Disturbing the Spirits

It is dangerous when it rains, Maria tells me by way of introduction. The whole city is built on sand. Houses fall every year. Water loses itself off the windshield, sky deep and cupped. Up in El Alto the city is an accident, tan building blocks spilled all over the mountain. The shape of bare earth on the mountainside is like someone bending over, someone walking, but I am prone to see people in natural structures. Solitary skies like these make more room for God. God, or whatever name you have for vastness.

The shape of bare earth on the mountainside is like someone bending over, someone walking, but I am prone to see people in natural structures. Solitary skies like these make more room for God. God, or whatever name you have for vastness.

I don’t know yet what holds us. I arrive in La Paz from Quito at night. The taxi descends into a bowl of lights. Bolivia’s independence day, groups crowded around backs of trucks. I am here to meet the Diva but she is still away; her daughters, Maria and Isa, wait with a sign at the airport. I say as we dip and dip that this is the one place where old people could say, When I was your age I had to walk uphill both ways to school, and actually be telling the truth. Ley, says Maria and pours me some more spiked tea out of a thermos. “Ley” is a word for “cool” around here. Technically it means “law” or “rule.”

My first day at 12,000 feet I round a corner in your basic cobblestone street and suddenly it all tilts up and the street ends in a long stairway. I climb them and que jodido huevón it’s like the thump of a heart, a hammer. The walk began with a sewer, open top. Outlandish weeds surround, disappear into, appear out of. Look around at a barely true city that has just bloomed, deserted and pale. A neighbourhood shop, a woman in traditional dress hanging onto the bar of the locked front door, elbows bent, one toe swaying. Peculiar winter sun, broken mountains.

I am afraid I will wake one day, arrive on my dream-float to old age, which seems a jungle of dream-floats, never having gotten off, never having disentangled myself from the gold circle of light. In the afternoon, as I doze and the chest on which my soft breasts sag heaves with breath, I will do the same as I do now in my twenties, as I have always done — daydream that someone will come in and notice me, the way I did as a child when I pretended to sleep so potential spectators would think tender thoughts.

Man who walks, the green man in the stoplight, then as the countdown begins from five he begins running, encouraging pedestrians to sprint. The staggering fire swallower performing at no one’s behest in front of cars in front of the stoplight. Drunk, they say, and wave him off. She always looks for coins in her ashtray when children knock with gum. I wasn’t supposed to be this fazed by altitude, arriving as I do from another mountain city. Maybe the glimmer never lifts away.

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