You warn me of Madrid summers, the criminal heat, so before I arrive, I ask if you have a fan; you borrow an industrial-sized ventilador, loud as an airplane about to soar into the sky. I don’t mind the noise, but you can’t sleep. You don’t mind the heat, your blood accustomed to scorching stillness, but my Russian blood begs for a breeze. We go to Cuenca, a small village two hours away but it’s even hotter and the hotel’s air conditioning is broken. We watch a TV program, an interview with Fidel Castro at one of his mansions. In the morning, I ask the clerk about the AC and he says they’re working on it, but you say, “All the time it’s like this in Spain. Everything is broken.” And then we visit Toledo, even hotter. Japanese tourists swarm the streets and the hotel’s AC makes our lips turn blue. “It’s like this,” you say again. I turn the AC off. You tell me your stomach’s upset, get under the covers and watch a gossip program about Franco’s grandchildren, the volume at a deafening level.
A friend of yours notices we only speak in present tense. Perhaps this is true, both of us novices at the other’s language. Present tense is easy; we don’t need to think about the future or past, only the moment, still, frozen, like a cube of ice, a confident rectangle until it dribbles and slithers and evaporates as if it were never there, or a photograph, time frozen, but as soon as an image is exposed to light, it begins to fade. We understand the language of light, both of us calmed by capturing images: of each other, alone, together, sometimes we use a self-timer, one of us zipping into the frame. Once, when we survey a contact sheet, you point to an image and say, “I like this one. I’m not pretty in it, but I don’t like to be pretty in photos.”
Four months after Madrid, we meet in record-cold Paris; you don’t bring a hat or gloves, only a thin sweater, holy scarf and a big green coat. I lend you my gloves and hat and we get off the metro one stop too soon and walk to your friend’s loft. Once there, we hold our frosty hands over steamy radiators. Across the street, turquoise metros swoosh by, another stops, picks up passengers, starts up again. The constant rumbling makes you feel safe, like a heartbeat. I say, “I’ll use earplugs when I sleep,” but even with earplugs, there’s no way to muffle the rumbling. You say, “The metro is my friend.”
One morning in Paris, we both wake with nightmares: on your way to the airport, you saw a car slide off a mountain and stopped to help. The driver had a bloody face but was more concerned with his appearance than his injury. After another person stopped to help, you told the injured man he’d be okay and rushed to catch your flight, a flight to see me. But you woke up en route. In my dream, I stood on a Greenwich Village rooftop and watched an airplane lose control and nosedive into lower Manhattan. After we exchange dreams, I say, “I hope you missed your flight.”
On New Year’s Eve in Paris, your friend tells us it’s best to stay indoors. He says, “On this night, many people set cars on fire.” So we drink champagne, and when the clock strikes twelve, we stick our heads out the window and scream into the frozen night. Revelers blow horns and the metro stops and chugs on, passengers illuminated, placid in their seats, and I imagine you on one of those trains, me running to catch it, but the doors shut. Your big brown eyes stare through the window. I slap the door and the train pulls away.
An African man stands by his display of tiny Eiffel Tower replicas, the real Eiffel Tower hovers in the background. I ask you to pose between the replicas and the real thing and you stand, hands in pockets of your big green coat, the African man also looking my way. But only the Eiffel Tower comes out clear. Four days later, in London, we walk across the Thames on footbridge. A bitter wind slaps us from every direction. I can’t look anywhere but down, until a Polish couple asks if I’d take their picture. Afterwards, I hand them my camera and we pose. I ask them to take another, but they don’t understand and hand the camera back. Now we are two blurred women, a clear London Bridge in the background.
In Spanish, the word tiempo translates into time and temperature, and together, anything could happen. Like developing photographs under red safelight glow—so much depends on the temperature of the developing solution and the time the paper is exposed to light and if one exposes the paper to too much light, it turns black, black as the basement room we inhabit in London. Exhausted and in bed, we talk of the freezing weather, and frail as a tiny sparrow, your eyes tear up and you say, “I need someone to save me.” We talk of our dead mothers and a light flash appears from the corner of the room. It flashes again and I say, “Maybe it’s your mother, our mothers,” and you say, “No, it’s from the cars outside.” You pull back the curtains and a dark shade covers the entire window, no way light could seep in. You come back to bed and say you don’t believe in fantasmas, but when I leave to use the toilet you say, “Please, please come back soon.”
In fifth grade I finished a fill-in-the-bubble test and I filled in bubbles just to fill them in; I didn’t have patience to read through questions about Sally and her younger sister if the difference between their ages was fifteen years and Sally was twice as old. While waiting for my classmates to finish, I sharpened my pencil. On my desk, I dropped the pencil on its eraser and watched it bounce up and down, up and down, until the pencil backfired and the point lodged into my palm. I tried to dig it out with my fingernail, but no luck. Later that year, the guidance counselor, Mrs. Ferguson, said that I did well on the reading part of the test but didn’t do well on the science and math part and that was okay because I was a girl.
Even though I had no experience, I talked my way into teaching a college class of non-native speakers in Brooklyn. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. One of my students, a Haitian taxi driver, turned in a paper rife with grammatical errors. With my red pen, I attacked his words, his ideas, made his paper a bloody mess. The student later said he couldn’t look at all that red. It made him nervous.
The Haitian taxi driver worked twelve-hour shifts, always searching for his next fare. “I’m always tired,” he told me, “but I want to improve my English.” I asked him questions, listened, suggested he speak into a tape-recorder and transcribe his words. Never again did I use a red pen to grade papers, only a pencil, a sharpened pencil, marks that could be erased, marks that don’t remind students of war or blood or poverty.
In the palm of my hand, I still have a pencil point and a ghost image of the fingernail that tried to dig the point out. But sometimes you can’t pick things out; they absorb into your body and become part of you, like lost love. Now I wear that point with pride like a faded tattoo. It’s always there, when I grade papers, when I wave goodbye, when I wave hello, when I hold a warm hand. It’s my screw you to bubble testing, my testament to keeping bubbles in a warm bath, or blowing them into the ether.
Southeast Review, Hotel Amerika, Quarter After Eight, The Jabberwock Review, Thirteenth Moon and California Quarterly. Lori is currently an Associate Professor of Language and Literature at University of North Carolina at Asheville.
's poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies including