Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

C R E A T I V E   N O N F I C T I O N
CONVIVIALITY
b y   c a r o l   z a p a t a - w h e l a n   ~   c l o v i s ,   c a l i f o r n i a

ON THE cherry wood coffee table a yellow legal tablet fills with script as a pen writes busily across the green lines. I reach over to grab the pen, whose unseen writer resists me. I try again, but the pen keeps going, and I cannot make out its markings. My husband walks in with a what-is-it-now look. "You never told me this house was haunted," I complain. He shrugs. Next time, pay attention, he's thinking. As a reminder to heed him, I pry a sheet from the yellow legal pad, study its hieroglyphics and shove it in my pants' pocket. The pen keeps dancing…

I am on the Santa Monica Freeway. Walking. The sky is the color of asphalt, but I can look straight down, under my feet at the reflective enamel of the lines -- white, yellow, solid, broken, shiny new-painted lines, old faded lines, new lines over old lines, lines crossing where they shouldn't. Too many lines! I have to find the right ones, the ones that can take me to an exit called Jungle Land. I have to catch a plane from Jungle Land. I have to catch a plane.

It has occurred to me that I can't remember if what I 've just told you really happened. I'm not even sure if it happened to me or if it's somebody else's story. It could have been something I read somewhere, or saw on TV. It could have been in a dream, that's one possibility, probably the best one. Maybe that's why we don't retain dreams in the long term: we could wind up with too many apocryphal memories; hardly anyone would be sure what really happened, what didn't happen, what might have happened, what happened to others. And then we would have at least twice as many events to rummage through, to reconstruct and reconsider and wonder if they took place the way we knew they did or the way other people knew they did. Was it our fault, their fault? Our glory? Theirs? It would be never-ending. I don't remember that happening, our husband, sister, mother, friend could say. And the only response would be: well, of course, you probably just don't remember it happening that way…

All I know for sure is what I'm about to tell you: I wrote down what I just told you about in my journal dated September 10, 2001. The day before September 11. The day before -- Dear Lord.

In any case, it was about a month before September 11,weeks before our world changed, when I took a short trip to a place where -- well, it's complicated. Let's just say I'm studying psychology. On the way to this place, I took a plane. On the way back, I took a train. Nothing happened on the plane. Nothing happened on the train. But on the ride back I couldn't doze, and the voices that kept me from sleeping were so insistent, that I not only remember their words, I memorized them. It's possible that I fell asleep for a few moments on the train and missed some of what I remember, but I did not fabricate any of it. And now -- after everything that's happened, is happening, will happen -- now that I go back and reconstruct this journey, I don't know what it means. It must mean something (or it wouldn't have happened), just as my dream or memory about the house and the freeway must mean something. In any case, here is the memory from my trip. I will relive it with you exactly as it happened, and you can decide its message:

AUGUST 11, 2001

The four men across the aisle are holding a loud conversation in Arabic. One of them makes gestures with the hand motions of a flamenco dancer, and it is difficult to tell if he is arguing or just telling a story. On the table, in front of the man, are a pack of cigarettes and a cardboard tray of opened Sprite and Coca-Cola cans that seem to resist all our lurching and swaying. He and his friends wear different colors of the same cheap plaid, a common dress I've seen in the orchards. I can pretend we are on a ship: nothing but blue water on the right, blue water that could be an entire ocean, its sky keener, larger than our own summer sky, pale and subdued between mountain ranges. But the next stop is Modesto, where the men across, no doubt, will get off for a few minutes and stub half-smoked cigarettes when the conductor calls.

The blue of the bay is gone. I watch the green lines of crops, the white-skinned eucalyptus trees, the solitary oaks move past in slow motion. A row ahead of the men, a group of high school girls with glossy hair and spaghetti straps plays a clapping game that does not seem to annoy the other passengers.

There is a lull in the Arabic, and I can hear a child singing in Spanish from across the aisle. "Señora, " says a male voice. "Would your daughter like a soda?" The child's mother, a pretty girl in drab polyester, smiles without showing her teeth, shakes her head "no ."

Then again, this time in Spanish: "Señora, what is your daughter's name?"

"Yadira," the woman answers and turns her attention back to the little girl, who is coloring with a pen on a notepad. The sun is starting to set, turning cloud wisps neon red in the dimming light.

"Señora. Why are you so sad?" I put down my magazine to look between seats for the Spanish speaker. It is the Arab with flamenco hands. He pronounces his words like a native, and if it were not for his body language, he could pass for a Latino. I notice he has a goatee and a blue Lakers cap. His companions doze.

"You speak Spanish," the little girl's mother says without evident surprise.

"I am 50 percent Arab, 50 percent Mexican."

"Ah," she responds.

"I am Pancho."

"Pancho?" The young woman's shy good manners almost hide her disbelief. "Is your mother or your father from Mexico?"

"I lived there," says the Arab.

She seems to consider this for a while and then asks, "Where is life more difficult?"

I cannot hear the answer because "Modesto" blares through the loudspeaker. The man called Pancho rouses his sleeping friends. As they move off to share their cigarettes, the electrical system abruptly shuts down, the fluorescence of sunset our only light. A sudden silence has replaced the air conditioning's white noise; it is as if the train were holding its breath.

When the lights finally flutter on and the train resumes its own sounds, the windows are black. A passenger moves down to grab the vacated table across from the Arabs, who are filing back in, smelling of ash and smoke. They watch idly as the new passenger installs a black instrument case, slaps a Modesto Bee on her table and sets down a fast-food bag. She wears a plain t-shirt and dark leather vest. Her hair is white and shorn, and she has three silver rings in each eyebrow.

The train's gaining momentum rocks us into silence. I doze a few miles before registering the voice of the woman with the instrument case.

"Punk rock. My stepson's the lead singer."

"Oh yeah? I play too." It is Pancho's voice again, this time in an elastic English: he sounds almost American.

"Acoustic or classical?" she asks. I wonder to myself if those are discrete categories.

"I play with Buck Owens."

"Bullshit."

The high school girls have stopped their clapping game and are pretending to speak Spanish between laughing fits. The Mexican mother is patiently braiding her little girl's hair. The Arab leans over, flicks the edge of the punk rocker's opened Bee.

"Can I see the sports section? I have to know about the Lakers."

"You need to wait until I'm done," she says, not raising her head.

"Man, that's messed up," he mutters. The woman starts humming.

Outside, the Valley is invisible. I cannot see the farms, the steep canals, the trailers, the muted gold of dry stretches. I have spent the day in a fabled place more than a train ride away, a well-lit world under a brighter sky, with dinosaurs rising over spiral staircases, Greek temples, Nobel Laureate parking spaces and catacombs lined with books. Some of these books add ballast to my backpack, now distended with a thick folder, a schedule for Orientation sessions on academics, financial aid, tours, and a period entitled "Conviviality." What happens in that time slot, other students wondered, unwrapping vegetarian subs on a green glade darkened by the ancient pines: a panel on dorm life, clubs, drinking on campus?

"I was majoring in law, getting a doctorate in law at Stanislaus State," the musician is telling Pancho. He nods. Then she hands him a photograph.

"Their eyes are -- "

"My ex-husband's Japanese," she explains. "He's just a sperm donor."

"A sperm."

"I got a nice lady."

"You live together?"

"We thought about getting married. You think it'd be legal in California, but there's too much chaos in the Bay Area…too much stigma… ."

"There's a bar in Bakersfield. Man, that place is packed!" says Pancho.

"I don't go for that shit."

I look back down at my article in El Andar. I bought the Latino magazine last week at a Valley bookstore; its cover photo is one of a pair of eyes staring through a rectangle cut in black fabric. When I was paying for the magazine, a blond girl behind the bank of registers looked over, pointing to the cover with interest. She found it amazing that women in the Middle East could live with their faces covered. That's actually Subcomandante Marcos, I pointed out. Yeah, she went on, addressing her elderly customer. It's just so incredible that these women insist on being hidden no matter how much you might try to help them. I guess it's just how you're raised, she shrugged. The customer, taking back her credit card, nodded knowingly: you just can't impose your culture on other peoples.

The young Mexican mother is buckling sandals on her little daughter's feet, smoothing down her clothes as the loudspeaker comes alive. The Arab called Pancho looks pointedly at his companions, who sit, weary and noncommittal, suppressing smiles. The white-haired rocker is humming again over her newspaper. Now and then she reads a word out loud.

The tracks' irregularities are more pronounced as the train slows. I zip El Andar into my purse and stand to sling on the backpack, avoiding eye contact, spotting on the floor a few stray Orientation hand-outs dropped by a student before me. I remember that at the end of one of the orientation sessions, a counselor with a tongue stud sat on a table taking questions. She confessed that the "Conviviality" segment on our itinerary was a mystery to counselors and participants alike. "None of us knew what it meant," she admitted. But "Conviviality," she explained, is "just a scheduled social time" -- an opportunity for people to meet and talk. Someone from out-of-state had told her that day that "conviviality" is a term commonly used where she lives. "I've moved all around California my whole life," said the counselor, "and I've never heard it."

I've gone over this memory again once more in my mind, and I know for sure that everything in it is accurate and that even the gaps I've filled in are based on fact. But as with the dreams that happened after it -- just before September 11 -- I'm not as sure about the message. And if you happen to have been one of those whose voice I heard, please let me know if this is your story, too.

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