The world is so tactile, and I want the paintings to be that tactile.
This First Proof contains an excerpt from Like Son.
Abrons Art Center
Feb 1, 6:30pm
21 February 1996.
Nathalie came home from what I thought was just another day of work and declared: “Tonight, we repent.”
“It’s Ash Wednesday. We’re going to play a game,” she said.
“Gin rummy? Scrabble?”
Mischievous smile, she replied: “I get to be Nahui.”
Did she say … And repent?… What …?
“Wait, I don’t get it.”
“I know every fact about Nahui Olin. I’ve seen every photograph of her. I’ve studied her paintings, her poems, everything.”
I’d never even heard her say Nahui’s name before, and now she was an expert?
“Nahui Olin? Her?” Incredulous, I pointed to the cardboard retablo still propped up on what had become its dusty and permanent spot on the windowsill. Best I could figure, Nathalie had convinced herself that she somehow knew Nahui just by looking at her portrait. I couldn’t blame her, I mean the eyes and—
“Frank, I unequivocally know everything about her that there is to know. Everything.”
Damn, the implications. Was this about my father’s mother? What? And then it occurred to me to ask: “Nat, how do you know about her?”
“A dix ans sur mon pupitre and interlibrary loan. Duh.”
Duh was right. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
“Frank, did you realize she wrote four books?”
No, I hadn’t realized.
“Anyway,” she continued, “the library had only this one biography someone published in Mexico a few years ago. But I swear, some of the stories about her are so totally scandalous—”
“Was the biography in Spanish?” I interrupted, preoccupied by my confusion.
“And you read Spanish?”
“Spanish, French, German, and a smidgen of Portuguese.”
“You never told me that.”
“Darling, you never asked.”
Nathalie could have told me she was a secret operative for the CIA, and I would have believed her. I mean, I could tell she wasn’t bullshitting. She was being absolutely serious and honest. I’ll be the first to admit how totally turned on I was by the sudden disclosures. I mean, really, here was the woman I’d adored for months, drop-dead gorgeous in her vintage dress with her foxy little pin-up girl face, but, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, I’d never really thought of her as a brain. (Not that I thought of myself as one either, mind you.) I mean, from day one when we met, Nathalie was witty as all hell; she had a sharp and quick tongue, we could blather on and on about movies and music and random stuff, but I’d never seen her read anything other than glossy magazines and maybe the Fashion and Style section of the Sunday paper. And now to learn suddenly the true range of her nerd abilities? Holy crap. She was perfect. I just sat there with this stupid puppy-got-a-squirrel grin.
“Go get ready,” she said very sternly.
Get ready? To melt outright from the thrill of her proximity? What? How exactly could I prepare for that?
“Shower. Dress extra nice. Go. Now,” she commanded.
And I obeyed.
I went to the closet and, sending a silent thanks to my father for his classy taste in clothes, carefully gathered a few choice items. Behind a closed and locked bathroom door, I undressed and showered. Hot water turned the room a soapy fog. Once I was thoroughly scrubbed clean, I dried off, wrapped a towel around my waist, and stood at the sink. Way more toothpaste on the brush than usual, I brushed my teeth. Twice. I wiped mist off the sink mirror and combed my hair as tidily as my scraggly cut allowed. And then I dressed in the clothes I’d let steam in the bathroom with me—my father’s best suit: natty dark brown fine wool tweed slacks and jacket, matching silk tie and pocket square, a brown straw fedora, the one with the black band. The suit was sort of slouchy around the ankles and a little short on the arms, but it mostly fit okay. As I put on the fedora, I noticed the inside shone from years of oily pomade rubbed in. A little of my dad’s warm skin clean scent could be detected in the damp air around me.
I tipped the fedora just so, straightened my tie, and refolded the pocket square. But, try as I did, my true self showed through. The good luck Pogues T-shirt I’d put on as an undershirt—the Peace and Love tour shirt, the one with the crumbling silkscreen of a boxer dude on it—remained slightly visible under my father’s best white dress shirt. And even though I was wearing my least thrashed pair of shoes, they were still Vans (granted, the super-sweet charcoal suede slip-ons). I couldn’t pull the look together totally perfectly, but when I checked myself out in the full-length mirror on the bathroom door, I was passably dandy, in a punk sort of way. Finally, ready as best I knew how to be, I opened the bathroom door to join Nathalie again.
Burnt-sienna organza silk cocktail dress gracing fishnet calves, gold platform heels cleaned of their usual mud, hair pinned in a twist—Nathalie sat at the kitchen table. She’d lit a tall glass cheapie Virgin Mary candle from the corner bodega. The Holy One looked superhero on that votive label, laser beams shooting out from her downward-turned palms. And Nathalie, for her part, had laser beams too. Fully aware that anticipation is half the fun, she ignored me and continued to stare through the candle flame at the kitchen wall, intently burning pinholes through bricks, drywall, and studs. I sat next to her. And even then she didn’t look at me. I waited.
The kitchen chair’s back was too short and it angled too far backward. Its seat edge hit my leg mid-thigh and cut off circulation. My lower back cramped. Five minutes, maybe seven minutes passed, my entire spine ached, and I couldn’t wait any longer.
On your marks. Get set. We had our roles. Go.
“Buenas noches, amor,” Nathalie said, and looked me square in the eye. Her voice turned extra gravel deep. And those eyes. Nahui’s stare was looking directly at me.
She told her life to me:
Nahui Olin. Poet. Artist. Genius thinker. Wonder star of the Mexican 1920s avant-garde. Favorite muse of boys and girls alike.
(No wonder my father’s mother had blushed as she did.)
Nahui Olin. Name meaning: Earthquake Sun—the final epoch on the Aztec calendar wheel, the destroyer of all human existence. Four Suns—Jaguar, Wind, Rain, and Floods—preceded Nahui Olin. We live in Nahui Olin. But according to ancient wisdom, nothing, absolutely nothing, will remain in her wake.
Earthquake. Sun. Nahui. Olin.
Born Carmen Mondragón on 8 July 1893, the daughter of a famous general, her daddy invented a cannon that won the revolution. And when Huerta made her father Secretary of War, her already good life turned golden Mexico City and Paris extravagance. Private school nuns taught her to paint, to write, to think big thoughts. Star young student, under the proud supervision of the sisters, she wrote what would eventually become A dix ans sur mon pupitre.
Ten years later, at 20 years of age, she fell hard for a cadet. Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, a handsome boy of good upbringing. Daddy approved. Her nuptial ceremonies were the event of the year. The wedding portrait showed her serious-eyed and Manuel so pretty. It wasn’t long until she learned that Manuel admired the male form as passionately as she did herself. They continued on together, but Manuel soon found opportunity to escape. Nahui’s parents wouldn’t allow a divorce, but she proceeded as if one had been granted.
She took lovers. Many lovers. One, an artist big shot, Dr. Atl—”Doctor Water,” his slumming-it-bohemian Aztec chosen name—was the grandfather of modern Mexican muralism. It was he who suggested she take the Aztec name of Nahui Olin. Proud blasphemous creatures, Nahui and Atl lived together out of wedlock … in el ex Convento de la Merced—Dr. Atl had converted the capital city’s former Mercy Convent, located just blocks from the central zócolo, into their sprawling home. Nuns covered their eyes and gripped their rosaries when they passed by on the street. The ungodly feuds of their household were legendary.
Once Nahui was reading on the rooftop patio when she caught sight of Dr. Atl talking to a pretty blonde on the sidewalk below.
“Beware, the sky is falling!” Nahui screamed, as she threw well-aimed roof tiles at the flirting pair.
The blonde ran for cover, but Dr. Atl only laughed in response.
“You are making a fool of yourself, Carmen Mondragón!” he called up to the rooftop. And then, smiling, the play on words occurred to him. He said quietly to himself: “Mondragón—mon dragon, indeed.”
The pun-turned-lover-pet-name stuck.
Devoted admirer of Nahui’s spitfire tantrums, it was Dr. Atl who convinced her to make public the precocious poetic musings she had written as an adolescent. At age 31, the year 1924, Nahui assembled and published A dix ans sur mon pupitre (From My Desk, at Age Ten) to the delight of her artist friends. Soon thereafter, she published two collections of poems, Óptica cerebral, poemas dinámicos (Cerebral Perspective, Dynamic Poems) and Calmement je suis dedans (I Am Tender Inside).
And the parties Dr. Atl and Nahui gave in honor of those books … damn, the parties they threw. Sweet mercy, the winks and smiles and kisses and big talk about politics and art and grand strikes and leftist global overthrow, clusters of costumed revelers wandering off to tangle tongues and fists and opinions in the halls, everyone drinking one cognac sidecar after another. No matter how many cocktails they drank, there wasn’t ever sugar rim enough in the world to snuff the Molotov burn of those parties. Blue haze smoke air and mariachis kept them alive to well past sunrise as they brought the world to its pretty little knees and made it their begging love. Comrades to the end, they promised upon their lives to disavow wealth and privilege for the cause. But pledges the flimsy contracts they were, it was always Nahui who owned the party.
Nahui Olin. The Earthquake Sun.
Yes, those were crazy glorious earthquake days.
“Nahui, forgive me,” I said to Nathalie/Nahui, “but if all of this is true, how come nobody knows about you anymore?”
Unlike that peasant-faker Frida Kahlo with her hair in braids—that poor little injured bird, that martyr mild wild girl—unlike her, Nahui was the real thing. She was serious dynamite. Frida’s husband Diego told Nahui as much himself. As did Edward Weston when he took her portrait. Pained eyes. Lips turned downward. She was so beautiful it hurt to look at her. It was too dangerous to take something so explosive, to try to bottle it as iconography. Far easier and safer was to try and pretend Nahui never existed at all.
But she did. Did she ever.
Communist. Radical feminist. Fucked whomever she wanted to. Here, there, and everywhere. Scandalized her barrio. And then slipped into obscurity by middle age. Few people even realized she published a fourth book, Energía Cósmica (Cosmic Energy), at age 43. By that point she could often be found in the zócolo, packed in one of her tight vixen curve dresses, staring at the sun, her outsize green eyes bloodshot and dilated from the heat and lack of blink. Passerby sophisticates—those who didn’t heed the local rumors that cast Nahui as a witch who could turn herself into a bat and others into dust—would call out “Fuego, fuego” in admiration. Sizzle, sizzle, she remained hot as fire. As response, Nahui would only adjust her gaze eastward in unison with the shifting sun. Years and years of this and then, 23 January 1978, 85 years of age, Nahui died. In her own bed. While sleeping. Her last breath was peaceful. And, although ancient Aztecs had prophesied that the end of Nahui Olin the Earthquake Sun would be the death of all humanity, the universe continued on in her wake.
Those were the facts.
Her poems crumbled to dust.
She was dead.
Take it with a dose of salt.
Salt was what Nathalie and I tasted as her tears fell.
Nahui was alive.
She was every masked soldier who ever bore arms for their land. She was the little girls in their white communion dresses, playing dress-up as virgin angels. She was a punk whore, eyebrows shaved and lips rubied in homage to professional sluts who turned tricks out of Mexican street booths. She was revolution itself.
Nathalie as Nahui said to me: “Querido, you and I, we are revolutionaries.”
“Nahui,” I asked, “do you know that the dictionary defines revolution as what happens when a body goes around an orbit and returns to its original position?” I continued: “Makes no difference if that body belongs to a planet, some holy whatever, or me. The same rule even applies to you.”
“Think of it this way,” I said, “we’re really just tacky little papier-mâché marionettes. We can do only what the puppeteer allows. Life is a controlled performance. Pennies thrown at you. Gravity keeps you in line. And it always pulls you right back to the same place that made you want to revolt to begin with.” I ended with words I hoped Nathalie would hear again that night in her dreams: “There is absolutely nothing revolutionary about your revolution.”
I said this as much to Nathalie as to Nahui.
And it was true.
Because for all of Nathalie’s wanting and needing everything to be so fantastically hyperbolic and transgressive all the time, for all her perpetual 1920s party attire and zany observations and bizarre take on etiquette, no matter how much she wanted to think she and I and her life entire were some sort of brilliant freak show, I’d come to learn exactly what Nathalie was. She was normal. Just plain ol’ potentially boring N-O-R-M-A-L. Seriously, strip away all the pyrotechnics and you’d find nothing truly revolutionary about Nathalie’s revolution. She wanted a happy home. She wanted a man to love. And she wanted her man to love her. Passionately. Devotedly. She wanted that day in and day out. But, I also knew with absolute certainty, nothing scared Nathalie more than how thoroughly normal she really was.
Consequently, when I think back on our Nahui play-date in my old age, it’ll be Nathalie administering a slap to my face that I’ll remember most. The slap wasn’t hard and it didn’t sting much, but I’ll never forget it. Hot damn and then some, Nahui could be such a bitch. The self-righteous indignation. She was just like the rest of her kind—a spoiled baby idealizing a world of unicorns and rainbows and pink and blue cotton candy for everyone after the General Strike …
Her best martyr routine, Nathalie stared me down. But she, like Nahui, was a most unconvincing saint. And, formalities considered, if anyone was going to play saint, it should have been me. Saint Francis of Assisi, specifically. Poor old blind Saint Francis, crazed, all alone in the middle of the forest, singing his Canticle of the Brother Sun:
… my lord Brother Sun … how beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor …
Saint Francis’s feast day. That was the day Nahui kissed my father’s mother at the fountain in Mexico. Nahui stared at the sun. Her eyes burned. She kissed my very pregnant father’s mother. My father kicked. The baby’s name was an obvious choice. And Nahui earned a throne on a grafted branch of my family tree.
Francisco: My father’s name had such a handsome ring to it. But names are disasters waiting to happen. One need give care when choosing names. Just ask my father, he could have told you. He took after Saint Francis in ways no mother would ever wish. And then, when his only child was born, the legacy continued.
Frank. Born Francisca. The three of us: Father, the Son-to-be, and Nahui, the Holiest of Ghosts. A most unusual trinity. I wished I could have been lucky like a nun and had my true name whispered to me by God. But I had no god. And so I was never the beneficiary of such convenient divine intervention. I chose my own name, both in honor of my father and for its function as a verb.
“Verb? Frank is an adjective, not a verb,” Nathalie once challenged me when I explained.
In response, I’d told her to go look it up. She did.
Webster’s, definition 11: To enable to pass or go freely.
To live without the curses and consequences that crippled my family before me, to break free of a life I preferred were not mine, to pass without constraint through the world … as a man, a good and decent man—to this I aspired.
“Wish?” Nathalie broke my silent thoughts.
She held the lit Virgin Mary candle close to my lips. Still rubbing the slight warmth where she’d slapped me, I closed my eyes and concentrated. I’d learned the hard way with the birthday cake my dad made me that I should phrase my wishes carefully. So I thought for a good long minute. And then I opened my eyes and blew out the candle. Nathalie swiped her thumb across her tongue and pinched her fingertips against the candle’s dead wick. Gray sooty flesh, she reached toward me.
“Thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return,” she said, and marked my forehead with her thumbprint.
Her touch was electric. Head to toe I was flame hot lit.
She stood and planted her lips on mine to seal the deal. The intensity of that simple little kiss was indescribable. Everything turned heavy and earnest all of a sudden. To be honest, I got sort of worried. Was Nat taking this repenting thing seriously? Were we supposed to act all saintly now? Maybe we’d crossed some line. Maybe we’d ruined everything.
She saw my concern.
“By the way, you are devilishly handsome in that suit.”
Smile shining bright, she winked and took my hand.
“Ever heard the saying, No rest for the wicked …?”
We were a busy pair.
Felicia Luna Lemus is the author of the novel Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties (FSG), and her writing has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including A Fictional History of the United States with Huge Chunks Missing (Akashic). She currently teaches writing at The New School University and lives in the East Village of Manhattan. This excerpt is one chapter of the novel Like Son, just published by Akashic Books.
The world is so tactile, and I want the paintings to be that tactile.