by Felicia Luna Lemus
Blue haze smoke air and mariachis keeping everyone alive into early the
next day, Nahui and her ladies drank one sidecar after another. But don’t
be fooled, she says in her scratch voice as we stare at one another, sepia
to living color, wasn’t no amount of sugar rim that could snuff the
Molotov burn of that fiesta. That night at the monastery we brought the world
to its pretty little knees and made it our begging love, she says. Comrades
to the end, we promised upon our lives to disavow wealth and privilege for
the cause. 1 de mayo de 1928. Pledges the flimsy contracts they are, she
says, that May Day it was me, Nahui Olin, who owned the party.
Nahui Olin. The ghost sitting on my chest.
In the photo, in the flicker flame snap I cradle careful so as not to ruin its flaking surface with my fingerprints, in the photograph Nahui’s ragged bob is ironed and slicked back ducky smooth with pomade. A ruby set in gold on her little finger catches the camera’s flash and she’s got on her best Windsor-knot tie and grey wool number, her hand at the hip pulling open her jacket, exposing the cursive“N”embroidered high on the waist of her starched dress shirt. Back in her day, French mobsters paid pretty to have their initials stitched on dress shirts, right below their hearts. And when she copied that style, made the look her own, festival sparks of a gun fired toward the moon, she became all the more dangerous than she already was. Lord help everyone, the way a fine silk monograph sets off pearl handles of holstered heat.
Ay, jovensita, she says with a hard slap to my back, those were the earthquake days.
Three minutes to midnight Friday night, and in my neighborhood only the low-riders make earthquakes. Roar of juiced engine and bass-rolls tucked in shag-lined trunks, another boy cruises his ranfla down Colorado Boulevard. With each car that drives by, the entire apartment turns kinetic like marbles in a coffee can rattle. The chairs threaten to fall. My folding chairs, they clutter the apartment. For decoration, for show, my chairs lean polite against pocked concrete walls soft with age. All those years of rotating the stacked chairs to make sure they wore even. And still the rust. And torn vinyl. And worst yet, careful, careful, the endless times I’ve planted myself in those chairs to keep from wandering, wander lusting. Lust. The teal and white piping and tin silver chair, the one that leans under my bike at the door, that one is my favorite, if I have to choose. Card-table poker chairs, that’s what Xanthie once called the collection. My poker face on, always on, Xanthie said.“You don’t invite company over,”Xanthie isn’t company,“and yet you collect chairs…fucking dandy masochist,”she said.
I tuck the photograph of Nahui into the crumbling book that one short month ago sent my entire world into freefall tumble. Tumble. Finally back home after weeks gone, after days of wandering to exactly where I still didn’t know, finally home, fuchsia bubble gum fused to her hair, Xanthie naps in bed, mouth open and breathing quiet rasp sound, she sleeps deep sleep. Pushed up against the room’s southernmost wall, directly under our apartment’s one window—the bed, Xanthie sleeps in the bed, the tangled narrow mess beauty of our bed.
Another car races by. The chairs rattle. Suddenly shallow breath and sharp-edged limbs fighting the covers, Xanthie turns zombie-karate brilliant. Tiny feathers escape the comforter and cover the floor with snow. Faux fancy woman, even when asleep, Xanthie makes the world her glitter snow globe game. Silky smooth. Silk.
Not furs, not jewels, silk, Xanthie pretends as if she has always fancied tattered silk party dresses and torn silk dinner gowns so old from the 1930’s that they should up and turn to dust, should that is, if it weren’t for the fact that nothing in life dares disappoint Xanthie. Silk. Me, still a can-opener, rubber-stink skater shoe, tweed slacks, roller disco t-shirt, and faithful sort by nature, me: upon Xanthie’s return I was instructed to never leave her presence without first pinning a flower to her lapel. I accepted the terms and will accommodate accordingly.
Petunias. Xanthie wants lilies. White lilies she told me. Like that‘80’s song, she said. You mean like the 80’s song that references the 80’s remake of a 30’s film set in the 20’s, I offered. White lilies, Xanthie said. And, actually, they were carnations in the movie, I said. Besides, you would like the original from the 30’s more anyhow, I said. Whatever, Xanthie said, I want white lilies or even wild marigolds, but make sure they’re old-fashioned dark orange and really wild, not bio-monster fakes. Yes, marigolds or white lilies, she said. No, I said. Petunias.
Petunias are nightshade flowers, their petals nearly luminescent in the middle of the night spring moonlight. And Xanthie, true to the oversized paper flower I reach over and bestow upon her embroidered bed dress, fire torch sizzle, Xanthie is instant burlesque sideshow perfection. Her thick deep sleep stare snaps open, she pushes crimped bangs out of her eyes, kicks the comforter onto the floor, sits upright out of a mess of tangled sheets, smirks cat-got-a-squirrel big, and slowly extends her right arm, open palm up and flexed taut, toward me. Anticipation pulls at the skin at my cheekbones and brow. Her best martyr routine, Xanthie feigns patience.
Formalities considered, it’s me who should play martyr. Francesca. Named for the saint of something tragic, I’m certain. Francesca: such a pretty name. Frank: I chose my name for its monosyllabic crisp and for its function as a verb.“Verb?‘Frank’is an adjective, not a verb,”Xanthie said way back when. In response, I referred my dearest to Webster’s, definition 11.“To enable to pass or go freely.”Verb: action, movement, ready, set, go—an aspiration of mine.
Another car drives by. We wait. Xanthie still on the bed, me still kneeling on the floor in front of her, we wait for the car to rumble around the corner. The quake dies down eventually, and, when it does, I put my hand in front of her,“I got a splinter.”
Her pupils huge in the dim light, she lights a Maria candle, the tall glass cheapie from the grocery store that has la holy one looking super hero, laser beams shooting out from her downward turned palms. Xanthie unpins the petunia from her gown and holds the straight pin’s tip in the candle flame until the metal turns red and then black melting hot. Austere surgical grace her forte, she takes my hand and pushes pointed metal through the top layers of skin. Removing the splinter I’d earned planting expropriated trees in potholes as she watched only a few hours before, she asks if the pin hurts. I say no. She applies more pressure.
On your marks. Get set. We have our roles. Go. Cueing me to begin my half of our script, Xanthie removes the pin from my hand, licks it clean and pins the petunia on her gown.
In my best grown-up voice, I say,“Look, Nahui, el Webster’s dictionary dice que being revolutionary is what happens when a body goes around an orbit and returns to its original position. Makes no difference if that body belongs to a planet, some random pachuca, la blessed Madre Virgensita herself, or me. The same rules apply even to you. By definition, being revolutionary has nothing to do with fucking a system up."
Silence. When I recall this moment in my old age, this will be my favorite part.
I continue,“Lo siento, but being a revolutionary only allows you to dance around the damned system as it already exists. Like a little marioneta made out of cheap paper and tacky colors, you’re limited to doing what el señor puppeteer lets you do. A performance. Pennies thrown at you. Good little dancing Nahui. La systema’s gravity keeps you in line. It’ll always pull you right back to the same fucked up place that made you want to be revolutionary to begin with. Nada cambia, amor. Being a revolutionary doesn’t mean shit.”
Poker face intact, I end my monologue with the line she’s heard before:
“Consentida, there ain’t nothing revolutionary about being a revolutionary.”
She shines me on. She is not interested in hearing me articulate the futility of revolution, the way anarchy inherently turns leftist chic in a snap.
Ay, my Xanthie-as-Nahui is luscious patronizing when we both know I am wrong.
And she is glamorous, just like the rest of her kind. Las de la avant-garde. Las artistas. Las intelectuales . Moneyed, yet writing poems idealizing a world united after the general strike.
"Nahui, what does it mean when you tell me that you’re revolutionary? Eh, mi amor, what exactly does that mean?”
Ya pues, now she’s staring me down again. Her eyes on fire. Her voice bitter strong anise. Scolding a spoiled kid who just threw a tantrum, she says,“Que tonta eres, mija. Te digo, es increíb le how stupid you are when you try to act all big and tough.
I take Nahui Olin’s book from Xanthie’s lap and look for the inscription written on the back cover under a peeling art deco bookplate.
“Consentida,”it reads,“‘She went through me like a pavement saw.’Yours as ever for the revolution, N.”
Xanthie takes the book from me, blows out the candle and stands. We are ready to return to our work. In the sorest strip of Colorado Boulevard—precisely where the bus had swerved to avoid bottoming out in a pothole on Xanthie’s trip back into town, on the corner out front the new caféwith the vaguely plastic name, in the busiest intersection of our cramped outskirt of metropolitan Los Angeles—an oak tree will appear overnight in the middle of the faded asphalt road. The sapling’s slender trunk will be wrapped in black ribbon and a sparkling red star framing the gilded image of baby Lenin will perch atop its uppermost branch.
One gesture at a time, we break unjust laws.
Editors note: This story has been excerpted from a larger work in progress.