Happiness is Possible

by Eli Goldstone

Sunburnt, you turn. The sand grazes your side and you long for something sweet. You know if you lie there long enough the woman from the other end of the playa will come. Basket balanced on the shelf of her hip, heaped with crisp pastries. The sugar will flake off onto your lips, onto your chest and among the pages of the book that you’re pretending to read. Plastic shaped into a cone and filled with mango, dusted red with cayenne pepper, salt. Flesh.

All of the parts of your mouth come alive when you think of her.

Finally, cracked feet and toenails that turn your stomach. A dog follows closely behind, its parched pink tongue almost dragging on the ground. You barely lift your head. You just beckon and she comes.

Conversations other people have had.

You can go to the bodega and be surrounded by mountains on every side, nearly taste the wisps of cloud from above. Yet you can’t get a minute alone to stand and stare. The valley is full of traffic, fumes. And there’s no quiet. Everywhere, catarrh-filled motorbike engines and men whining at you to buy blankets and in the middle of the night the cockerels start to crow, as if God just that moment opened their throats. And the meat smell rises.

When the weather is good, you think that you could be alone forever. When the weather is bad, you stay inside and look at yourself from all angles and think, actually, no.

You drive through the clouds to get somewhere. You get out at the side of the road to eat flabby tortillas off a polystyrene tray inside some comedor. Outside, the road disappears into cloud as if into heavy snow. The air is thin and damp, your lungs feel infinite in their greed. All the colours were left behind at a certain altitude and you will go back for them. A truck is stopped up ahead and a man holds his penis in his hand carelessly, like a wet cigarette. He says, “Hey, girl.” They all know how to say it. There’s nothing to see. Just the damp air, billowing.

Your ears pop with every swallow so you keep swallowing, over and over again, until your mouth is dry.

You’re going to the place where the monkeys gather and shout. They bark and grunt and shriek. The howls come at dawn and at dusk and in response to disturbance. The sound is frightening and beautiful. It is a call to prayer. You want to fall down on your knees when you hear it.

Do you know there are stories you can tell without making anybody angry? And most of the bones in your body will never need setting. Almost all of them will be okay.

In the bathroom, a woman gives you her baby while she washes her face. The baby has thick, very dark hair. You hold her in your arms and the woman takes off her shoes and then her tights. She rolls them up and puts them in her handbag. The baby looks at you as if she is going to throw up and then throws up, a fountain of breast milk. It soaks your sleeve. It doesn’t smell of anything. The woman shrugs. You shrug. "That’s what babies do, I suppose," you say. "That’s true," she says. She leans against the sink and fans herself with a bus timetable. Do you have any money? she asks. You definitely do not have any money. But you are willing to hold the baby for a little while longer. More than willing. You hold on and on.

Did you know there was a way of existing that was so soft?

The car stutters and drags. The wet air from above sinks into the fabric which is coming away from the roof and you absentmindedly push it back with the tips of some fingers while tapping the steering wheel with others. You tap along with the beat of the music and when you lose the radio signal to the mountains, you carry on tapping to the memory of it. You are impatient. You suck on black liquorice. You trace the cathedral of your mouth with the point of your sweetened tongue. You would absolutely swear to anyone who asked that when things are quiet enough, you can hear the creak of your hair roots as they grow. They push their way through the tender cap of your scalp and you can’t stand it, so you pluck them out one by one. Like weeds.

You overhear conversations and imagine they are about you. You have been alone for so long that you are hallucinating your own significance. Every story has you at the centre of it.

"I’m not picking her up. I refuse to do that. I am a religious person. Do I ask the universe for a lift to the hospital? The universe is not a taxi cab."

"I think she’s a no-good person. I think she has a problem with drugs and alcohol and everything like that. Anyone who walks down the middle of a highway in the afternoon."

"She’s not appropriate. I do not think that she is appropriate."

They call and you answer. You move, slowly and with great determination, towards the sound until it is above you, around you, embracing you. The monkeys hang like ripe fruit. The whole of the jungle reverberates. Howls of agony and of fear. Huge, aggressive vowels from echoing throats.

Your face is slick and the backs of your shoes are saturated with blood. If you just stopped walking, would it make any difference? Would the ground sag and allow you to sink like a piece of stale bread into the soup of the Earth? Would the telephone ring again for you? Would someone in the city stoop to pick up something they had dropped and just stay there, waist bent, staring at their outstretched hand and remembering your hand and the things that you reached for? Are you hungry? Are you afraid to climb any further? Do you really think that thing you say is true: that insects bite you because your blood is sweeter, thicker than other people’s? Do you think there is molasses running from your wrist to your ribs?

Do you think that the sound of the howler monkeys belongs to you?

It starts to rain as you make your way back to the car and by the time you get there, you are soaked and shivering. A man materialises from the undergrowth to sell you hallucinogenic mushrooms and you tell him no and then you change your mind and give him the last of your money. He touches the inside of your elbow. His eyes move first here and then there.

At some point the radio breaks. You drink five bottles of your preferred brand of sweet lemonade. Your furred teeth and tongue keep you awake when you try to sleep at night, curled into the very smallest version of yourself that you can be. Men peer in to try and see your face every morning. Policemen. It’s hot again and you start to fall in love. The thing that you start to fall in love with is the smell in your armpits that never quite washes away. It is you.

You’re in a new part of the country now. The kind of place with yellow and pink flowers everywhere. At the side of the road. In the middle of the road. Blooming at the pit of your throat.

Here, anything is possible.

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Eli Goldstone's debut novel, Strange Beating Heart, will be published by Granta on 4th May 2017.

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Photograph by Eli Goldstone

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