets, where the noise was more bearable and I could browse the shop windows. One place galvanized my attention, though I recognize that it was arbitrariness—or perhaps a paranormal force, inherent in urban development—which made me stop just there. It was a café that displayed its menu by means of laminated photographs from at least thirty years before. Jurassic omelets with avocado, hamburgers sampled by my forebears. The photos of the dishes made me, nonsensically, think of the stars, which are, according to popular wisdom and expert thought, testimony to a reality that no longer exists.
I went into the café and sat at the counter, next to a man who looked like part of the furniture. I ordered a coffee. A skinny man in a red shirt, on the other side of the counter, replied in a surprisingly brusque tone that they didn’t have any. “But I can offer you a cup of hot water for Nescafé, we’ve got that.”
“You wouldn’t have chamomile tea, or something similar?”
The man in the red shirt disappeared through a greasy curtain covering the upper half of a doorway (a hole, to be precise) in the wall behind the counter; on the other side of this curtain, I caught a glimpse of some family photos and, hanging from the ceiling, a chandelier with half the bulbs blown; under the light, a green table, and at it, a boy doing his homework. This was probably the home of the owner of the incompetent café, and that simple curtain divided his working and private worlds, if such a distinction made any sense in his particular case, which is questionable.
The owner—or the person I took to be the owner—came back after a while, carrying a packet of tea that looked as old as the photographs in the entrance.
“Yes, but it’s normal tea. I couldn’t find the chamomile.” By “normal” he evidently meant black.
“Well, give me a cup of that then, and let’s hope it doesn’t keep me from sleeping,” I said, seeking some sort of complicity with the owner of the café, though without really understanding why I was seeking that complicity or how such a state would emerge from a situation as trivial as the one that had united us so far. The man gave me a sardonic, scornful look.
“It’s coffee that keeps you from sleeping, son, not tea; they give tea to the sick.”
I had no wish to discuss the effects of caffeine and halfheartedly agreed with him. He put the cup of steaming water down in front of me and also left the whole packet of black tea on the counter. I extracted a tea bag, put it in the cup, and stared—transfixed by the way it soaked up the scalding water and sank like a shipwrecked barge—before I added a little sugar. I drank the tea in silence, not listening to the complaints the furniture–faced customer addressed to the three or four other locals. (His banality was disturbing and his ability to emit streams of foul language, prodigious.)
When I’d finished my beverage, I looked in amazement at the bag of black tea at the bottom of the empty cup, limp and useless as a newly sloughed skin. I can’t explain exactly what I thought, but that uninspiring object seemed beautiful in its insignificance, so I wrapped it in my napkin and put it in my pocket. I was concerned that the owner or one of the customers, noticing my eccentric maneuver, might berate me, but apparently no one saw me. I paid and went out.
I am now in my apartment and the tea bag is on the table, in the center of a sodden napkin. The pocket of my jacket was also soaked, and if it hadn’t been a dark jacket, I would probably have had to take it to the dry cleaner, because everyone knows that tea, as they say is also true of sin, leaves a permanent stain.
The tea bag doesn’t seem as surprising now as it did when it was at the bottom of the cup, but I’ve decided to keep it, so I get my staple gun from the toolbox, and, after a dull thud, the end of the string with the label is stapled onto the wall, right in front of the bed, so that this useless, vaguely obscene pendulum—aesthetically speaking, it is something akin to a sanitary pad—will be the first thing I see in the morning. The bag is still dripping slightly, and a tiny puddle is gradually forming on the floor, plus an elongated brown stain on the wall. I think the stain will add an interesting touch to the room and perhaps, by accentuating the corrosive effects of the damp, will end up being the decorative focus of the apartment. I think I like the term “decorative focus,” although I’m not completely certain what it means. (On a wall covered in crucifixes, is God the decorative focus?) I also think it will be pleasant to wake up every day and contemplate the tea bag hanging on the wall, not just for its appearance—slightly disagreeable at the moment—but because it will be a souvenir of that afternoon, of that sudden, arbitrary decision to walk home from the museum and have a cup of tea on the way. It’s good to create souvenirs of authentic, minute moments of happiness.
I listen to an argument in the downstairs apartment, related, from what I can gather, to a video game; they are in their forties and arguing about a video game, a Nintendo, almost certainly from twenty years back. It’s already dark and, in the vacant lot, almost impossible to make out any detail. The plants merge with the strands of rusty wire on the ground and the bags of garbage some people in the street throw over the wall. Leaning out the window, I look at the lot and try to imagine that it’s a thicket, or the lot opposite my father’s house in Cuernavaca, the one we used to call the Thicket, or that cities don’t exist and there’s no point in distinguishing between a thicket and anything else.
The neighbors’ argument has finished, or at least is smoldering, awaiting a new spark. I close my eyes and the sound of the canned laughter of a tv program comes to me from another apartment. The insomniac’s questions edge their way in: How much do actors charge for false laughter? What—if anything—do they think of when they want to produce it? Are there actors, in every corner of the world, whose job it is to dub other people’s false laughter into their own language? Do these actors have conventions and conferences, in towering hotels, to share the secrets of false laughter, to mutually among strange victims amuse one another, to overcome the sadness that stops them sleeping? Are there support groups for false-laughter actors? Are there help lines—1-800-LAUGHTER, for instance—you can call in the early hours so you don’t feel alone, so you can laugh falsely again, talk about your childhood?
The laughter is muffled by a new argument between the fortysomething neighbors and their mother, with whom they live. The old lady shouts, “Candy, Candy!” Candy is a small, gray male dog. It doesn’t occur to them, apparently, to give their pet a name appropriate to its gender.
I think I’d like to smoke a cigarette at moments like this, to have something to do while I do nothing, but I’ve never been capable of acquiring the habit.
Excerpt is reprinted by permission from Among Strange Victims (Coffee House Press, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Saldaña Paris, translated by Christina MacSweeney.