Volume III, Issue I Spring 2004

Tenuous Lives

Dim candle light and the long night drone of muted bar music crash on the walls in a symmetrical chaos that only makes sense after countless tedious hours. I am gloriously drunk. A brown-skinned bar rat with greased hair and gold teeth slaps the bar top trying to look like a big man for all the gringo girls traveling through, "Un cerveza, ahora." Give me a beer, now.

"The liter or the small one?" I say in rapid broken Spanish.

"The liter"

Cerveza Tona "Toña or Victoria?"

He gives me a look like I'm the world's biggest fucking idiot, "The Victoria."

They all look at you that way, like you're supposed to know by looking at their faces which of the two Nicaraguan beers they swear by.

I slam back the top of the beer cooler, grab a liter, crack the cap too fast and get sprayed. It's not a huge deal. My forearms are covered in sticky white rum, my sandaled feet in beer and dirt. I slide the bottle up on the concrete top, demand my thirty Cordobas in payment, and go back to working, weaving and drinking away the night.

There's a girl sitting at the far end of the bar, to my right, near the door. She's sitting next to my boss Heidi, an anorexia thin, pasty complexioned lady from Holland who's better at getting drunk than doing any kind of managerial work.

I focus on the girl and let my boss float in the malted hops induced fog that's taken over my peripheral vision. The girl has hair to die for; long and pitch black with tight concentric curls. She's rocking back and forth in her chair, throwing her hands all over the place in the telling of some story I'll never know. I'm wondering how the hell she has so much energy, because she's a good deal plastered. Maybe she's done a line or two of blow, hard to tell. I'd still like to knock the bottom out of her in bed. I've never slept with a cocaine user, and it might be interesting. Maybe even fatal. I haven't seen what her lower half looks like, but based on the disembodied portion I can see, she's definitely a nine.

She's seen me looking at her a few times. Discretion isn't one of my better qualities when under the influence. The looks have been returned and I must have some pheromones going tonight, because I've already got three phone numbers in my pocket and this Latina knockout is staring at me like I'm a bowl of frosted flakes. She breaks eye contact and I step out of the zone of physical proximity. You know, 'cause I can't be giving her too much of a good thing too soon.

Cerveza Victoria I mount an assault on tabletops covered in empty bottles and glasses and torn shreds of paper from restless, nervous fingers. Martin, the guy bartending with me, is out conducting his own blitzed, carefully orchestrated harvest of glass.

He walks over to me and nods at the girl with a big, lady-killing smile, "You like?"

"Yeah. I could get behind that hair."

He makes a choking sound that's supposed to signify amusement, "For sure. On a scale of one to ten, I'd give her one all night long, if you know what I mean." He says, ribbing me with his elbow.

I let a little genuine laughter escape, because it was kind of funny, and because I want to look like I'm having a good time. I don a mask of slight but enduring amusement. Corners of the mouth up, eyes narrowed just so to accentuate the light and give rise to sparkle; feet restless and tapping to the music no matter what's playing. If I wasn't trying to get laid I'd be standing stock still, expressionless, maybe a bit unsteady but nothing extreme. I found out the hard way awhile back that being me just doesn't get women in bed. I have to become someone else, a funny energetic guy with a slight touch of asshole. That's what women want, so that's what I give.

The night starts winding down like a broken pull-string doll. People pay tabs, stumble out the door, take one last swig of their drinks and strut up to whatever beauty they've been scheming on all night, confident at last, but alas in the ultimate irony of the bar universe, too incoherent to act on their slowly built wellspring of male charm and wit.

Heidi summons me over, "Go ahead and close the doors, and um ... yeah, flip the chairs up," she pauses to take a long pull from her drink, "Then, yeah, we're closed, okay?"

"Sure, no problem."

I didn't have my eye on the boss at all when she was talking, because the sex symbol sitting next to her has managed to find a way to land a hand on my ass and keep it there without making things awkward.

"So how are things goin'?" I ask the girl, wanting to beat my head on the ground for asking such a lame first question.


"Um, do you speak English?"

"Juss' ah liital. My English es fuckall."

This is not a good sign, but the hand hasn't moved despite the momentary setback, which means my inability to be romantic and tell her I think she's nice, intelligent, capable, the most beautiful woman I've ever slept with, and no I don't do this very often, isn't going to be an issue.

"So this is Mildred, a good friend of mine ... yeah ... she used to work for me here." Heidi says, putting her hand on the black-haired girl's shoulder.

Mildred nods, and I say one of the few Spanish phrases I know, "Mucho gusto." Nice to meet you, much pleasure, and if I say it just right, I'd really like to fuck your brains out.

She smiles at me, pours out some Spanish I take to be complimentary, and pulls out a cigarette. She manages to make an ash tray look like a Victoria Secret lingerie ad. I turn away and walk to the door, managing to brush my hand up on her thigh on the way past.

I am for the next five minutes completely blind. There is alcohol in my system and the potential of sheet-tearing sex in the near future. When these two spheres of influence are brought into focus and collide with force in close proximity, all men are boiled down to their most base, unthinking worst. I am at this moment driven by the biological imperative to procreate and ensure the continuation of my species. I have examined myself and deemed my DNA worthy of replication.

I am thinking with my dick.

There are a few late-night, bottle-hardened veterans still hanging around even though the door has been closed for a good five minutes. I'm doing everything I can to convince them that three in the morning is the perfect time to quit drinking. The minutes tick by slow and painful; I'm really hoping this chick doesn't get too plastered in the remaining half hour or so until we've cleared the bar out. My mind wanders and I start thinking up book titles while standing around looking important.

The Tenuous Lives of Bartenders.

Bartending in the Third World.

How to Optimize Your Bartending Experience.

Surviving The Street: How to Walk Home Drunk at 3 a.m. in Nicaragua.

My book titles are getting progressively longer and less imaginative. I've managed to let my mind wander from imminent sex to my obsession with being a successful writer one day. I'm fucking pathetic. I exert some control after a little self-aggrandizing pep talk about how, if I'm half the man I like to think I am, I'll quit thinking about writing and start focusing on the girl to my right who, wouldn't you know it, is staring right at me but looks like she might be getting bored.

I sidle over to where I'm within earshot of her and start constructing phrases in Spanish, generic stuff just to keep her focused.

"How many brothers and sisters do you have?"

"Two sisters"

I pause and let loose a satisfied smile, extremely pleased with myself for managing the question, answer volley. She smiles back, rests her elbows on the bar top, and leans forward on her hands.

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-one, and you?"



"Yes, serious"

Our conversation is a little more intellectually stimulating that pissing on an electric fence. Anything more complicated than age and questions pertaining to family size is way out of my range, but Lady Luck is smiling. While I've been laboring over a few simple questions, the bar has emptied.

Heidi calls out to Martin, "So is the party at your place tonight?"

"Um, sure I guess it is now." He says.

Heidi rattles something off in Spanish to Mildred and she nods. An inherent knowing of what was said between the women hits me like a cattle prod. If I want to get laid now I'm going to have to go to Martin's joint with Heidi and the latest development, Mildred, and drink for another few hours. Martin looks at me with raised eyebrows and grabs a bottle of rum. The ladies tilt off kilter all the way to the door. I shrug. Fuck it. This won't be the first time I've stayed up all night drinking and gotten tail on a fuzzy Sunday morning when normal people are waking up.

We exit the door in a blast of stale air and off-key noise.

I find Mildred somewhere between the spew of dizzy lights and pastel-colored mansion walls on the broken streets of paradise. I take her hand. I tell her, Life is wonderful in black and white, but we live in a color universe, Sugar, and the best I can offer is one night of sex and a few days of worry about why you didn't insist on a condom.

"¿Qué?" She says.

I grab her hand and say, "Never mind. Let's walk."

Martin and Heidi and a few other various survivors of the alcoholic universe who got an invite to the after-after-hours post-party party are leaving us behind. I'm drying out and need another drink. I ask Mildred if she wants to take off to a hotel I'll have to pay extortionate amounts of money for, but not quite that fast and it's a little painful to convey the point. Spanglish saves the day.

"You want to go with me, find somewhere without other people?"

She smiles and leans into me, "Yes."

We ditch the stumblers for our own inebriated journey between crooked walls and twisting wrought iron gates.

Ciudad Granada We are walking through a Nicaraguan city, Granada. It's more of a town by Western standards, but for this country, it's a veritable metropolis. It has the look and feel of an old place with bloody history, the kind with dark secrets and a slow beating pulse, like the whole town could go Nova at any minute, bursting into colors so brilliant it's all just different shades of white.

It has it's own logic, it's own skewed perceptions. Sometimes it makes me want to laugh, lean against one of the painted adobe walls I'm laughing so hard. Like the guy I saw yesterday who was walking through the streets blowing on a broken harmonica and shaking a dirty white cap with grease stains at every gringo he passed, doing a little hop-skip deal and grinning like a fool. Or the people who parade down the streets at exactly 3:45 in the afternoon every day, banging on a broken snare drum, dressed up in a giant paper maché woman outfit. They stop and yell, and the man doing the announcing has a bullfrog, smoke over steaming gravel circus master voice. He asks for money and gives the history of their two-man parade. After they've exhausted the supply of charity they move on, banging and clanking and shaking down the street out of sight and into tomorrow, when they'll start it all over again, becoming fools for survival.

Other times it's sad in a "fuck me," tragic kind of way. I just want to jam an ice pick into my chest a few times, because that would feel better than what I'm looking at. A little boy walked up to me about a week ago, he couldn't have been more than eight. He tugged on my shirt and held out a grimy hand, said, "One peso, please?" I looked down at him and I swear the kid radiated pins and fucking needles, like stabs of guilt all over your body when you try to pull a fast one on your parents for the first time.

The left side of his face was covered in dried glue, his eyes had a glassy look, like the mixed thousand-yard stare of a trauma victim and coke addict at once. But this kid didn't have the luxury of snorting rails of a mild drug like coke. He huffed propane and modeling glue, or arts and crafts hot glue, and when he got really tight, he'd hang out behind the exhaust of the nearest diesel bus, breathing deep at the black carbon cloud just to keep off the craving of the big hurt until he could find an aerosol can or some good liquid cement.

I shook my head at him, said, "No," because I knew he'd just buy more junk with my money, and when I went to walk away the kid passed out. I thought he was faking it, maybe to get a little sympathy vote, but I stood there and looked at him for a minute, staring at his tiny crumpled limbs shooting out at unnatural angles, his bare feet calloused and dirty, his face and emaciated neck, the rapid shallow breaths barely moving a t-shirt three sizes too big. I bent over and shook him, but he didn't move. I figured his body was just crashing, stealing a few hours of rest while his brain was caught in the gray zone of pre-withdrawal, but I wanted to be sure. I scooped him up and carried him a few blocks to a hospital.

He couldn't have weighed more than 45 pounds, but he dragged my arms and soul down to the ground, past the dirt and asphalt of the street, to some low subterranean place where only the truly downtrodden go. It felt painful and sad carrying that kid. My brain turned to mush, my heart beating with the ragged twock-click-twock of a broken metronome. I never saw him again after I dropped him off in the nurses' hands; maybe he made it and they got him off the junk, maybe he's passing out in front of other dumb gringos who will never realize just being born in a country where $8.50 an hour for a bad job is farther ahead than most people ever get .

I still feel like the most worthless lump of shit on the face planet most of the time, even in the middle of all these people who will never see half of the opportunity I already have. I want to walk up to them sometimes, when I'm walking through the barrios, looking at the tired men and women, the children playing soccer in the street around broken glass and careening yellow school buses that blow through. I want to walk up and shake the hell out of them, ask, "Why are you so full of life and content with so little?" And of course, the corresponding question I ask only in the privacy of my own mind, at night when the lights die and I'm left alone with all my failure and waste, "Why aren't you ever fuckin' satisfied with all the things you could have, and do have, and all the opportunities that, at this moment, are available?"

But I never go up and talk to the people, because I don't speak their language well enough to convey rambling philosophical bullshit or inquire into the deep universal truths buried in the day-to-day lives of the have-nots.

Mildred and I trade looks. She grabs the cup and takes a drink, to keep the energy alive and all, and then she tugs on my hand and smashes her face to mine. I'm too far gone to be stunned, and I back her up against the nearest wall, running my hands through that black mess of curls, trying to spoon her tonsils out with my tongue. Our mouths have the tang of cheap cigarettes and bad liquor, like imminent cancer going for a joyride on an all-night bender. The kiss ends due to lack of momentum and the need for habitation. We hold hands and walk.

Streets of Granada The joint I've been aiming for is a nicer one. It has to be a hotel, because I sleep on a bunk surrounded by twelve other people at a hostel where I work.

We do the alternating trip and almost fall, have the other person catch you routine all the way down the street. I ask myself what kind of moron walks city streets inebriated at this hour. I come up with no decent answer, and it doesn't matter because salvation is upon us – the two-story Spanish-style mansion, Hotel Colonial, is sprawled out right in front of my face.

"Wait a sec", I say to Mildred in English, because I can't even think straight in my primary language, much less a second.

She doesn't wait. We both walk up the steps to a big closed oak door at the entrance. I pound on it a few times, wait for what feels like an hour, and pound a couple more. I yell, "Buenas" through a little porthole that's open. I cuss.

A guy pops up from behind the reception desk, stretching like he was asleep, which pisses me off, because the world is supposed to be at my beck and call instantly; especially with this Visa I've got in my pocket and this hot bitch I have fondling my ass and leaning on me for support.

The guy walks up to the porthole and rattles off something in Spanish.

Mildred steps up to the plate and rattles back.

The guy shakes his head and says, "Sorry," which I manage to understand.

She says a whole lotta shit, but the only part I catch is at the end when she calls him the son of a hooker.

The guy says something back, and Mildred grabs my hand and drags me away.

I have no idea what just happened. I figured he said they had no rooms, Mildred called him a lying bastard, and he said, I'll call the cops. That sounds about right.

We get a block or two from the Colonial and I'm wondering what to do now. I mean, I didn't plan for contingencies. There is no Plan B. I'm getting tired fast; the contents of the cup disappeared fifteen minutes ago.

"Home or hotel," I say, boiling it way the fuck down.

"Hotel." She says.

We're still holding hands. She's still stopping every once in awhile, letting me nail her up against a wall to make out and cop a couple feels, and I think at one point we were up against a Catholic church. I don't know if this girl is just the classic bimbo or if she's the rare combination of a knockout body and extreme intellect hell bent on fast and loose self-destruction. I decide it doesn't really matter. She looks good and I like her smile.

I've been unconsciously leading her since the Colonial to another classy joint, La Gran Francia, which is even more expensive than the Colonial. We're standing in front of it and I lead her in. There's free coffee on a little table by the entrance doors. I grab a cup and give it to her, taking one for myself too. A fat guy is manning the reception desk, all dressed up in a fancy gray polyester uniform that makes him look like a bulging trick balloon.

"I need a room for one night", I say, forgetting the night's already come and gone.

"Sorry, all booked up", he says in English.

"You're kidding", I say, not believing my luck. What are the odds both high-class joints in a town in the middle of Nicaragua are sold out on the one night I want to get a little action.

"No, serious."

"Look. I'm drunk. I need to sleep, and she needs to sleep," I say, waving my coffee cup at Mildred and spraying some on the ground, "we've been wandering around for two hours. Please. There's gotta be something." I'm getting desperate. I start wobbling like I'm going to pass out in his lobby or puke on the giant wall mirror.

"No, really. We're full. Look, I'll make some calls," he says, looking antsy. He pulls out a registry of hostels and hotels and starts ringing up other places around town.

Full. Booked. Reserved. No answer. Busy Line.

Every joint in the entire town is freaking full. This is like the nightmares I had when I was sixteen, when all I wanted to do was lose my virginity and the whole damn world was conspiring to keep me pure.

"Hey, can you tell her in Spanish what you just told me?" I ask the guy.

He fires a bunch of liquid sound at Mildred. She cranes her head up and stares at the ceiling, and I still can't get over that hair because it's just falling down behind her head like a black ink fountain. She looks at me finally. I look back. We shrug at the same time and walk out the front doors suave as hell, both disappointed but trying to play it off like this happens all the time.

We're standing on the street. It's light outside, and the light is searing my eyes. I picture my face pale with red and yellow bloodshot orbs getting ready to pop out of my face and fall on the ground. I feel like I should be shooting heroin. There are a few scattered people wandering around and my life is taking on the muted jerky cast of a dream. Mildred is looking around and I can tell she doesn't know what to do. I don't even know where she's from. My twenty-one years of living have distilled and boiled down to this one singular moment in time and the phrase "cluster fuck" is hanging as a crooked caption on the bottom. I'm at a loss and it's late enough for the cabs to be running. I hail one and stuff forty Cordobas in Mildred's hand. I give her a kiss and think about saying something but don't.

She says, "I'll see you when I see you," with a look like this blows, way to go dickhead. I'm not only trashed, but you can't even take care of a woman for a twenty-four hour period.

I feel like the worlds biggest asshole. I nod at her, she opens the door and slams it. The cab takes off and I'm left alone, standing in the too bright sun on the broken street.

I don't know how to get back to my respectable bed. The loneliness of my whole life comes crashing down hard and I'm tired like a hooker on Christmas morning. I turn and walk a few blocks in a daze until I find an alley with narrow slanted walls, the kind where daylight only hits the bottom for one brief moment. This alley feels like the hole I've been stuck in since forever. I curl up in a corner of a slightly recessed wall. I am beyond caring that where I am sleeping is an invitation to get mugged. Nothing matters.

I am home.

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