Delirio en la Calle Del Carmen
Alexandra McAnarney-Castro is a Salvadoran-American, raised in Mexico City and El Salvador, currently living in Washington, DC. She studied journalism, literature, and creative writing at Florida International University and received a Master’s in Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago. For ten years, she has worked as an activist and advocate for health, immigration, and human rights issues across different states across the U.S. and in Latin America. She's written articles for outlets like Truthout, NACLA, Al-Jazeera and Spain´s El País. Throughout, she has been interested in the twists of bodies and the turns of souls, and how culture, memory, and geography hold their phantasmagoric sway.
After twenty-five years of meeting at the same time and at the same place, Leonora was done.
Each year, she would find Andres standing under the streetlight on the corner of Calle del Carmen and Correo Mayor.
Each year she would ask: “Will you get in the car?”
And each year, he would respond with a tilted grin that reminded her of the sinking buildings downtown: “Not if you’re driving.”
But after almost three decades, it was clear that Andrés would never be able to get in the car, regardless of how well she did or didn't drive.
He was bound to his corner and the crushing hum of the streetlight.
Some years this fact was easier. Others, harder. This time it was final.
Leonora remembered how she had crash-landed into him as a fresh college student.
Flying down alleyways, boot-clad feet barely skimming the cobblestones, yellow and blue cement walls blitzing past her in her flight from a wolf-pack intent on stealing her things.
As her eyes tried to spot her misplaced VW bug, she didn’t notice the lank and forlorn boy smoking a cigarette under the filigreed, rusted brass streetlamp. Until Leonora slammed into him and they fell wrapped around each other, out of the jaundiced flickering of the streetlight, and onto the cold, blue, uneven road.
They lay there for a moment in the dark, in a silence that seemed to blanket the rumbling furnace of downtown Mexico City.
He wiped the black and brown trails of hair from her frenzied, grey eyes. She noticed he smelled like wet ferns, tobacco, and leather.
“Are you ok?” she asked.
But, before he could respond, smoke began to waft from the side of his face, until it sizzled, popped, and started to fade like burning celluloid.
Thinking the cigarette must have ended up tangled in his hair, Leonora began to swat his forehead. The boy shrieked in pain.
“NO! No! Drag me under the light! Pull me back under the light!” he pleaded.
Terrified, Leonora pulled him under the light by the lapels of his leather jacket.
The streetlamp snapped and crackledlike a spooling projector. What had disappeared, slowly materialized once again, shaping deep eyes with canyon-like cheekbones, brown hair-like tufts on a newborn owl.
The boy sat up with a sigh of relief.
Leonora´s manicured eyebrows arched into a question mark. Her black fingernail poked at the newly-grown flesh.
While she prodded, the boy pulled out a cigarette and smoked in resignation. Begrudgingly, he offered her one. With shaking hands, she stuck it expectantly between her red lips.
“So, you’re not burned?” she asked.
“No,” the boy sighed. “I just can’t leave this corner. And this light. It punishes me if I try.”
“Factory defect,” he studied her and took another drag of his cigarette. “I remember stumbling onto this corner long ago. One day, I looked up into the light and I wasn’t able to look or move away. I was stuck. I tried to leave a few times, but I would start to fade away.” He sighed again.
“Truth be told, maybe I’ve always been like this. But–” he thrust his hand beyond the edges of the cone of light that enveloped them. His pinky finger immediately began to crackle and fade “-it’s better than the alternative.”
His hand came back to his lap whole. Leonora took his pale hand. It felt cold and wet, like the broken-off chunk of a church step.
“Can you leave, ever?” she asked, concerned. But mostly curious.
“Sometimes. Not that I need to,” he shrugged, with practiced nonchalance.
“What do you mean?” Leonora prodded further.
The boy hesitated. Slowly, his eyes moved up upward.“Look into it.”
Leonora scooted in and looked at the flickering bulb.
It began to pulse, slowly at first, then quicker, in time with her heartbeat.
Suddenly she felt a simultaneous fullness and emptying of self. It was a strange absence of interiority, in which she felt she could spread herself across the city and blanket the eternal neon drone, the grinding music, the shadow murals, and let each part of this septic valley stream into her, and tear her into cerulean particles.
She began to feel limitless in the light. But somehow, also innately away of her minuscule size, and so very tired, and very…
“You don’t want to stare at it too long,” his voice drew her back. She struggled to breathe. “Given the state of things, I don’t recommend it.”
“What did I just feel?!” Leonora took deep breaths. The dark street spun and settled underneath her.
He shrugged. “Everything. Nothing. What keeps me, and perhaps others like me, from living and dying.”
Leonora looked at him. Then without warning, punched him.
“What the fuck?” He bleated.
"I have no time or patience for phantoms, poetics, or fuck boys," gathering notebooks, she scanned for her discman, which had fallen out of her bag in their collision. “Thanks for the psychedelic shenanigans. But for all I know, you blew some crazy Aztec powder in my face. I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Andrés.” He reached out into the dark, despite the consequences, to retrieve something. When his hand came back, he had her headphones twined around his wrist like a garter snake.
Somehow, the thing was still playing. Nick Cave’s low, baleful voice dripped onto the sidewalk along with a light rain.
“Not often do I catch a moth with taste.” His eyes, brown and bright like lamp oil, made her limbs feel like they had been dipped in hot tar. They sat staring at each other until the song was over. The lamp flickered and hummed.
Leonora shrugged. “Are you going to be here tomorrow?”
Andrés shook his head. “Nope. I´m only around once a year.” He leaned into her with a grin, “You know, I kind of always preferred it with the lights on.”
Annoyed, Leonora shoved him back to the pavement. But not before he caught her elbow and pulled her down with him.
When she left at five am,. her mouth tasted like Andrés’ peppermint and tobacco-laced tongue. She agreed to loan him the discman. In exchange, he gave her a silver chain necklace.
As she left among the purple fog and rattling chorus of garbage collectors, she turned back. Andres and the streetlight had vanished. She tried to find him the following night. But there was no sign of him.
It wasn’t until a year later, around the same time and in the same place, that she saw him while walking to the metro. he was wearing the discman. As she passed by, he flipped her the finger.
“I told you!” He yelled at her. She smiled back. And like a moth, stood with him until morning.
So, it went. Once a year. For twenty-five years.
They weren’t always so bound to the sallow mercy of the flickering streetlamp.
By the fifth year, he had managed to step outside its yellow radius, and walk around the city center.
While nothing burned or burst, she could see he remained hesitant to go much further than the Zócalo.
By the seventh year, it was her turn to be antsy. There were other places to go, filled with candlelight, wavering in honor of the dead and the living, with slanted, red tile roofs and gauze-curtained faces. But it would take several hours by car, as well as a boat ride. Who else but him could go with her?
And Andrés said yes, surprising himself. His eyes shone like clean, wet cobblestones with each passing hour of hypotheticals. He had heard of this place, he told her. This island in the middle of Pázcuaro, where the dead and the living danced like flames together on one night each year. They talked about getting in her car, now a more sensible, used, maroon Volkswagen Passat. They talked. And talked.
And Leonora grew tired. They were still on the same street corner when the first red, arching rays of sunrise broke overhead like blood burst through a scabbed knee. She saw the light from Andres' eyes dim and sensed his hesitation.
Still hopeful, she took his hand and moved in the direction of the Passat.
“I think it’s time we get in the car and get going!”
He nodded, distracted. She felt him a few footsteps behind her. The furious hum and crackle of the light bulb made them both turn. It was glowing brighter than ever before. Andres looked at her, eyes wide with fear.
“Don’t,” she said.
He stepped back, shoulders slumped and cigarette in mouth. Under the feverish yellow glow, he seemed to gain his composure, but as he stretched his hand out to her, the tips of his fingers started to smoke, crackle, and fade.
“Andrés,” she warned.
He shook his head and drew his hand back.
“Please, just get in the car,” she begged.
The fog that poured from the green mouth of the sky as it showed its grey teeth wafted into the alley and past Andrés’ feet. As he began to disappear into the backdrop of the morning movements of the city, with tears in his fading eyes, he replied jokingly but lamely, “It’s just that…you’re driving.”
Time galloped away on sharp hooves after that night. She wore the chain he gave her, but became other things. A wife, a doctor, a mother, a grandmother. He remained, it seemed, unchanged but dimly lit.
Every year, she would walk the same route to see if he was ready to leave his corner, until the intersection became a main artery for cars. Thank God. Her knees weren’t what they used to be, nor was the neighborhood.
She would ask: he would demure. The lamp light flickered. She would stay. He would comment on her driving skills and disappear with the coiling, early morning fog. She would drive off alone and remain empty.
One day she said: Basta. It was time for other things.
When she arrived, Leonora noted, with some caution, that he seemed different.
There was a strange peace in his face. His tense shoulders had unspooled. He also didn’t expect a kiss, despite always having done so, albeit with the profound knowledge and frustration that a few hours would be all they could give to each other.
“My husband died,” Leonora announced.
Andres said nothing. Overhead, a grey moth flew into the streetlamp, hitting it with a clear ping.
“I have the opportunity to start over,” she looked at him. “But I can’t keep coming here standing under your light.”
Andrés’ wide eyes held her. His skin was so smooth in contrast to her lined and speckled face. It seemed unfair. He continued to say nothing.
Leonora shook her head. “If you have something to say, I suggest you say it now.”
Andrés lowered his head. Leonora sighed and removed the silver chain necklace from her neck.
She placed it in his hands and kissed him on the forehead. Walking back to the car, she wanted to ask him and to hear that old refrain for old time’ssake.
But she was tired, and it was starting to rain.
As she closed the door, she thought she heard him call out. Leonora, determined to not turn around, started the car.
When she got home, the rain was turning into a blitz of hail, knocking relentlessly against the windows, the tin roof, and the gate. Tat-tat-tat. Her hands and back ached. Despite the glowing ribbons of street light cross-hatching the beige carpet, the kitchen seemed dim. Leonora’s chest felt like a plastic bucket rattling ice.
Then Leonora realized the tat-tat-tat- wasn’t hail falling, within or without her. Someone was knocking on the aluminum sheeting that lined the gate. She looked up and gasped.
Past the wrought-iron bars, a black shape moved in the neon hum and rattle of the city’s early morning rain. She wouldn’t have recognized him except for the silver glimmer around his neck.
She ran out.
By some miracle, he wasn’t burned, but he was older. The past two decades and a half had finally caught up to him.
While the years had not been kind, perhaps they had been just. She reached out and grabbed his arms. He felt, for the first time, firm and fearless. Leonora looked at him and waited for him to speak.
“Girl, didn’t you hear me? I said I would get in the car,” he grumbled.
Leonora blinked, “Oh.”
He reached to brush away the wet gray and black hairs around her face. His fingers were whole, surprisingly delicate, and unscathed. The smile remained tilted.
She looked at him with elation and some exhaustion. "Ok."
“But only if you’re driving.”