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Brin Butler Brin-Jonathan Butler's work has appeared in ESPN.com, The Wall Street Journal, The Classical, The Rumpus, Salon.com, and The New York Times. Brin has also written, directed, and produced a forthcoming documentary called, "Split Decision" (splitdecisionfilm.com) examining Cuba and the United States through the lens of elite Cuban boxers faced with the decision to remain despite the lure of millions, or chase the American Dream from a smuggler's boat. The documentary has been featured on Maxboxing.com, Newsday, and The Boxing Channel. "When We Were Kings" Oscar winning director Leon Gast has called Butler's film, "Something very special and worth the wait." Please follow him on twitter @brinicio

Recent Work By Brin Butler

 

“Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.”—Hunter S. Thompson

Maybe the real subject of every interview is how you really can’t learn much of anything about anyone from an interview.

Back at his gym in Los Angeles, the only instruction Freddie Roach gave after offering Mike Tyson’s phone number was a warning: “Don’t blindside him. It doesn’t matter if sent you. If you see Mike and you blindside him, he’s capable of attacking you.”

“I’m not looking to blindside anyone here,” I lied.

“Be careful, son.”

Please explain what just happened.

I just got back to Manhattan after a bumpy month in Havana. I was chased by Cuban police while trying to illegally interview Cuban boxers and their families for my film Hero Traitor Madness: The Guillermo Rigondeaux Story. The basic deal over there that I have a little trouble cottoning to is agreeing to pay people under the table to tell me how they turned down millions. But there it is.

 

What is your earliest memory?

A neighbor girl’s pretty face smiling at me from her window. She was six and I was pushing three.

 

If you weren’t a writer/director what other profession would you choose?

My dream has always been to be mistaken for a jinetero (Cuban male prostitute) and questioned by police while in the company of a Cubana who in turn would be mistaken for a tourist. No dice as yet.

 

“Here’s how it breaks down,” the stranger began to explain on the pool deck one summer afternoon. “Attraction for women comes down to these basic criteria: search for power, overcoming ambivalence, violating prohibition, longing and anticipation. It’s the same formula for every romance novel and best embodied by ‘Mr. Darcy’ in Jane Austin’s most acclaimed novel of science fiction. What’s ‘Sex In the City’ except science fiction? Really, what’s sex for a woman beyond the conversation she’s having with her friends after to contextualize it? She’s already doing it while you’re fucking her, right? Am I right? Of course she does. She requires that little detachment the whole time. Not to say that a guy’s bent is any better. Essentially women just enter into the equation as our masturbatory prop. As Zizek pointed out, Freud’s grossly misinterpreted. It’s not that sex is behind everything. It’s why sex itself isn’t enough while you’re doing it. Why do we have to be thinking about something while we’re having sex? Hey. Are you even listening to this?”

“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish a dictatorship.

-George Orwell

“…Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”

-Fidel Castro

Of the 82 men crammed onto the leaky boat that shipwrecked into the island on December 2nd, 1956, no more than 20 survived the initial encounter with Batista’s army and succeeded in escaping to the Sierra Maestra mountains. Only 12 men from this group of 20 survived to see victory when on January 1st, 1959, Batista fled Cuba with an estimated $300,000,000 fortune stolen from the Cuban people. Since that time, over 638 attempts on Castro’s life have been organized on American soil.

In 1979, on a historic trip to address the UN general assembly in New York, Castro was asked about the constant need for protection:

JON ALPERT: Everybody says you always have a bulletproof vest.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: No.

JON ALPERT: No?

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] I will land in New York like this. I have a moral one. A moral vest. It’s strong. That one has protected me always. It’s too hot in Cuba to have a bulletproof vest.

It takes a strong stomach to be here sometimes. There’s the food situation that threatens to give you a fixed address over a toilet for a couple days at any moment and then there’s the fact that most of the time you feel like you’re trespassing on a lot of people living one man’s broken dream whether they want to or not.

Yuriorkis Gamboa, a gold medalist from the Athens Olympic games, sold his gold medal to buy food and presents at his daughter’s first birthday party. He’d buy trinkets when he was fighting abroad and sell them back home to support his family. He asked for a 10 dollar per diem from the Cuban team while training in Venezuela. They refused. Shortly after, in 2006, he defected.

Just before I arrived in Cuba I’d watched an interview with him in Miami driving around in a Ferrari with his shirt off.

I found out at the gym yesterday how much he got for that gold medal: $150.

Every face listening to that figure – the Cuban children, Hector the ex-champion coach, Brea telling me, foreigners training for the 2008 Olymipcs – had a different expression reacting to the news. But nobody says anything. It’s left hanging, just like everything else. What else is new?

After an all night bender Jake Lamotta was asked by a companion, “Is that the moon or the sun?”

“How do I know?” Jake responded. “I don’t live around here.”

I know he feels.

If you want to know what boxing means here you don’t need to go to the fights to find out. Every face in town, no matter where you are, can answer the question:

La Lucha.

The Struggle.

It’s another struggle for anyone outside Cuba to understand the stakes involved for a boxer living here.

A song writer named Sammy Cahn was asked which came first, the words or the music? “The check,” Sammy replied.

That punchline isn’t part of the equation if you stay. Which is its own punchline.

“There are no jokes. The truth is always the funniest joke of all.”

-Muhammad Ali

That $150 Gamboa got for his medal is 6 months salary for a doctor or lawyer. A lot of the lawyers in town drive cabs in order to earn a living. They certainly don’t earn it with cab fare either.

Then again, there isn’t anywhere in the world where the recruitment of boxing talent is more fierce than here. They comb every inch of the island looking for a spark. Part of the reason they work so hard to find talent is that there isn’t anywhere in the world where the fighters fight harder. To be a trainer of elite boxers in Cuba requires seven years of schooling. You might make the same money as someone sweeping a gutter turning out several world champions who could have made hundreds of millions anywhere else. Whose the joke on?

If you go to Trejo or Kid Chocolate and meet some of the children boxers training they’ll tell you if another American invasion took place tomorrow they’d be ready to fight American soldiers in defense of Cuba. They’ll tell you all Cubans would look forward to giving their lives for the place Christopher Columbus called the most beautiful thing human eyes have ever seen. They’d welcome another Bay of Pigs…

And, slack-jawed, while you’re remembering what Gore Vidal said about how the true crop of current American geniuses must be located in American History classrooms across the country what with American History being repeatedly voted the most boring subject by American students and since anyone who could make American History boring must be a fucking genius, the Cuban kid in front of you grins: “Look what the gringos first Bay of Pigs did for us and Fidel in the eyes of the world? Patria o muerte!

Before you can catch your breath another kid will come over and tug at your shirt and tell you to keep an eye on HBO for him fighting in Vegas down the road: “You better watch! One day I’ll have a Ferrari like Gamboa and all the blond bitches will be begging to ride with the champ with the top down on my car. Keep your eye out for me in Gringolandia.”

Las Vegas gets brought up from time to time over here. Less than Florida, probably more than New York. Las Vegas and Havana both had the American Dream’s hand up their skirts, they just reacted a little differently to the touch. Whatever differences there are, not much turns either city on more than boxing. Whatever divides them, it’s funny how Communism and Capitalism happen to jerk off to the same brand of porn.

“You better watch!” the kid warns me again. “I’ll be on HBO one day. MGM Grand in Vegas. Watch me!”

My coach overhears this request, shakes his head, and starts his stopwatch. “Brinicito, leedle by leedle. Wazz a mattah? Eez theez too complicado or whaa?”

I’m afraid for my little brain it is, Brea.

A boxer is always a conman. Great fighters are always great liars. If you knew how they were feeling or what they were thinking you could find them. You could hit them.

I feel like a very easy target here.

But I get into the ring and shadowbox with a few Cuban kids. We’re on our toes dancing around on the sweat and blood stains left from the afternoon’s sparring session. We each have a corner of our own. The old ring creaks and moans under our feet. Brea yells for another kid to squish the cigarette under his back toe when he throws his right hand. He’s not turning it properly. Hector gestures to flick his cigarette into the ring to help the education along.

Some pretty Italian girls enter the gym and take photos of us. Hector introduces himself and offers to show them around. He drops some Italian on them. They respond in Spanish, “Where did you learn?” “I was an Olympic champion…” Brea’s smiling and corrects, “Twice Olympic champion!” Hector nods gravely, “It’s true.”

Every Cuban needs their own sitcom.

I take the long way home along the sea. The kid’s warning about not missing him fighting on HBO gnaws at me as the fisherman along the Malecón wave hello. An old fisherman with a mustache casts a hunk of bread just over the crest of the last wave that breaks against the wall. A fish bites quickly and he reels it in and removes his shoe in order to clunk it on the temple and drop it wriggling into the pale nestled between his ankles. He rigs another hook and relights his peso “torpedo” cigar.

Beyond the fisherman’s line are some cruise ships headed for the harbor. Beyond them are the warships. The fisherman isn’t paying attention to either. His eyes are the line while the death rattle of the fish in the bucket peters out.

When I was 20 I met The Old Man and the Sea in Cojimar. Gregorio Fuentes was over a hundred and still puffing away on a cigar and refusing to wear glasses. He looked healthy and alert sitting in his chair with photographs and paintings of himself everywhere. The gift shop-feel of the living room didn’t seem to be his idea, but he wasn’t embarrassed or distracted by it either. He was giving his time for the $15 and bottle of rum you were expected to bring. The money went toward the Revolution, the rum stayed on the premises.

The day before the staff had let me inside Hemingway’s house in San Francisco de Paula. After the revolution they’d converted Hemingway’s home into the Hemingway Museum. 8000 books on the premises along with his typewriter. Everything in the house left untouched since he’d left it. It felt as if he could come back through the door at any moment. Havana’s marina had been named after him. Why not? He’d donated the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer to the Cuban people. The Pulitzer had been stolen from the church were it was kept. I think somebody returned it. The room where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls at the Ambos Mundos was roped off. There were old women I’d talked to who had met him as teenagers. Apparently he wasn’t stingy with compliments for pretty girls.

I knew that Gregorio Fuentes, who could fish before he could walk, had stopped fishing for the remainder of his life the day he found out Hemingway had committed suicide in 1961. I knew it, but I can’t say it really prepared me all that well for feeling it in Gregorio’s living room with him sitting there.

I told him the day before I’d seen his old boat the Pilar for the first time and he nodded. “Isn’t she beautiful? I don’t think she’s very happy away from the sea.”

Which was true. I don’t think Pilar had much interest parading herself around as a centerfold beside the swimming pool in Hemingway’s backyard.

The last thing I ever said to him before he died was asking him why he thought Hemingway had such an effect on people. Especially Cubans.

His eyes looked like a cracked, half-frozen puddle. He stared at me and puffed on his cigar for a while.

Gregorio put down the cigar and cleared his throat before saying, and smiling with that century old face, “He knew who he was.”

It was late before I got back to my neighborhood. At night conversation and arguments and music are everywhere with the percussive slap of dominoes hitting the table from endless porches of Cuban homes. It’s one of my favorite sounds at night.

When I finally got to my street I was told there had been a riot at the baseball stadium and the army was called out. They’d be there for the next game tomorrow so everybody wanted to go.

Four generations of Jesus males were still playing baseball in front of their home when the woman of The House of Jesus called their name, “HEYYYZOOOOOOOOOO!” and they all pleaded in perfect chorus for five minutes more action.

The youngest Jesus noticed me and went into shock pointing behind me, “NANCY!”

Before I could break my neck looking everybody on the block cracked up.

Nancy is the most peeled-off-a-cigar-box-beautiful woman in all of Cuba by consensus and nobody has ever seen her out of jogging pants—except her husband. It adds to her majesty. Nancy is also married to a beloved man with a heart condition and is well aware of my willingness and desire to speed that tragic condition along so that I may comfort her. Nancy goes out of her way to avoid me and the rest of the neighborhood goes out of their way to test a Pavlovian reflex by calling her name around me and pointing over my shoulder. It’s a tough one to inoculate against.

“Why so sad?” the youngest Jesus asks me.

His father comes up behind him and scoops him up onto his shoulders. I made the mistake of confusing his wife for his mother when I first got to this neighborhood. He made a face like he was going to slash my throat until teasing out a smile and went inside to tell her and everyone laughed.

“Brinicito, joo need luvv.”

“I know it,” I said, gazing over to Nancy’s house.

“Nancy is married.”

“Her husband could be the babysitter for our kids.”

“Joo need luvv.”

“I know.”

“Listen, I know some nice prostitutes. My wife has hidden all their phone numbers from me, but I’m sure she’d be happy to let you see them. Let me go inside and ask her…MAMI!”


“They have reached a point of no return as members of a Cuban boxing team. An athlete who abandons his team is like a soldier who abandons his fellow troops in the middle of combat.”

-Fidel Castro

“They are not traitors. They slipped up. People will understand. They’ve repented. It is a victory that they have returned. Others did not.”

-Teofilo Stevenson, three-time Olympic and world amateur heavyweight champion.


At Trejo this afternoon, I was introduced to Guillermo Rigondeaux, the fighter everyone’s been whispering about at the Cuban National Boxing Championships. Rigondeaux is 27 and has already fought nearly 400 times as an amateur. He’s considered one of the greatest amateur fighters who has ever lived. He makes the equivalent of $30 a month. His nickname is “El Chacal” (The Jackal) and even from a distance he lives up to it.

I’d seen him from the corner of my eye while I was training with Brea. He was just prowling around the shade under the bleachers near the entrance to the gym. The Macbeth witches guarding the entrance clammed up and tripped some kind of silent alarm. He watched us training in the baking afternoon heat. When I caught him looking in my direction I felt like I had two barrels of a shotgun pointed at me.

After Brea noticed him he dropped the hand pads he was holding for me and went over with some of the other coaches to speak with the 5’5 and-a-half, two-time Olympic gold medalist. Rigondeaux was dressed in a ball cap and jeans with a fake designer label shirt with the sleeves ripped off.

Only one coach, Héctor Vinent Cháron, a two-time Olympic gold medalist himself, takes his time to greet Rigondeaux. Héctor leans back against the ropes and lights up a cigarette while his children students study the sadness on his face.

Last summer, on July 22, 2007, Rigondeaux and his teammate Erislandy Lara didn’t show up for their scheduled bouts at the Pan Am Games in Brazil. At the same time, it was announced that Rigondeaux was turning professional and joining with his fellow 2004 Cuban Olympians Yan Barthelemy, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Odlandier Solis, who defected earlier in 2007. Following the lead of the previous Cuban defectors, Rigondeaux signed a promotional deal with Arena Box-Promotion. Then, on August 2nd, Rigondeaux and Lara were taken into police custody in Brazil, pleading that they wanted to return home to Cuba. Fidel Castro states publicly that Rigondeaux and Lara will not box again for the Cuban team.

When I was introduced to Rigondeaux and shook hands with him he nodded solemnly and asked where I was from.

It’s always strange hearing any fighter’s voice for the first time, but especially with great fighters it throws you. A part of you expects their voice will somehow match the flawless economy of movement they demonstrate in the ring, or harmonize with the fierce face and fatal weaponry they’ve made of their body and force of will. It never does. Rigondeaux’s voice is flat and dry as a sheep’s, but his eyes are extraordinary. Looking into his eyes is like looking at the bottom of the ocean. It’s been thirty seconds and I still can’t locate the answer to his question.

He smiles and looks at the coaches for some explanation.

Brea steps in and gives me his credentials while omitting anything to do with the business in Brazil. Here are his titles, famous victories, the fighters he’s been compared to. Another coach remarks, “The greatest Cuban fighter since Kid Chocolate.” While they pile on the evidence for a legendary champion’s legacy, another element immediately becomes apparent. None of it will ever be recognized with the system in place. Nothing this kid has ever done or can ever do will define him more than the stamp Castro has placed on him: Traitor. Traitor to boxing. Traitor to his family. Traitor to his team. Traitor to his city of origin. Traitor to his country.

Brea asks about Rigondeaux’s car that the state had given to him. It has been impounded. Rigondeaux is very upset about this.

Héctor finally comes over rubbing his belly before shaking Rigondeaux’s hand. They have an uneasy exchange of words. I wonder how much Héctor’s choice of staying put in Cuba out of fear has influenced Rigondeaux’s thoughts. I wonder how much Héctor’s fate in Cuba influenced his decision to try to escape in Brazil. I wonder what Rigondeaux’s life can amount to remaining here.

Brea grabs me and we go back to training. He wants to stretch out the legs of his english:

“Heyyyyy, wazza mattah?”

“Nothing.”

Heyyyyy, wazza mattah?”

“He’s very sad to look at.”

“It’s very cruel what’s been done to him. He’s very young to lose doing what he loves. He denied trying to leave.”

“What can he do now?”

Héctor has come over to light another cigarette and glare at me.

“Looka for me, Brinicito. Looka for me.”

“I’m looking at you, man.”

Brea grabs hold of his mustache to keep from smiling. “Leedle by leedle. Leedle by leedle…”

That night, after the National Boxing Championship fights are over, I walk a Cuban girl named Ria home from Kid Chocolate. She’s 20 and studies computer science at the University of Havana. She also designs applications for Facebook and smuggles them out to relatives in Miami where they can be sold. The Latin Film Festival has been on and we’ve seen some films together. She loves movies, museums and the ballet. They’re all free to Cubans so she sees as much as she can. She’s fun to watch movies with. There’s no air conditioning in the movie theaters so she brings along a little feather to fan herself with. I never get enough of her doing it.

She wants to walk along the Malecón.

Dollar portrait photographers with their 100 year old cameras are packing up across the street at the front steps of the Capitolio. The shriveled, dolled-up “authentic” old Cuban women who keep the unlit baseball bat-sized cigars in their mouths all day for tourists march arm-in-arm past the gathering of men engaged in never ending debate at the Esquina Caliente in Central Park.

I was a pen pal with Ria for several months before I flew over. It’s strange finding someone on the page before you have them anywhere else. She insisted we write in English so she could improve. She’d never left Cuba before but knew about everywhere I’d ever traveled to from books. When I told her about my mother she knew all kinds of details about Budapest and the revolution there and asked if my mother had seen the tanks rolling in as a child. Then she asked how and in what circumstances I’d lost my virginity. Lots of seamless segues. I met her on the front steps of the University and we started over the conversation and maintained it at the same time.

A pack of kids fly by chasing after a ball. The police are everywhere monitoring all movements. All over the park now you hear the penetrating hiss of jineteras and jineteros from stone benches looking for business in dollars. Hotel employees and cab drivers across the street from the park keep tabs on the action. The hotel-approved bands play for tourists on the patios while security keeps all other locals away.

After we’d seen a movie, I invited her to watch the Havana team fight that evening even though she didn’t care much for boxing.

I buy her an ice cream on the corner of the block as a bald tourist walks by with his arm around the waist of a gorgeous young Cuban girl.

Ria watches them and turns to me.

“I wondered when you first contacted me if that was the arrangement you were looking for.”

“It worried you?”

“It amused me,” she smiles and squeezes my wrist.

“How many boyfriends do you have?”

“Que va. I’m innocent. So dime. What movies do they like where you’re from, Brinicito?”

“Not very good ones anymore. Comic books and superheros. They like movies for escape mostly. Distraction.”

“They’re sad?”

“Not even sad. Depressed.”

“Movies to me are as close as we have to dreams. What do they wish to dream about where you’re from? Por ejemplo, what is the most popular movie of all time in gringolandia? “

Titanic made the most money.”

“I saw it. We get pirated DVDs of American movies from the black market.”

“What did you think of it?”

Titanic doesn’t sound like escape or distraction to me. Castro would say Titanic describes a lot about America.”

“Capitalism as the doomed, unsinkable ship?”

“Bah! Forget politics. Emotionally. Existentially. There’s poetry in what that ship’s failed journey meant. Have you read Neruda?”

Listen, forget Pablo Neruda and start talking about Leonardo Dicaprio.”

Titanic has different significance here. We don’t go on cruise ships anywhere. Cubans are the descendants of pirates. We’ve always stolen the treasure from the European ships that passed through Havana after they stole it from someone else. Many many ships were sunk in our harbor. Why do your people care so much about an unfortunate accident with a pointless transatlantic crossing?”

“Gringos are obsessed with ordinary people in the most extraordinary circumstances.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“I must tell you, the only part I liked about Titanic is when the orchestra plays after they find out they will die. That Cubans would like.”

“I wonder if it was true.”

“Everyone has the same death sentence as those doomed people on that big boat making all their plans for what they will do when they arrive in New York. It’s uninteresting. The men who played their instruments are beautiful.”

“Do you play an instrument?”

“I play four.”

“What would you play?”

“Under those circumstances?”

“Sure.”

“I don’t know. Just a melody of some kind. I like little melodies. We’re all just melodies in the lives of everybody we know.”

“So what’s your melody, Ria?”

“How can I know? It’s played with your orchestra. I’m elevator music for most but maybe a symphony for someone who loves me. Even with us it is a little strange. Do I have the same melody in person as in writing when you read me? Are both melodies playing for you and you’re guessing which is the real me? Do they play nicely together or give you something you didn’t expect? Maybe you were curious and attracted to me but you aren’t now. Maybe it’s the other way around. This is a little complicated I think. I don’t even know if my melody or my country’s melody is a happy one to someone like you. Maybe we seem very sad.”

This throws me and we walk for a while in silence.

When I first arrived here as a kid the same age as Ria, happiness was the first canary I went looking for in Havana’s coal mine.

We’ve turned along the Malecón. For a couple miles kids glaze the cement in sticky embraces with waves just over the edge. Sometimes just below their feet other people are fooling around against the rocks but all you can see is origami shadows. There’s a trumpet played between two fisherman. Some hookers being hassled by a cop are paying attention. He’s finished his tourist set and started on his own thing. At night it’s always haunting when the loner silhouette musicians play their own thing. They show up in the forest, street corners, alleys, or stand on the Malecón like this guy. When they go off on their own thing you have to go off on your own thing. Sometimes it’s spooky.

“Do you know who Guillermo Rigondeaux is?” I ask Ria.

“Of course. From Santiago de Cuba. Soon to be in Miami, I would expect. He has no future in this country now.”

“Do you agree with him trying to leave?”

“Many of the great boxers and baseball players have left already for America. And the propaganda machine will always call them traitors. It’s unimportant. What is important is why Cubans who could leave remain. And the only answer the outside world can have is their own propaganda against us. Even with all their money they can’t afford to know.”



“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perceptions deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

-Italo Calvino


That night in Kid Chocolate, during the last fight of the evening at the National Boxing Championships, a hometown Havana kid was beating another boy from Sancti Spiritus very badly. So badly, in fact, that someone in the crowd raced down from the rafters and threw his bunched-up towel into the ring since the Sancti Spiritus coaches had refused to throw in their towel.

He’d cupped his hands to scream at the referee, “Alright then you son of a bitch, I’ll spend the night in jail for your crime you motherfucker!”

The crowd ignited as they watched that towel leave the man’s hand in a clump and sail unraveling under the lights toward the ring and the referee conspicuously unaware of the assassination attempt.

I was seated next to Brea and the rest of the Havana team at ringside and all of us betrayed our fighter in the ring to cheer on the heckler.

When the towel found it’s target and compressed like an accordion against the referee’s ear and we heard every last sweaty-drop behind the wet-slap of its impact, Brea nudged me, “This man is a noble martyr for Sancti Spiritus. If I was his father I would be proud.” Another coach turned to Brea, “What makes you think you aren’t his father?”

Brea was delighted by this possibility but conceded, “He didn’t get an arm like that from me.”

As the protester stood on the stairs glaring at the referee and screaming obscenities with both hands high over his head spinning like gerbil wheels, the referee calmly halted the fight to pick up the towel and held it with both hands contemplatively before making any attempt to locate the heckler. Even the judges at ringside were having trouble keeping a straight face over the situation.

The rest of us in Kid Chocolate saw the uniformed policia storming down the steps to arrest the protester. He never flinched when the four cops grabbed his arms and shirt and pants and began hauling him toward the exit. He kept his eyes on the ring.

The referee patiently held on to his new towel while the commotion was dealt with.

But then something magical happened and nobody in the arena had a worse time holding their composure together than the referee.

Another towel entered the ring and lightly—almost obediently—touched down on the canvass near the referee’s feet.

Sancti Spiritus had finally had a chance to inspect the damage on their fighter and quit.

There was agonized panic to get this point across to our arrested towel-thrower before it was too late.

The protester was in the doorway of the exit when he broke loose of the police grip enough to look back over his shoulder and grasp the full extent of the moment.

Time stood still as we all waited to see what he’d do next.

Suddenly his hands shot up as he wailed screams of vindication and even the police laughed as everybody got to their feet to cheer and whistle his achievement. The referee shook his head and smiled and waved the fight off.

When the revolution triumphed, one of the strange and beautiful sights across Havana was the destruction, by the thousands, of any and all parking meters.

I went outside into the parking meter-less night and walked over to the corner of the block and bought a peso ice cream from a pretty mulatta reading a weathered and wrinkled-up celebrity magazine from the 80′s. She held the cone under the spout and pulled the arm of the machine all the while hypnotized by a photograph of Madonna. She handed me the cone and reached up and took her hair in a fist trying out the hairstyle. So I watched her for a bit trying other styles until the security guard from the little US dollar grocery store next door began flirting with her. When she gave him a smile he turned with satisfaction in my direction.

The grocery store he was supposed to be guarding had dozens of people lined up outside the entrance, peeking through the windows inside the glass display cases of chocolate, makeup, gum, toothpaste, soap, suntan lotion, American cigarettes and other items.

It was worse a few blocks down the street at the Adidas store on Calle Neptuno. You’d see kids buying sneakers at American prices with the equivalent of a Doctor’s eight month salary acting casual about the transaction. Phony designer t-shirts were already a pretty common sight. Cellphones were hard to get a hold of and insanely expensive, but some of the Cubans in the nicer neighborhoods had them. Things were changing.

The designated tourist Lada taxis were waiting across the street in front of the steps at the Capitolio and the drivers were leaning over the hoods of their cars chatting and smoking with a few of the drivers of horse-drawn carriages. A lot of the tourist drivers were doctors and lawyers desperate for American dollars. Taxi drivers are some of the most connected men in Havana. Some were pimps and drug dealers while others were just eager to let you know about the benefits of the Mercado Negro and wanted a percentage. “You don’t like the food? Don’t you know the best meals are cooked in secret locations? Would you like to visit the famous private home that cooked for Steven Spielberg? Let me show you…” “Have you tried Cuban yeyo with one of our girls yet? A nice young girl who knows how to treat a man right, not like yours back home. I know one whose uncle has several boxes of Trinidad Cigars stolen from Castro himself. Don’t worry my friend…”

Nothing notifies me I’m in danger like preemptive assurances of my safety.

All the hustlers worked this area of town day and night looking for tourists to ride. Which was fair, because tourists pretty much only frequented the areas of Havana where they could give Cubans a ride.

Cops were everywhere but lots of product was being moved in secret stashes all over Havana. Everybody had a friend or a relative who could get it for you.

Then I wished there were some parking meters left as the tourist buses pulled in and parked alongside Central Park and unpacked a herd of Germans marching down Calle Obisbo for some Hemingway daiquiris at El Floridita. The daiquiri was invented there and recently they’d built a life-sized bronze statue of Ernest leaning against the counter in his favorite corner of the bar.

The first day I ever visited Havana, when I was 20, just before Elian Gonzalez was sent back to his dad from Miami in 2000, I bought a Cuban a drink at El Floridita.

Carlos was 30 and an elementary school teacher and close friend of the family where I was staying. I had no Spanish and Carlos had no English, but he’d helped me for a few hours to learn some and I invited him for a drink at the only famous bar I knew in Havana other than La Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway’s other bar.

He wasn’t pleased with my choice but I didn’t know why.

Carlos only wore white and looked like a smaller, more intense version of Nat King Cole. An unusual quality about him was that while extremely gracious and friendly, he almost never smiled.

It was an hour walk to El Floridita and with our lack of a common language we played a kind of paint-by-numbers charades about who we each were and our lives. We both tried to ignore the tedium and laboriousness involved in communicating, but the frustration had Carlos chain-smoking before long.

During that hour he was stopped by the police three times and asked to show his papers. Each time Carlos seemed terrified he’d forgotten them. If you had forgotten them, you spent a night in jail. They questioned what he was doing with me and asked me if Carlos was following or harassing me. I didn’t understand anything about what was happening and thought it must be a joke of some kind. Carlos insisted we were friends. One of the cops, who was maybe 19 years old, went through his bags and smiled as he intentionally tried to humiliate Carlos by asking if he was a prostitute.

In many areas of Havana there are police on nearly every street corner. On the books, police make more money than any other profession.

When we finally got the bar they didn’t want to let Carlos in. They called another cop over. Carlos looked queasy.

Once we got inside the bartenders in brilliant red and white uniforms wouldn’t make eye contact with him. I wasn’t sure what was going on so I asked what Carlos was having and ordered him a beer while I tried what everyone else in there was having, the Papa Doble.

An old woman came round to sell Hemingway junk. A band came in with a lovely girl singing. The entire bar was more a gift shop than anything.

Both drinks cost me 11 American dollars and when I gave it to the bartender Carlos watched it leave my hand very carefully.

I asked if he’d been to El Floridita before and he shook his head: “Nunca.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

After he finished his beer we’d returned home to the family where I was staying, he had one of the teenage daughters act as a translator to ask me some questions:

“You seem like a nice kid but this journey today was upsetting for me. What does it say about a country when a citizen cannot enter a bar in his own city of birth and even if he can, it costs him two weeks salary to pay for a beer?” He went on, “I understand that relative to where you come from, you are not wealthy. And I understand that 11 dollars relative to where you come from is not an amount of any real significance to anyone. But what does it say about my country that to enter a bar such as this as a hardworking, honest, law-abiding citizen and I am looked at under suspicion as either a criminal or a prostitute? What does it look like to you?”

Which in turn started a huge argument in the household between the three generations worth of people living there until the neighbors came over to join in. It was right around this time that I bummed the first cigarette of my life off Carlos. That earned a smile and a spooky warning: “Welcome to Cuba.”


In 1962, Fidel Castro banned professional sports in Cuba. This presented a hard choice for boxers: stay in Cuba and fight for national pride and glory or defect to a country where their talents could make them rich.

1967: Enrico Blanco, age 15, wins gold at the Pan American Games in Canada. Shortly after the match he becomes Cuba’s first boxer to defect.

The Rosetta Stone to understanding boxing starts with a secret every boxer is trying to keep from you: they’re all more afraid of being embarrassed than they are of getting hurt.

“Heroes and cowards feel exactly the same fear. Heroes just react to it differently.”

-Cus D’Amato

1993: Giorbis Barthelemy swims 11 miles to U.S Guantanamo Bay Naval Base attempting to defect. After being captured and jailed on his first attempt to reach Guantanamo, he succeeds on his second try.

I’ve been boxing since I was 15.

I caught an interview that summer where Mike Tyson was in jail for raping a beauty pageant contestant and was being asked by a French interviewer why there were reports of him reading Hemingway, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Dumas, and Victor Hugo. I called my mom over. Tyson tilted his head and with a kind of tender embarrassment admitted it was probably out of boredom more than any quest for knowledge. My mom smiled, “What kind of man is this?”

I’d never read a book of literature up to that point, but I wrote down all the names from the interview. I went to the main library and took out six biographies on Tyson and a handful of books from the writers he’d mentioned. It took a while, but after I got through those with the help of a dictionary, I picked up biographies on all those writers to see what they read. I wrote a lot more names down and went back to the library. I’ve been playing catch up ever since.

Tyson’s story as a kid got to me. We came from very different neighborhoods, but we’d both been bullied. We shared the same millstone of women around our necks. We both made attractive victims and felt some comfort identifying with that role. There was substance abuse in our families. We shared a terror and fascination of violence.

We reacted to violence a little differently: I became something of a shut-in for two years while he became the heavyweight champion of the world.

The main thing that caught my eye was how one of the world’s legendary victimizers had led a childhood being serially victimized by everyone around him.

No wonder he was so skilled at it.

“All things truly wicked start from innocence.”

-Ernest Hemingway

Anyone could look at his face and tell that story. You could hear it in his voice. You could see it in the style in which he fought, as if someone had stolen something from him. You could feel it in his words:

“I’ll fuck you till you love me faggot.”

-Mike Tyson

I’ve only lost consciousness twice in the ring: my first time sparring and my last fight competing as an amateur.

The initiation procedure at my first gym was baptism by fire and they tossed all the new kids into the ring to have their heads taken off in front of everybody. I wasn’t an exception. It had taken up most of my courage that night just to enter the neighborhood where the Astoria Hotel was located and walk down those dark old stairs into the stink of that basement where they ran their gym.

They say the worst blows are the ones you don’t see.

When you’re a beginner you see them coming and you still can’t do anything about it. You don’t know how. If you’re out of shape or new, the ring can be one of the loneliest places in the world.

No, the worst blow, for my money, is that first one that hasn’t hit you yet, it’s just hanging there on the way to hitting you.

I’d say you have roughly the same idea what it’s going to feel like as you do with sex the first opportunity you have to put your dick inside a girl. The notable difference is, you can’t learn to take a punch. You have a glass chin or you don’t and you have no way of finding out without testing yourself. And the news is going to go public in a hurry.

They put me in there with a Golden Gloves champion and before too long I took a couple of right hands on the jaw I saw coming that turned out the lights. I was still on my feet, but I’d checked out. The impact was a surprisingly euphoric sensation. As I came to, glassy- eyed and goofy, I was still on my feet with a blurry man I’d never seen before dancing in front of me, dipping one shoulder in preparation for a left hook to finish me off.

When I realized where I was and what was going on, I hugged him and wouldn’t let go. He drove me back into a corner. In the clinch he called me a faggot. “Leggo you fucken faggot!” he yelled again. But I didn’t. My head still wasn’t clear so I considered his appraisal. At 15 I hadn’t kissed a girl yet. I’d never been attracted to a man but then maybe what my opponent was suggesting was that I simply hadn’t met the right one. I couldn’t rule it out. It was indeed possible. How could I know?

The bell rang and the trainer stepped into the ring and removed my headgear and gloves. By this time my head was throbbing and I couldn’t breath normally.

“Take it easy, kid. Take it easy,” the trainer smiled. “So we’ll see you same time Thursday?”

The trainer at that time was a judge who sent as many troubled kids as he could through that boxing gym instead of sending them to juvenile prison. For this measure of goodness he felt more than entitled to savor the suffering and humiliation of others in the context of boxing.

I rode home on the bus with a swollen cheek pressed up against the window trying to soak up as much of the winter chill outside as I could. It wasn’t hard to imagine them still laughing at me back at the gym. That sadistic fuck trainer was probably egging them on. My jaw was too sore to enunciate the words, but I swore a thousand times on that ride I’d never go back.

Then the next day I was more pissed off at him than sorry for myself and did go back on Thursday.

Only once you went back did they look after you.

It took me a while to clue in that just maybe this was by design. They’d really been looking after you the whole time. If you couldn’t come back after a beating you were wasting your own time with boxing as much as theirs.

In 1994, five Cuban boxers defect:

The Castillo Brothers, Eliseser and Eliseo watched sharks attack
their flotilla as they drifted for days. Alexis Barcelay walked through
a minefield to get to Guantanamo Bay. Diobelys “The Oriental Kid”
Hurtado defects during a layover in Miami. Mario Iribarren defects to
Denmark after a competition.

“Ring magic is different from the magic of the theater, because the curtain never comes down–––because the blood in the ring is real blood, and the broken noses and the broken hearts are real, and sometimes broken forever.”

-F.X. Toole

I train people myself now. The narratives behind the people vary: old men trying to stay in shape, teenage girls worried about rape prevention, university professors getting out of their heads, abused wives determined to not let it happen again, and picked on kids trying to build themselves back up. It’s intimate and vulnerable business. Everyone’s drawn to boxing for a different reason and usually afraid of it for the same two: you have to hit and be hit by someone.

A fighter’s struggle used to have greater significance to society than it does now.

In his book Why We Can’t Wait, first published in June 1964, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote:

“More than twenty-five years ago, one of the southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the human reacted in this novel situation.

The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: ‘Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis…’”

Joe Louis is only Joe Louis because his mother hated boxing. She tried to get him interested in playing an instrument. He hid his gloves from her in his violin case. When it came time for his first amateur fight, Joe Louis Barrow omitted the Barrow when he signed the register to keep his boxing pursuits a secret from his mother. The name stuck.

He also lost his first fight.

1996, Joel “El Cepillo” Casamayor becomes Cuba’s first Olympic boxing medalist to defect, giving up a chance to win gold in Atlanta. Ramon “El Nino” Garbey, the 1993 world amateur light heavyweight champion, also defects and struggles as a professional.

At Rafael Trejo, where I’ve boxed in Havana since 2000, two or three old women guard the entrance. There are different sets, but they always remind me of the Macbeth witches. Past the entrance the sun blazes down on you and there are rows and rows of bleachers behind and in front of you. For warm ups the students race up and down them and it’s as loud as a New York subway until they quit. Car tires are set against an iron railing and boys practice their combinations snapping their punches. There’s a hung sack for a punching bag next to the tires. A tractor tire lays in the shade under the far side bleachers where an instructor swings a sledge hammer over one shoulder and then the other, plunging the hammer down and showing a kid the proper technique of incorporating the entire body with each swing and the mechanics of the weight transfer involved. The ring is the center piece of the gym with the canvass blood and sweat-stained with a little neighborhood mud smeared here and there. There’s a lucky kid who lives next door who spies down on the action below from his window.

My trainer’s name is Alberto Brea. He’s a multiple-time National Cuban Boxing Champion  and has helped train the South African Olympic team. Currently he’s one of the coaches for Havana’s team at the National Championships. He likes their chances. Brea is six feet tall, a few happily removed weight classes from his former fighting weight, and is in his early fifties with a thick mustache and stopwatch hung round his neck.

Brea’s name is hollered whenever we walk down the narrow streets of Old Havana before or after boxing. He shakes a lot of mens’ hands and kisses the cheeks of even more women and introduces me to each person. It’s as if Castro passed a law that all Cuban citizens shall be fans of Brea. Those hands he can’t shake or cheeks of women he can’t kiss, say people calling down from roofs of apartments, he raises a hand and his face glows as the ends of his mustache raise in a smile. He whistles and talks dirty in a growling whisper to every breathing woman that crosses his path. It interrupts nearly every sentence he tries to get out in conversation. I once saw him talk dirty to a paraplegic female. I must have stopped dead in my tracks. “Brinicito, we all need love.”

Every time his name is called he looks over at me and repeats the same thing, “Brinicito, what can I do? Brea! Brea! Siempre Brea! Everywhere lo mismo, Brea!”

Brea is Sisyphus, and the boulder of his victimization-by-fame routine only pleases me more with each complaint about how he’s helpless against his fate of acknowledging even more friendly faces who admire him for the rest of his days.

While we train, he often likes to practice his English. It doesn’t stretch very far so he instead boils it down and manipulates it like a Rubik’s Cube. There’s rarely if any symmetry with what I happen to be doing:

“C’mon. Hey! Wazza matta? Slow down. Despacio. Berry important: leedle-by-leedle.”

This is far and away his favorite line. It applies to scoring with women, the path to Christ, defecting, living harmoniously in the country under the system, growing old, getting out of relationships and, at the moment, my left hook after slipping a punch.

“Little-by-little?” I repeat, having gained the understanding over the years that this is one philosophy in life we all apprentice and never master.

Leedle-by-leedle. Okay. Venga!”

I pay him $7 a day to work with me. He drives in from 50 miles outside Havana to work with me 4-5 times a week. During his lifetime, Brea’s salary has never been more than $25 a month.

We meet at our mutual friend Montalvo’s house three blocks away from the gym in Old Havana. Jose Marti’s original home is five minutes walk from us, across the street from a train station. They’ve converted it to a museum. I walk past it everyday on the way to the gym. The neighborhood is San Isidro which used to be one of the great thriving prostitution districts. Alberto Yarini Ponce de León, the most famous pimp in Cuban history, was murdered here.

Montalvo and the wife of Montalvo look and act a helluva lot like Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad except under distinctly Cuban circumstances. They always get a kick playing Barry White for me every time I return to Cuba in revenge for me jokingly referring to him as Barry Blanco. Which started a whole clusterfuck of fun with translation: “Would you like to hear some juicy 1970′s Al Verde?” Their toilet has been broken for years. Their son has fled to Miami. The father of the wife of Montalvo fought in the revolution and after its “success” became disenchanted and began to drink heavily and womanize to the degree that even Brea blushes in discussing his exploits. The old man sits in a rocking chair perpetually begging for rum as he fans himself with a peacock feather.

Brea arrives at the same time as my friend Lesvanne. Lesvanne has a new shirt.

“What’s her name?” Brea asks.

“Who?” Lesvanne asks.

“Que va! The gringa tourist who gave that to you!”

Lesvanne raises his hand and flicks his wrist making a snap between his fingers.

“Where’s she from?”

“Texas!”

The whole house goes wild.

Montalvo, Lesvanne, Brea and I start walking over to the gym. Brea is called over to shake someone’s hand.

Lesvanne asks me if I’m still fighting back home. I shake my head.

“What happened with your last fight?”

“I lost.”

“How?”

“I was hit in the balls three times in a row. They stopped the fight. Finito.”

“They allow this in your country?”

“The referee didn’t see it.”

“Three times?”

“Three times.”

“Madre mia.”

We’re meeting a new friend at the gym today. Herry Biembe is an African middleweight fighter living in Switzerland training for the Beijing Olympics at Trejo. I met him a few days before and we lined up training together today. A tourist snapped this photo of Herry below:


2006: Three more Cuban gold medalists defect while training in Venezuela. Yuriorkis “The Cyclone” Gamboa remains undefeated after 16 professional matches. Yan Barthelemy sells his gold medal to feed his family. Odlanier “The Shadow” Solis remains undefeated as a professional and is ranked in the top 10 among heavyweights.

2007: Angelo Santana leaves Cuba on a raft to follow his high school girlfriend. He achieves far more than just romantic success. Guillermo Rigondeaux, two-time Olympic gold medalist, loses chance to win record third gold medal after attempting to defect in Brazil.

2008: Erislandy Lara is sent home in disgrace and banned from boxing after attempting to defect from Brazil.

We enter the gym and spot Herry and his bleached-blond head sitting on the ring apron talking with a sullen shirtless Cuban in jeans smoking a cigarette. Herry waves while the man he’s with pays me a dirty glare as his customary form of welcome.

The man Herry’s talking with trains many of the children off the street at Trejo. He used to be one of them. His name is Héctor Vinent Cháron.

There was a ceremony at the National Championships where they brought out all the famous ex-champions of Cuba and lined them up before the crowd. Apart from the roar of applause, there were tears in the eyes of some people when the names were announced. This man, along with his name, was included in the ceremony.

He won gold at the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics for Cuba. He’s a two-time World Champion and six-time National Champion.

What caught my eye most at that ceremony was how Héctor was the only ex-champion who seemed tremendously uneasy being there and paraded around as an example for others about character and believing in the gains of the revolution.

I’d asked some questions about him and found out he’d desperately wanted to leave but was afraid about the repercussions against his family from the government. For starters, he could never come home. Jobs and employment opportunities for anyone connected to him could be removed or badly diminished. The systematic, comprehensive shaming of his family, teammates, and legacy would be considerable. There was an enormous price to leaving and the cost would be shared with those that this man loved.

So he stayed.

“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald



Cherry Picking

By Brin Butler

Essay

“What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.”

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

There’s a poor orchard town near where my father grew up in the countryside. It’s one of the poorest places in the country. Most people found out about it when it got some attention in the newspapers after a famous serial killer and child rapist named Clifford Olsen passed through and beheaded a child and left the trophy to be discovered by school kids in the river that flows next to the highway that runs through the heart of the town.


We drove through that town on the way to visit our relatives since I was a baby. I remember driving when my parents were together and after they’d parted ways. I think it was one of the first places I used as a marker to measure certain feelings that upset me. When I was very small we nearly always stopped to pick up fruit to bring over for my grandmother to use in baking pies. After she died when I was five, we still stopped to pick up fruit, but usually just enough for the last stretch of the car ride. Memories aren’t photos in an album, they change every time you fondle them. I was getting good marks and then I wasn’t anymore. Holes weren’t filling in with certain things that bothered me. When I was big enough, we pulled off the highway and visited one of my favorite bridges in the world called Red Bridge.

You could climb inside the walls of that one-lane bridge and get up to the top staring a good fifty feet over that icy, glacier-fed river.

At the best of times I’m pretty lousy with heights. I was 21 before I had the courage to jump. I had a boyfriended girl up there with me, originally from the town, who I’d met in the city. She knew the parents of the beheaded kid and we’d been talking about how creepy and exciting the river felt knowing that such an awful thing polluted it.

The first time I stepped into a river when I was two or three my dad told me that you can never put your foot into the same river twice. That was a good fit as far as I was concerned. I almost drowned once floating down a river and after I quit struggling it was the most peaceful feeling I’ve ever felt in my life. You’re caught under something and struggling and struggling to get to the surface and grab some air and then you actually hear another voice ask why?

She’d never had the guts to jump and thought anyone who did was crazy. I wanted to impress her. At first it hadn’t worked out so well. I’d chickened-out over and over again maybe 20 times, but when she gave up on me and went to collect the little blanket we’d spread out up there I went for it. I figured suicide was the biggest decision you can make that you can’t ever regret.

She made a beautiful sound when I jumped over her and off that edge. I could hear that sigh-scream all the way down with my arms flapping like a maniac before plunging into the water and falling so deep I touched down on the pebbly river bottom.

The next time I visited that town I didn’t pass through, we stopped to visit that same girl’s folks.

We stopped by a friend of hers who had an apple orchard. The orchard had a pretty story behind it:

The parents of that friend who owned the orchard had wondered for years why all the pickers went to one particular tree on their lunch break for their own apples to eat. Finally they went over to that tree and tried one of the apples for themselves and discovered that the apples looked and tasted different. They had a distinctive creamy color. As it turned out, it was a new strain of apple which they named Ambrosia apples that became so popular that they became quite wealthy.

I’ve taken nearly every girl I’ve really liked through that town and bought them some of those apples from the roadside fruit stands.

On the flight back from New York with my wife a couple days ago, I was thinking about one of these girls.

On the trip we had together through that town she picked up the slack from my grandmother and used those apples to bake a pie.

I published a story about her in a magazine a while back. I gave some slippery details about her finding out I’d written a novel about her without ever having had a meaningful conversation with her. In the story I’d given myself a first kiss with her. 10 years after high school she’d read it and flew over to be with me. That was what happened.

But I’d left the piece open-ended.

Sometimes I’m interested in people who think leaving out vital material isn’t the same as lying when it achieves the same purpose.

It’s a different feeling getting away with a lie.

Different motivation too, I think.

It’s weird writing the happy part of a story that you know ends badly.

I’d left it optimistic and nostalgic and hopeful between us.

It had ended abruptly, severed with a warning she issued in a shrill tone: “You’ll always regret this. You’ll look back and regret this for the rest of your life.”

Most women I know that complain about their choice in men talk about how unsuccessful they are in finding a good match rather than succeeding in choosing assholes.

Every writer zeros-in on who their best muse is, who they’re really writing to or who they feel is looking over their shoulder. I’m not good with a Thinking Cap on my head. I end up feeling like Whitney Houston when I’m trying to sound like Billie Holiday.

Crack isn’t heroin.

The woman who published that story asked me how the story played out after meeting that girl. Was I still with her? “C’mon, she’d moved from Europe to be with you!”

That wasn’t entirely true. More to the point, she’d moved to be with an idea of us that had nothing to do with me.

I have a considerable mean streak that I try to hold back when I write about women because I know how ugly it is.

Most likely it stems from the fact that I’m scared of women. All varieties. Old, smart, dumb, literate, young, moms, daughters, wives, mistresses, whores, girlfriends, sisters, political leaders, receptionists, dental assistants, nurses, poets, writers, actresses, pornstars, nuns, book club members, lesbians, cocktail waitresses, bus drivers, wrestlers, folk singers, talk show hosts, hobos, models, anorexics, pregnant, career-women, soft, cookie-cutter, snowflake—you name it I’ll raise my hand and bow my head in shame.

I’m scared of women because I’m so drawn to them. I’m obsessed by women in all their roles and sides and facets and devious complexity and radical ambiguity and appetites and narratives and surfaces and depths and noise and silence.

I know less about them as a whole the more I meet.

Punching your weight is a good rule.

I don’t bring much to the table. I like my femininity in the cute and dirty variety, like those first video game fairies with the glittery X-rated eyes despite G-rated roles.

Cuteness is depravity’s defense mechanism: Japan only overdosed on cute after getting nuked.

I think of women emotionally the same as I think of men, only I think of them emotionally as men who are drunk and high. After all, women have purpose.

“Love is blind, but stalkers often have an eye for detail” is how I opened the piece.

Before I started the piece, I had a few pages of notes that included several pretty lines meant to hide other elements I’d left out.

Salinger had this line about “letting all your stars come out” or something. I wonder why this is so scary to do.

When I look at them, relationships seem mostly about addiction. Chemicals. Junk. Power. Submission. Domination.

Even with all the little stuff.

Telescopes and microscopes uncover what you can find.

She’d said she looked forward to baking pies after we got married and had our own family and grandchildren.

I like opening my eyes underwater in a lake or in the ocean when I can’t see anything.

She knew she was going to live to be over a hundred, she assured me.

I love fortune cookies, but not for their wisdom.

She was glad I thought she looked the same as when I’d first met her at 13, but she was most pleased that I loved her eyes, because the rest of her would “perish” into old age and “decay” but “my eyes will always remain.”

It was speeches like these, the chilling inflection and frightening vocabulary, that first broke the spell.

Then there was the preemptive self-flattery: “Everywhere I go others inform me that my breasts are divine.”

Pleasant would have been my choice of words.

“My bottom attracts attention like you wouldn’t believe.”

She was on the mark with that one. I didn’t believe it. And even more so after just breaking up with a Puerto Rican dancer whose ass moved like a wrecking ball down New York streets in terms of the attention from men it commanded.

“Don’t you fancy how quirky I dress?”

From her attire, she looked a girl who proudly lived in a giant shoe.

I left out that I was so nervous before meeting her that about 8 hours prior to picking her up from the airport I accepted the offer of a perfect stranger for a random meeting and presumable “booty call”.

I think it’s the only time I’ve ever been the one not chasing.

This random girl somehow got very turned on discussing books. She was boyfriended also. It didn’t really matter except that he was a very respectful boyfriend, which in all areas except sexually pleased her just fine. “That’s my main problem with this guy. I want a good person who can really demean me. He can’t. We can connect emotionally and intellectually and he’s not intimidated by someone with my education and career and outspokenness. You know what I mean? He just can’t bring himself to really give me what I want sexually.”

“What do you want sexually?” I asked.

“A guy who isn’t afraid to come on my face, you know?”

“Right.”

It’s liberating in a slightly unsettling way to be attracted to a woman yet having no interest in fucking her. It’s not a state you’d like to occupy all that often, but it’s valid somehow too.

“Are you gonna fuck me or what?”

“Nope.”

“So you’re using me?”

We’d met on top of a hill with a really spectacular view. She’d laid out a blanket.

She asked about the girl flying in. She asked how I felt about the circumstances. She gave her point of view. She asked me if I knew who Mr. Darcy was. She asked if I had any intention of contacting her after that night. When I gave her a look, she informed me that she was making a joke.

I told her after that night I would never speak with her again and she saw very clearly that I meant it.

She asked if I was joking.

“There are no jokes, the truth is the funniest joke of all.”

—Muhammad Ali






Loot

By Brin Butler

Memoir

“In a sense, we are all crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns on the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit… are the highest forms of consciousness.”

-Vladimir Nabokov


I have a lousy sense of direction. Every friend I’ve ever met I met asking for directions.

Even before I’d arrived in Havana, in the back of my mind I was looking for the stranger who’d first really shown me around. I knew he’d still be there. Most of my local friends had left. My whole block of families had fled to Spain and Miami. The seven boys and men named Jesus who lived on that street were gone—poof—homefree.

The first time I left home to travel in another country at eighteen my mother told me to look up all her friends when I arrived.

“You have friends in Spain? You have friends in Pamplona?

“Of course I do, Bwinny.”

Who?

She shrugged. “I have no idea. I haven’t met any of them yet.”

Hungarian joke.

But I ended up giving her a punchline and meeting a few of them anyway.

I’d tried calling that stranger I was looking for before I flew over: number disconnected. I wrote: no response. I got desperate enough to call in the heavy artillery and use my mother’s psychic mumbo-jumbo apparatus to determine if he was still alive:

She said she wasn’t sure.

“What the hell do you mean you’re not sure?”

“Bwinny, he might be alive and he might not.”

“I see we’ve cornered the market on safe bets this week, huh?”

“I’m not sure.”

The truth was I like it when psychics tell you they aren’t sure.

He was an antique book salesman I’d met on the plane over to Havana once. I’d never seen someone drink so much anywhere, let alone on a plane. It threw me. I spook easy with alcoholics. They get to me. I was reading another boozer named Malcolm Lowery, who writes with glue, when I stumbled over a line about the “shakes of too little and the abyss of too much”.

I looked over at him across the aisle, trying not to think of him as the illustration to this sentence, and he smiled at me.

“You’re not even drunk, are you?” I asked him.

“What does it look like? Of course not. I’m in training.” He pushed the button for the flight attendant again.

The salesman wasn’t kidding. He had cirrhosis. The drinking on the plane was small potatoes compared to when we landed.

I’d read something about how the only addictive substance where going cold turkey could actually kill you was booze. I’d read that and it surprised me a little but I’d never met anyone who brought it home. Liquor was like air for him.

When he got off the plane they held him in immigration for three hours. He’d asked me to wait and I had.

It was midnight and I had no place to stay.

After a few hours he came out and bought a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of 7 year old rum and there was a car waiting for him outside next to the taxis. The driver was a lanky, nervous older guy in a tracksuit who turned out to be a silver medalist in the 100 meter dash from the Pan Am games. His name was Montalvo. He looked like a Cuban Bill Cosby only the closest he got to smiling was shrugging. If he had a sitcom that shrug would trip the wire on his laughtrack. As we drove the salesman drank from the bottle and slapped the side of the car as the tropical air swirled in the backseat against me.

I always like arriving to a new city at night. It feels pleasantly mutually violating. Exploring it before you know what they look and feel like in the day. It feels like touching a woman whose taken before she’s told you she’s taken. They don’t feel like they’re cheating unless they touch you. Every inch of Havana is scratch and sniff.

I had no idea who the two men in the front seat were or where we were going but I felt safe watching the palm trees whisk by.

————————————–

I knew he was still in Havana this time around. He’d promised I could find him as soon as I got back.

It was late at night again this time. I was trying to see what had changed.

The signs all over the place were still the same: “Vamos Bien!” with Castro beaming.

It was always “going well!” according to him. Whatever horror stories the people told you you could always repeat that back to them for a cheap laugh. “Be like Che!” was the other popular number. I was supposed to meet Che’s son, Camilo, this time around. Celebrities here are a little different then other places. They’re easy to find and generally easy to talk to. Somehow you always end up starting in the middle of something.

At night you think a lot about shipwrecks here. Different kinds of shipwrecks with different people.

The bookseller had told me once the difference between girls from Havana and all the rest: “All the others remember how to break your balls but they forgot how to break your heart. Here they haven’t forgotten. Look at her. And her. Her. I’ll die here, man.”

At night it’s easy to think about people you care about holding bad cards. Sometimes they have their own set and sometimes they’ve invited someone else’s into their lives.

You think about faces you love getting older.

Havana is a heavy place on a lot of people. A lot of people get spent looking for things they can’t find.

I sat on the curb watching the old neighborhood waiting for a familiar face. There was a foxy lady across the street in particular I was keen to see. Her husband had heart trouble and all the kids in the neighborhood knew I had a massive crush on her so they’d always point behind me and shriek, “NANCY!” and watch me break my neck to see her.

There was one man who lived on our street who I knew would only leave in a box but he was 90 years old and I was worried he’d kicked the bucket. After an hour or so coming up empty on seeing anyone I knew, I walked down to the end of the block and knocked on his door. He’d won his house in the lottery and moved 10 members of his family in along with him. Now they all, and their children, along with their children’s children, looked after him. He was the doorman at the Hotel Nacionale in the 40’s until he moved over to the Hilton right up until Castro took it over for his government headquarters after the revolution and renamed it the Habana Libre.

I knocked at his door and his great-grand children answered.

“Where is the old man?”…

I thought the kid was going to cry for a second but when I began to apologize he laughed and asked if the old man was still alive.

“Depends whose at the door…”

Pockets

By Brin Butler

Essay

I was watching a girl’s reflection try on a winter coat in front of a mirror the other night. What made her interesting was how interested she was in what she was doing. She was inside a bright, hygienically-lit department store with puddles of squeaky light gleaming off the ground beside her feet. The cosmetics section and a large window divided us. I was outside in the cold watching my white breath fog up the view against the window and frantically wiping it off while a street light hung over me on Howe Street, drooling its sad creamsicle-glow into a puddle in the gutter that’d be frozen before I’d get into my front door that night.

The girl’s reflection swiveled her hips a helluva lot of degrees in one direction then swung the other way just as far, and both times she looked over her shoulder with a downward glance that didn’t betray a result. I felt less cold when she took another crack at it and bit her lip. She stood on her tippy-toes and tucked a strand of hair behind an ear. She arched her back a little, leaned over; kept tabs of the results but never tipped her hand to me by the expression on her face. Without even once shoving her hands into the pockets of the big puffy coat she discarded it, returned it to the rack, and abandoned the whole mission for a few squirts of free perfume over in the cosmetics department and started talking up some cosmetics female atrocity of a salesperson and I went on my way.

Even a winter coat is all about a girl’s ass looking okay.

Don’t get me wrong, the concern has plenty of merit. My theory on fidelity is firmly planted in the conviction that a man needs a face he can marry and an ass roughly 36 inches beneath it that makes an enticing idea and practice to cheat on it with enduring satisfaction. Lingerie has a similar cheating element built into fidelity thing, too. It’s still you under there all right, but it’s covered in pink for the 3.4 seconds it takes me to see it and tear the motherfucker off. Next time blue! Shucks…

But the girl’s reflection kinda got to me. Mostly because I’ve never tried the pockets of a coat in my life when I was looking around for a coat to keep me warm when it’s cold outside. And I’ve never bought a coat other than when it was, that day, that hour, that minute, way too fucking cold to not impulse buy—in cold blood—a coat. I’ve gone for plenty of girls that were like coats without pockets. No comfy place. No foxhole to bury to cowardly depths.

That girl’s reflection kinda reminded me a bit of this girl I used to watch at night through a telescope when I had an apartment in the Westend. When I moved in I didn’t have a TV so I borrowed a telescope off a crazy neighbor of my mom’s whose dad was shot in the face with a 44-magnum and who for the last thirty years had packratted several lifetimes’ worth of various shit he mostly never got around to using.

One of those things was a really impressive, expensive telescope complete with a laser scope thingamabob.

To make the telescope into my evening entertainment I needed dependable story lines. Over a few evenings I cased about 400 windows for activity and bought some different colored pieces of scotch tape and made a constellation of all the interesting rooms on MY window so that I could easily point the telescope to the tape and, in turn, the room, and tune in.

I never once caught anybody fucking.

Which, at first, was VERY irritating. Until after some examination I discovered that I barely caught any couples even TALKING to each other. Even LOOKING at each other. Not too many people live alone, but everybody just ignores each other. She watches TV, you go on the computer; after a while, SWITCH, shower separately, phone call, leaf through US magazine, go to bed.

I’d kinda hoped there’d be something kinky out there in the world of apartment life, but nothing prepared me for how perverse the reality actually was.

Then it got way more creepy: this one girl became the star of everything. A Japanese girl of 20 or so who arrived home to her apartment around 1130pm and went about trying on 20 dresses or so from her closet in front of a tall mirror. One after another just working herself up and tearing herself down until a big fat breakdown against her bed, fists plunging into the mattress, bawling her eyes out. And all of it like clock work every weeknight (weekends I have no idea where she went). She always tried on the same red dress last every time.

But that was over a year ago. Maybe in another 15 minutes or so she’s somewhere or other near that red dress working her way up to it. Or maybe she’s wearing it right now with somebody she loves who doesn’t even suspect there’s any particular significance to what lies in her closet. Who knows. Not me. The stars were out tonight—and maybe hers’ were too—and I was just another pervert walking over a bridge to get home with the water calm and checkered like a dance floor, the moon fat as Orson Welles’ cheek buttering the sky.

Laputa

By Brin Butler

Memoir

Last year a Cuban on the flight over to their hometown told me a story. When Che left Cuba for the last time he changed his identity and radically altered his appearance in order to sneak out to Bolivia. But he had dinner with his family one last time. His wife introduced him to his children as “Ramon” and they didn’t recognize him. When dinner was served, out of habit, he sat at his usual place at the head of the table. Instantly one of his small children confronted him and grabbed the chair. “You cannot sit here. My father sits here.”

So Che politely stood and left it empty while his wife smiled.

I’m pushing thirty this June and it embarrasses me that I don’t know more of these kinds of stories. I should.

Whenever I touchdown in Havana I never have a place to stay. That isn’t especially specific to Havana actually. I hate reservations. But Havana is one of the only places I know that rewards you for having no plans and just hustling. All I’d lined up for my first week after leaving home was going to the movies with two Cuban girls, one on a stopover in Toronto, the other in Havana. I’d never gotten around to catching a movie at the Charlie Chaplin theater and I didn’t feel like going alone. I didn’t want to go with anyone I knew either.

I wanted a stranger.


The cab dropped me off on the Malecón near the Hotel Nacionale. It was that strange hour between the sun sinking out of view and the street lights turning on. Still warm out as the colors drain and begin to smear and stain stuff, in this case the rooftops in old Havana behind me and ahead of me the whole chocolate Christmas calendar of hurricane-bruised apartments skirting the edge of the sea. Bike taxis hustled rides while the fisherman worked barefoot and shirtless, smoking unfiltered cigarettes next to a bucket of today’s catch pulled in. Some work alone with rum, others in groups with conversation. Jineteros (jockeys—as in, riding prospective tourists) keeping an eye out for an easy wallet while jineteras (who do their share of riding the tourists) arch their backs and hiss, “Warr joo frawm?” I prefer their guesses to my honest answer.
It never feels like an honest answer anyway.
Kids too busy flirting with each other to mind another gringo looking around for a stall to buy some cigarettes and a juice box of rum with a sipping straw. Lots of people alone walking, turning over decisions made a little easier with the proximity to the sea. Old women with sacks of candy holding out fist-fulls of lollipops and bags of popcorn to families sitting or leaning against the seawall near lone musicians with trumpets or guitars. Tourist ships off in the horizon, some warships too. Out beyond the perfect line where the sky and sea kiss, only 90 miles, three day’s float if you make it, and pay-dirt of the whole shitload of Florida relatives. Get lost thinking about anything and some wave might wash over and soak all your baggage to hell. Not that I ever have much. Nobody gives you shit if you wear the same shirt all week if you have to. And everybody likes to swap.

Back in 2000, the first time I saw Cuba, five minutes after arriving I went over to the Habana Libre (which used to be the Hilton until Castro rolled in and set up government headquarters on the top two floors) and asked everybody milling around outside where the “maricon” was, not knowing I was using the pejorative for queer. Also not knowing that this was the unofficially designated cruising area of town. After a quick glance at the policeman on the street corner I was ignored. I approached somebody else, “How do I find the maricon please? Can you show me?” This woman was more helpful. I was pointed in the direction of a handful of homosexuals across the street leaning over an ice cream stand counter. When I seemed confused by her advice, someone corrected my vocabulary and walked me around the corner until I could see what I was looking for myself.

Then it turns into a wet painting like this:


And the girls with price tags offer a little company, whatever you want, but I’m always too shy to go for it. It’s too easy to get thinking about the people you’ve been with where you’re just a stepping stone for someone hopefully a better fit. Likewise them for you. Musical chairs was just practice for it and for death’s role in things too.

Then I get lost. I ask the prettiest girls I can find for directions and get lost again. It’s fun going out of your way to get as lost as possible as the purpose of your day—or life for that matter. Nearly everybody I’ve ever met I found just asking for directions.


She gave me this photo to take with me to her hometown. She said she’d meet me in Havana but I knew she wouldn’t.

I met her in a hotel lobby but she didn’t come up to my room until the second night. Now she was still back in my country while I’d arrived in her hometown. There she was in the lobby dressed up:



“What deed I tell joo? No chemistry.”

It was our joke about each other leading up to meeting. But I wasn’t sure if she was joking this time. And I knew she could tell.



The human voice is really fucking creepy when you think about it. Usually you don’t. But it’s not really part of the human body, it’s sorta between the human body. Which makes everybody a ventriloquist. Whatever it is that possesses the voice sorta controls the rest of the body. Or it feels like it. Some bodysnatcher-effect.

But her voice was familiar because I’d talked with her a bunch of hours leading up to this. I was used to her voice, excited and comforted by it. My favorite ingredients with anybody. Used to it singing or falling asleep or laughing or flirting—leaving her movie trailers to my imagination from the still images I’d seen.

This is how her mouth moves when she talks. Wow. This is how her hands gesture along with it, fluttering like wild trapped birds over her head as all Cubans use them. Even Castro. But everything remains a conversation. We were still having the same conversation.

So I’m thinking, “That’s why even if I get to fuck you it’s still gonna be the same argument. Stop glaring at me. Stop trying to rattle me when you already know I’m nervous. You’re gonna force me to unleash many many fourth-rate Marlon Brando facial expressions. Don’t make me do it Carmen Miranda…”

“Look at deez silly face. You’re nervous. I can understand. No chemistry and you’re sad you came all this way for nothing.”

“Did you eat something?”

“Stop making your goofy faces. I’m hungry. You told me to come hungry.”

“What are you hungry for?”

“Reebs.”

“What the hell is that?”

“Reebs.”

“I don’t know that word in Spanish.”

“It’s not Spanish. REEEEBS. Puerca, what you always call me. Barbecue sauce. REEEBS stupido!”

“Ribs?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Sure you did.”

Then leaving the restaurant with her licking her fingers clean, snow under her feet, wandering around the corner and spotting a movie theater. We find our seats and during the credits she sings along with the song in the movie, really belting it out, until a guy down the aisle turns around and tells her to shut up. She freezes stiff. Make or break time. I have enough things to worry about on my own without French Canadian testosterone interference, so I get up out of the seat and approach him. This settles affairs. She starts singing again at operatic volumes. He leaves. I reach for her hand and try for a kiss. Shot down. Wallow a little while until I catch the breeze from her batting her hair straight out of a Mexican soap opera. Try again and do better. I love making out at the movies in the dark.

But it’s a strange feeling consummating something over the page, on the phone, then in person. Every time you’re translating something into a different language… it’s this goofy shell game.



I recognized this new girl in front of the Yara movie theater in a yellow dress, school books under her arm from the university just down the street. Very sweet, open face. She looked embarrassed but it was because they couldn’t show the festival movies. Instead only some Kevin Costner movie and she wondered if I minded. I said I didn’t. It turned out it didn’t matter anyway. Cubans treat the movies as an interruption to their conversations anyway. They yell over whatever the American movie stars are pretending to be concerned about so we just sat there and talked under the screaming at the screen. Got an ice cream across the street at Coppelia’s after the show.


I wondered if my Cuban girl in the bathroom swiped the pose off that sign. Never made that connection before.

On the cab ride home I drop the girl off and kiss her on the cheek goodbye and make some plans. We turn off to a lonely stretch of road with no street lights. Some kids on roller blades hang off a truck down the hill going at least 50 mph. I get the cab to pull over so I can watch them die and pick up a juice box of rum from a little stand and when I see the kids don’t die we start driving again and I palm the window down since the handle’s broken off. I reach into my pocket for the fifty cent, filter-less, slightly sweet Cuban cigarettes. The driver asks for one so I light two and hand him one. He only uses his rear view mirror to look at himself, never the road. It’s a good trick. It’s a warm night outside with this morning breath odor I’m getting used to. Out the window I see all these murals around that remind me of the two images I keep in my wallet. They’re crude, decaying murals. One time I read Basquiat got asked why he drew people so crudely and he said he didn’t know that many refined people. I don’t either. I opened up my wallet and lit a match to compare a folded over three peso note with my dad’s photo booth snapshot.

They each have half of each other’s face.



Valentine

By Brin Butler

Essay

She bought a one-way plane ticket over here around midnight. She bought it on the same week, same day, same *hour* that a couple, same age as us—who it turns out might’ve got engaged that same day— got smoked by an SUV that blew through a crosswalk.

The 18 year old drunken kid behind the wheel had stolen the SUV and brought along two younger girls in the back seat. Maybe he was trying to impress them by driving fast. I dunno. I do know that after killing that couple he ran off and tried to swim across the icy-cold inlet to the opposite shore but a police dog nabbed him before he could get away.

Yesterday I went over to where that couple died. There was a little shrine against one side of a tunnel underneath a bridge.

There were some people milling around trying to find the spot because the story had been front page in the newspapers. They were giddy and confused but also ready to be upset. It made me uneasy. There were a few crosswalks to choose from pretty close by. The actual location is a bit tucked away. I was alone for a minute and lit up a cigarette after I found a poem by Rilke taped onto the wall of the tunnel and in no time a throng of other tourists piled in.





On Hearing of A Death

We lack all knowledge of this parting. Death
does not deal with us. We have no reason
to show death admiration, love or hate;
his mask of feigned tragic lament gives us

a false impression. The world’s stage is still
filled with roles which we play. While we worry
that our performances may not please,
death also performs, although to no applause.

But as you left us, there broke upon this stage
a glimpse of reality, shown through the slight
opening through which you disappeared: green,
evergreen, bathed in sunlight, actual woods.

We keep on playing, still anxious, our difficult roles
declaiming, accompanied by matching gestures
as required. But your presence so suddenly
removed from our midst and from our play, at times

overcomes us like a sense of that other
reality: yours, that we are so overwhelmed
and play our actual lives instead of the performance,
forgetting altogether the applause.

Other people poking around to find the spot saw us and came over. It was them looking for it with a combination of disorientation and slight panic that reminded me of something I’ve never written about or really talked about either. I mean, what that crosswalk and my girlfriend’s one-way plane ticket have in common I’m not too sure. A lot of it is a big emphasis on a *beginning*, a start, a first page, first-sight, taking a chance. I love beginnings and hate goodbyes.

Five years ago I took a girl to Madrid and we arrived the day after the bombing of the Atocha train station. It’s not Grand Central or the Gare du Nord, but it’s an awfully nice place to see and has its own charm. I had a reservation for us at a little pension about 4 blocks from the blast. I’d picked that pension because it was sandwiched between the train station and the Prado. I boxed in Madrid daily and had to pass through Atocha every day to get there and on the way back I’d meet up with Jackie and we’d see El Greco, Velázquez, Goya, Salvador Dalí at the Prado or the Reina Sofia where little boys and girls demonstrate some of the differences between boys and girls with their approach to dealing with pigeons (girls nice, boys evil).

After the horror of the explosion, one of the most bizarre, disturbing things before the ambulances got there was the lack of silence. Hundreds of dinky melodies rang out and clashed for hours that everyone was afraid to deal with. Imagine a decked out Christmas tree except that every ornament is a cellphone: that’s how Atocha chimed from all corners as families desperately tried to see if their loved ones were unlucky.

I get spooked when somebody dies meaninglessly. Hemingway said the only difference between people is the details of how we live and how we die. Gaudi getting smashed by bus, or Nick Drake overdosing on anti-depressants, or Lennon getting wacked in front of his doorstep, or Plath sticking her head in that oven—you can’t look at their life or their art the same way. I guess that’s why I was a little comforted when more and more details came out about that pair who died at the crosswalk. They felt like supposition to sell papers but still, it was obscenely difficult not to wonder:

A friend had suggested she’d found out about the ring but kept it from him to not spoil the surprise. Did he pop the question at dinner that night? Her friends said she’d been looking through bridal magazines. What’d they talk about at dinner? Did they ever talk about how they’d want to die? Did he not leave a very good tip and she suddenly took in, FUCK, I’M GONNA MARRY A CHEAPSKATE! Maybe she even told him as a joke. Did they ever wonder about the possibility of dying at the same time at a happy moment in their lives and sorta hanging up their lives for everyone they cared about on the peg of never spending another moment apart? How violently beautiful is that? Boy, hit-and-run—who’d see that one coming? Probably nobody who knew them. Maybe those two little girls in the back seat for about a split second.

I was so happy when my girl bought a ticket over here to start a life with me I just stared at the confirmation for 20 minutes without it really sinking in. I never said so, but I felt like we had some stacked odds working against us. This long distance thing for the last year is rotten stuff. Pen pals with the odd bi-monthly conjugal visit isn’t much of a dream situation. And it’s clumsy to admit I wouldn’t have remembered the day she bought that ticket without what happened to this couple who never get any more tomorrows together in the way I hopefully will. Maybe one day some little brat will ask me about when mommy first came over here and even though I’ll lie through my teeth and talk about my seven failed Russian mail-order bride-marriages before I’m slapped by anyone within earshot (and they’ll hit hard); it was February 10th, on a *choose*day, we both slipped on some kind of banana peel taking a crack at something and I wouldn’t have known or especially cared if it weren’t for some piece of shit kid who plowed into this couple. Not fate, just someone who’ll have to do or accomplish god knows what to have anything other than this senseless act define him for the rest of his life. Some punk with a chip on his shoulder trades it in for a fucking millstone. But at the same time, here I am using his millstone as a lucky charm.

See why I sent this to you and not her?

“I’ve already told you: the only way to a woman’s heart is along the path of torment. I know none other as sure.” —Marquis de Sade

Stop shaking your head. Gimme a chance to explain…

Long distance relationships open like pop-up books. Her pop-up book is in Manhattan.

I like stealing stuff—if I like you. I case every woman who catches my eye trying to see what they’re hiding.

You can’t give your phone number without giving something of yourself. Every little hair on a woman, even the peach fuzz, is a fuse.

I watch some guys staring at their girls like kids staring at a candy store window. Which gets me wondering–––along with the girl in most cases–––is he making that sweet expression at her or to himself in the reflection? So the girl looks over at me and sees the crowbar in my eyes. I can’t hide it.

But every time it feels the same when it clicks with somebody. I pick the lock and break into their life and instead of trying to steal everything, I end up wanting to move in.

I’m in full-on burglary-mode when all of a sudden I find myself liking the way you crookedly hang that painting, the way your bookshelves lean, that you’re a pack-rat for every letter an ex sent you and you’re amused I burned everything I had with my first kiss, that you kept a lock of your hair from when you were six and now your hair’s a different color, how you had a street portrait artist embellish your likeness when you were going through an ugly phase and everybody pretended you were really that pretty, you were entirely frigid with one boy and put out on the first date with another and you don’t know why the difference, that I thought my first girl was the one until we popped each others cherry and I knew she wasn’t and told her so, that you want a dad and your cute little boy at the same time out of a husband—oh yeah—and the guy you’d risk all that for to cheat with, you want to have your blueprints for the rest of your life approved of, you want your history to be a rumor that you spread, you want me to cast my net at you swinging over and over and never get more than half your butterflies, you want to be my private petting zoo, you want me to pry you down from your ivory tower over the intercom, I want a muse who fucks like a whore, you want to be able to hurt me and build me up, you want me to trudge through your sewers and step out onto your penthouse balconies, you want to take your top down in conversation and have my breeze run through your hair, I want you to kiss the stretch marks and cellulite on my brain, you want me to contemplate every guy who ever wanted to get into your pants, you want jealousy, you want me to be loyal but only because you’re amused that I’m a born serial-cheater, you want the church of your heart to have the choir on fire and neither of us willing to piss on them, I want you as a cookie jar, you want to get our plans on wheels, you want somebody with no plans, you want Monopoly on weeknights and Risk on weekends, you want somebody who can fuck people up but also listen, your personal angelic caveman with a daunting reading list, you want me to be fucked-up but lucid, you want our kid as the final jury on us, I’m not sure you really do, you want relativity here and there but stuff that comparison can’t touch other places, you want love letters and suicide notes and me to pretend with a straight face like I know what the fucking difference is, you want your melody to feel like a symphony, I want my note to feel like a melody, you want me to wonder how many inches it takes to reach your heart, I want you with telescopes and microscopes and a club and a cave and no viable heat source but me, you want me to accept that Brinny can still fall in love 10,000 times but it doesn’t have to be with 10,000 different girls it can just be with me, over and over, like some karma on spin cycle and no tag-backs, and we can be off-key, and every soliloquy can be one long stutter, and why the hell am I inventorying all this shit, oh yeah I’m nervous about Thanksgiving, I just mean… my garbage and maladjusted apparatus wasn’t flammable until I met you, be my pyromaniac and I’ll be your kleptomaniac, we’ll get the hang of it, epileptic embrace, be each other’s Rosetta Stone, here, this is a piece of chipped paint off my Davega Bicycle, we can be cigarette train wrecks in each others ashtray, you can sign letters in lowercase so I’ll imagine you on your knees and try to map out more ways to sweep you off your feet, now you’re making me a little nervous for not having wiped this thing’s nose, and I better stop cause everything else’ll feel like drinking from a bent straw but yeah, do we have a deal?