dustin cole – foreign sentiments
“What is uttered from the heart alone will win the heart of others to your own.”
The first story David Cronin ever told me stuck in my brain like a railway spike and we’ve been friends ever since. He was on a bus trip from Sayulita to Guadalajara in the middle of May, when the heat presses down like a sandwich grill. The bus slowed and lurched by a crowd of people gathered round a dead puma hit by a motor vehicle. A distressed cub paced along the jungle wall at a distance. There were children laughing fearfully before concerned mothers and a man was fastening rope to the split carcass so an ATV could drag it away. Cronin described it so vividly, the cat’s fangs bared in a mask of pain, its entrails scrambled on the cracked road, a rivulet of blood following the depressions and contours of the buckled pavement as the bus sped up and went on.
After having run some Friday morning errands I stopped by Café Correcto for lunch and Cronin was there, alternating his attention from a book to his laptop, from his laptop to the book. Then I heard his dreadful Spanish when he spoke to the barrista, how he said the English words for the Spanish words he didn’t know and placed the Spanish words he knew in the English word order. I thought I would introduce myself to him because my English is perfect, though accented. I asked him where he was from. He said he was from Canada but really played it down. He said he wanted to live in Mexico, or some other country, anywhere but Canada. I asked him how long he had been in Guadalajara—two days. I asked him how long he had been in Mexico—two weeks. Then he got excited telling me about his bus ride through the jungle. As he described it I saw it all too, like I’d been sitting in the seat next to him. He talked about the vines hanging off the trees like filaments connecting everything. The bus crossed viaducts over dark chasms. Rags of mist clung to the mountains, mountains cloaked in a deep green canopy, unbounded, teeming with its own universe of monkeys, snakes and insects. “And pumas,” Cronin said. I noticed he was missing the left canine. His eyes narrowed, brightened, he added: “Maybe even hermits, Diego, shapeshifting jungle hermits.”
“After the last two years anything’s possible.”
* * *
We exchanged email addresses before parting ways that first time. Cronin didn’t have a Mexican phone yet. Arriving home shortly after to the remote work I couldn’t bring myself to do, I checked my email and true to his word, Cronin had messaged me saying it was a pleasure to talk and would I like to meet for coffee at some convenient location on the weekend. I agreed that it was a pleasure, and suggested Café Punta de Cielo on Avenida Chapultepec, directly across the street from my apartment.
Around this time it seemed impossible for me to venture beyond Colonia Americana. The closer to home the better. Remote work made me lethargic, vegetal, had turned me into a borderline hodophobic.
He was waiting there when I arrived, inclined towards his laptop screen, on Twitter of all platforms, that digital midden full of wackjobs, narcissists, bimbo bots and braindead polemicists.
The sky was overcast. I had no intention of probing his life. I actually started talking about myself, explaining that my New Age friend and neighbor, Denise, was learning how to read tarot and continued to message me about doing a reading, so she could practice, which I had zero interest in. Her daily requests were getting annoying. I thought I might have to tell her off, tell off the woman who, to this day, leaves leftovers hanging on my door three times a week, who was there whenever I needed her after the implosion of my ten year relationship, who always fed me a shot or two of mezcal when I felt like jumping off the Hotel Riu.
“I just got a tarot reading,” Cronin said, nothing sly about it, nothing sarcastic or irreverent. “This volunteer at the hostel I was staying at offered readings. We had talked a bit already and I liked him. Paulo was his name, from Mexico City originally, wrote an undergraduate thesis on the Mexican circus. He was kind of a mystical dude. I saw his little ad on the chalkboard and wanted to give it a go.
“We met the next day on the terrace. His deck was wrapped in a piece of sky blue velvet. He unwrapped the deck and laid the velvet over the table. As he shuffled the deck he asked me to think of a number between one and twenty-two. I chose five. It was The Pope. He lay that card down and got me to reshuffle the deck, cut it, and take the top card off the right hand pile. It was The Devil, card fifteen.
“The Pope means authority, learning, wisdom, institution, but he’s looking away, into the future, he’s not mindful of the present, he’s not in the moment. This card had come up again and again in Paulo’s sessions, so he learned more about it, found out The Pope was connected to Gemini rising. Paulo’s a Gemini. Gemini’s the messenger.
“So, like, The Devil is controlling. He has two demons on leashes, the passions, or the impulses. The Devil and The Pope are polar opposites. And they’re divisible. 15 ÷ 3 = 5.”
Cronin liked the clean sum, the arithmetical connection. I imagined him in Sayulita looking out at the equation of sky, ocean, beach, promenade, as a breeze softened the heat.
“Paulo asked if anything in life concerned me. I told him I’d grown less and less certain about the future. He said maybe I was trying to control something I couldn’t control, hence the tethered demons. I might have to concede to a wiser authority, you know, transform the fifteen into five, turn The Devil into The Pope, you know, find something to guide me.”
Two men sat down on the terrace next to the window and shook hands, old friends, it seemed. One produced a chess board from his backpack and they lined up the pieces as Cronin went on: “He had me shuffle the deck again, then pick two cards from anywhere in the deck. Paulo set them down in the order I gave them, first the Four of Cups. It stands for water, the heart, emotions, family. Four means structure. Next was the Nine of Wands, a densely interwoven image.” Cronin laced his fingers together, illustrating the card. “There’s not enough room for growth in this form, but it also stands for creativity and art.
“The configuration of the cards was important. Paulo put The Devil above The Pope, the Four of Cups to their left, the Nine of Wands to their right. The Pope looked to the wands, not to the cups. This meant I was overemphasizing creative productivity, not appreciating the support structures of family and friends.” Cronin finished his coffee, watched the passersby. “If I did this I might worry less about the future, but for this to happen I have to recognize my demons. I need to complete the cycle of wands. I need to reach the Ten of Wands.”
Cronin enjoyed saying that! I’ve never played Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but I imagine that’s how it sounds. “Carry on Dungeon Master,” I joshed.
He laughed. That’s what I like about Cronin. He takes what he says seriously but doesn’t take himself seriously.
A man covered in tattoos pedaled by the café with a small boy sitting in a soda crate bungeed to the bicycle’s rear rack.
“Are you close to your family?” I asked.
“Like Kafka said: ‘in my family I’m more estranged than a stranger.’”
“You don’t get along?”
“Not so well. They’re rationalists, but they won’t admit that rationalism is an act of faith.”
I didn’t press him for details. We sat there a while in silence, looking out the panoramic window at traffic receding down Libertad, as a blue space in the clouds opened and the sun glared off the vehicles on Avenida Chapultepec.
It might be that creative people are foreign to me, or maybe it was a response to his description of the Nine of Wands, whatever the case, I asked him if he was an artist.
“Yeah, I guess. I’m a poet.”
“Did Paulo know this?”
“He did, cuz we chatted about it the night before. He asked me how to do it, if it required introspection. I said turning inward was the first step, then you needed to go inside your spirit and be honest about what you found there, and that, in my view, is where poems come from. Then he asked me what I see in my spirit. I told Paulo that when I look inside my spirit I see a labyrinth of quartz; or I see a place like Mexico City, and beyond that city another city, and beyond that city, another, each slightly different and more vast and difficult to comprehend; or I see a thick jungle and at the core of this jungle there’s a hermit with a message and that message is a cipher encrypting the poem.”
“That’s what you told this poor fellow?”
“I told him that, yeah. He liked that.”
* * *
Once Cronin got a Mexican phone and downloaded WhatsApp we connected more frequently, sometimes on a whim, impossible when he communicated solely by email, though we ran into each other by happenstance one time crossing Federalismo during the evening rush hour. I wouldn’t have seen him if he hadn’t saw me. In some revery or another, I felt a light pat on the arm, heard Cronin’s voice say my name.
Neither of us had any commitments and he suggested we grab a beer or two. He knew a place. I let him lead me through Centro, over those ubiquitous mauve and grey checkered sidewalk tiles, disjointed reggaeton music piping from shops that sold everything under the sun—toiletries, party decorations, backpacks, beauty products, stationary, pets and petfood, cellphone cases, fresh fruit, poorly crafted devotional objects that don’t hold a candle to the pieces in my collection. We exchanged small talk. I was doing my underwhelming IT and web design work and Cronin, who lived on savings, was cobbling together a new book of poems and wandering aimlessly around Guadalajara, mainly through Villaseñor, Centro and Americana, slowly getting his bearings, memorizing the street names, architectural features, scraps of graffiti and business signage that popped out at him.
For the life of me I can’t remember the name of that crummy little bar he took me to on Pedro Loza, where he seemed known, actually bumping knuckles with a laborer on his way to the bar. The place would have been utterly forgettable had the walls not been painted with one of the strangest murals I’ve ever seen. In some postdiluvian ruin where the gods still roamed, a figure which could have been Zeus or Apollo stood in a chariot pulled by three white horses over calm water. There was an orb, opaque blue, oracular, imageless, told not what would come, mounted in the semi-meridian style to a gold fixture rising from the water. On the opposite end of the wall, a naked goddess accompanied by two flying peacocks stood in a vessel shaped like the coquina shell. In the center of this image there were steps curving up from the water to an altar. A diminishing line of helical columns split the composition in two. Scattered about in the background, rising from the water, were other columnar forms, also helical, or Solomonic, as I learned later that evening, back at my apartment on Chaputelpec, hearing Denise through the wall chanting white magic spells, or speaking in tongues, as I stared at my oversized monitor into the Web.
The bartender confirmed Cronin’s drink. Cronin said: “Doz, por favor,” and we sat down at a small table against the wall, each with a cold Pacifico, the tubas of loud banda music a jolly counterpoint to our conversation. I was curious how he found the place. It was one of those Mexican bars you can’t see into because the open front is covered with a menu printed in full color on a long piece of vinyl.
“I stayed at a hostel in the area,” was his explanation, which didn’t satisfy me.
“This is the type of place I’d walk by, the optic nerve wouldn’t register it, and I’d continue on my way.”
Cronin chuckled and took up the thread he’d began en route to this dive bar full of unemployed hustlers, johns and a waitress that probably doubled as a hooker. He said he never used Google Maps on his phone to find his way around. Instead, he would start from a point, and work his way in one direction, north for example, retrace his steps, continue south for about the same distance, return again to the initial point and make his way east, retrace his steps, go west, and return to the initial point, all this time mentally recording distinctive characteristics and landmarks in the cityscape. Once he had done this, he would work his way outward in roughly concentric circles, noting the look, feel and name of any larger thoroughfares, any streets closed off to motorists, a taqueria and the building it was near, a plam tree or a banyan tree or a tree whose bough was trimmed into a cube, a mural, anything singularly or in combination that might distinguish one location in space from another.
Someone dropped coins in the internet jukebox, which was twice as loud as Bandamax. Cronin paid for the beers. I took pictures of the mural to show Denise. It was right up her alley.
* * *
Back at Café Correcto the following Tuesday afternoon, air muggy and close, our conversation mingling with the occasional jingle and clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages rolling down Calle Prisciliano Sánchez, I asked Cronin what he thought of Mexico, his overall impressions, his foreign sentiments, and such.
He sipped his flat white. “People don’t use carseats for babies and toddlers, or put helmets on their children when they take them around on mopeds and scooters. You’d get arrested in Canada for that and child welfare would take your kid away.”
“I didn’t realize that was odd.”
“People are cynical about corruption. They accept that the cartels control the government and police and everything else in the country.”
“The cartels control some areas of business and government but they don’t control the state,” I clarified.
“I think Mexicans have some kind of oral fixation. They’re always chowing snackfoods.”
“People stuff their faces with junk morning, noon and night,” I agreed, “as if that was the antidote to their despair. But on the other hand, there’s so much food in Mexico, so many colors and flavors, and it’s all so affordable.”
“I didn’t expect the mosquitos to be so bad in Guadalajara, but whatever. I’m from northern Alberta. Every summer evening the mosquitoes come out of the muskeg in great droning clouds to torment man and beast alike until the temperature heats up or cools down enough to sedate them. Clouds of mosquitoes, Diego, enough to drive you insane.”
“I can’t imagine this.”
Cronin ordered us two more flat whites and we sat listening to the anodyne indie rock they were playing in the café. Hadn’t they heard of Debussy or Ravel? Proper music? Something with intellectual substance?
An oddly dressed man sat at the counter. He wore a silver filigreed bracelet set with a jade stone and gold-framed octagonal sunglasses with yellow lenses. In place of temple bars, the sunglasses had chains that wrapped around the ears, were weighed down by quartz crystals.
“I’ve never seen anything so ridiculous in my life,” I said under my breath.
It wasn’t like me to be so direct. Cronin’s candor uncovered this trait. I told him I appreciated his sincerity and couldn’t imagine him being at all deceptive.
“That reminds me of a Goethe quote: ‘What is uttered from the heart alone will win the heart of others to your own.’”
“Have you read Goethe?”
“The Sorrows of Young Werther years ago, but that’s all. I got that quote from a Jasmin Wagner interview. She’s my latest fixation. We were both born in 1980. Have you heard of Blümchen? That’s her stage name.”
I shook my head.
“She’s a German pop star, was really big in the 1990s. To be honest, I didn’t hear of her until recently. My homie showed me a song called ‘Herz on Herz’ and that’s what got me addicted. The music combines happy hardcore with girl pop vocals.”
“I haven’t the faintest clue what happy hardcore is.”
“It’s, like, super fast techno with catchy melodies.”
“Techno music sounds like battle drums of the impending machine apocalypse.”
“‘Herz on Herz’ is a cover of the Poso Doble tune. I just love the Blümchen version. The video’s great. It’s a boy-meets-girl concept, but they meet online, and this was back in the ‘90s, when that was still a novelty. I highly recommend Blümchen, Diego. The water of the Elbe flows through her veins.”
I told him I’d get right on that.
And so our conversation went, as they always have, adjusting to the contingencies of a given occasion, those circuitries of correspondence, following the path of least resistance, like the puma’s blood on that jungle road.
* * *
Days later we met for coffee at Livin Café on López Cotilla. He seemed quiet, a bit pale. When I asked him what was the matter, he smiled and shook his head: “Montezuma’s Revenge—late night tacos.” He insisted he wasn’t ill, just a bit under the weather. I suggested we go have tea at my place, and there was some mota stashed on top of the fridge for him to smoke.
In the plaza of the gothic Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, amid noontime bells, we passed by two nuns in blue habits. Cronin bid them good afternoon and told them his Spanish was small in the worst Spanish I ever heard. The elder of the two, probably in her seventies, wore frameless spectacles and a gold medallion embossed with the Virgin.
Halfway up to the fifth floor of my apartment building, the Edificio La Fayette, a vestige of 1950s highrise architecture better left to the demolition squad, Cronin rested, put his weight on the railing, beads of sweat forming on his face as he placed a hand on his stomach. I thought he was going to puke on the stairs, but he rallied, took a few deep breaths and gestured for me to continue.
Turning the corner I saw Denise hang a grocery bag of leftovers on my doorknob. She looked up, startled, as if caught in the act of something forbidden, then smiled, told me it was beef stirfry, enough for two days, and glanced up at Cronin, who I had told her about but she had not met. Denise invited us for a drink.
“Why not,” I said. Cronin nodded, understanding not a word, and we followed Denise to her unit.
It was dim in there. Silk pastoral tableau diffused the light like the stained glass windows of the Templo. Incense wafted by our faces. She always listened to ambient music, on this occasion, water droplets pitched to a melody that never resolved. Cronin’s eye roamed from the ossified coral, to the huge mandala wall-hanging, to the sitar, to the Pfaff sewing machine and bolts of fabric.
She poured each of us a shot of mezcal. Presented with the offering, I think Cronin turned green. He held it without sipping. I told Denise he wasn’t feeling well, mild food poisoning. Denise put down her shot glass and turned to something draped in muslin I forgot she had, unveiled seven articulating lamps that curved down towards a futon mattress, each tipped with a quartz crystal. It was a chakra light bed. I begged her not to turn it on.
“For Christ’s sake, Denise, make the guy some chamomile tea.”
With motherly scorn she upbraided me: “Diego! You little grump. What’s gotten into you?” Then she switched it on.
The crystals glowed red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Denise patted the mattress and told Cronin to lay down. I translated, said she wanted to give him chakra light therapy. He didn’t need any convincing. I sat in the hammock chair, sipped the mescal and checked my phone. There was a message from one of my muttonheaded clients saying the paywall wasn’t working on his website.
Denise adjusted the light bars to align with Cronin’s chakras and placed a pair of noise cancelling headphones on his head and went into the kitchen. I accessed my client’s website remotely through my android, adjusted the code, looked up at Cronin, who appeared serene, arms relaxed at his sides, legs crossed at the ankles.
After half an hour Denise returned from the kitchen with canapés on a large platter and a pot of green tea. She removed the headphones and turned off the chakra lights, helped Cronin up from the futon and asked him how he felt. I translated.
“I feel fine now,” he said, “kinda hungry.”
I translated for Denise, who was pleased, but not surprised, pointing to the modest repast laid out on the small table next the window.
* * *
We never made it to my place that night but I invited Cronin over for dinner the following evening. It was easy to prepare. All I had to do was warm Denise’s stirfry and boil the rice. It was his first time in my apartment. I had mentioned my collection in passing once or twice. In its presence for the first time, he was clearly impressed, and smiled, exposed his missing tooth. I still don’t know how he lost it.
As I put the rice on to boil he squinted at the detail in a Crucifixion carved from a boar tusk, then a miniature Book of Common Prayer with a silver cover, then a teak statuette of Kali, then a downscaled replica of the famous Aztec puma skull with a ball of jade in its mouth, on display in Mexico City at the Museo Del Templo Mayor. My replica is hewn from a single piece of dark granite, the teeth from pieces of alabaster. The ball of jade is a smaller ball of polished jade.
“How did you get all these? They look priceless.”
“I inherited some money after my mother died.”
“I should call my mom one of these days,” Cronin said, more to himself, then asked me if I was religious.
“Why so many devotional objects?”
I let the stirfry simmer and came into the living room, where Cronin stood looking at one then another piece displayed at eye-level on narrow glass shelves.
“Religious objects have a sacred charge that transcends skepticism or disbelief or any vulgar impulse to collect,” I told him. The explanation came out of left field judging by the mild surprise on his face. Satisfactory or not, it’s always been where I’m coming from. You don’t have to understand to believe, you don’t have to believe to accept.
Cronin looked at me for what seemed a long time, then asked if he could gently flip through the tiny, much-handled Book of Common Prayer. I said it would be okay, as long as he was careful, as the rice boiled over.
DUSTIN COLE is the author of the novel Notice (Nightwood Editions) and the poetry chapbook Dream Peripheries (General Delivery). He has also contributed writing to APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, Maximus Magazine, Safety Propaganda, Misery Tourism, The Crank, Heavy Feather Review and the British Columbia Review.