It was only logical that he’d find his friend in that room, with the sheets of rain falling on the street, a room in a building on the corner of the plaza. In a way, he’s wanted him there sitting in the other armchair, between them a small coffee table, both looking out at the rain. His friend had been dead for few years now and he missed their conversations, which they had all over the old city before he died. The old city would never be the same without his friend.
His friend, Raúl Estes, had died a horrible, slow death and he had visited and stayed in the hospital with him the last few months and before that in his apartment while his wife made errands. Raúl had many friends but his wife always called Joe for the long stints, the three or four hour ones, because with Joe he didn’t have to talk. Joe would come and talk for a while and when Raúl would doze off would just as contentedly gaze at the walls, answer the phone, or open the door when other friends would come visit. When Raúl died, Joe could hardly stand to walk the streets of the old city, would have to stop himself in mid stride, remembering that Raúl was dead and would not be in any of the places that he would normally find him drinking coffee.
They met when very young in the University when both were aspiring poets. It was an unlikely friendship since they hardly had anything in common. Yet their friendship persevered through the years despite their differences. They were poets in a little island in the Caribbean which meant that they were not well known in the wider world beyond the seas, except that Raúl was able to travel to one or another literary festival and had in time carved some sort of celebrity within the miniscule literary scene in the capital. That was not the case with Joe. The only one that introduced him as a poet was Raúl regardless of the embarrassment that it sometimes caused Joe. Raúl did not particularly like Joe’s poetry and had said as much, but when that was settled it was never mentioned again.
The few books that Joe was able to publish went basically unnoticed on the island and the unsold copies remained in their original boxes and stored in a closet of his parents’ home. In time Joe stopped publishing all together and in the literary scene it was thought that he had either stopped writing all together or had died or went in exile, depending on whom you asked. Raúl would sometimes get him included in group recitals but even that had tapered off in the last years since both Raúl and Joe fell victim to the inexorable transition from promising to forgotten in their fifties, although Raúl to a lesser degree than Joe who had effectively disappeared a decade earlier.
They both had survived a host of former wives and lovers and made their share of enemies along the way. Although Raúl still held out for some last minute recognition and fame, to Joe he confessed that life, as he had feared in his youth, was in fact a piece of shit and then you die. An island makes the bitterest of enemies or the most endearing of friends from the same set of facts. It is a matter of fate and the cards you are dealt, and Raúl and Joe were basically dealt the same and more times than not had been forced to fold them and leave the table in shame. That was their bond, which drove them together to sit in silence in many a corner bar in the old city, listening to cut your wrist boleros on the jukebox.
And now Raúl was gone and Joe had lost the only friend he ever had.
So, it was not strange for Joe to find Raúl in his astral dreams, the ones he had before he dozed off, soothingly ensconced in their calming ambience. Joe had suffered all his life from brain-chilling panic attacks, non-stop depressions and anxieties that had wreaked havoc with his dreams of personal achievement and all his personal relationships. Raúl also claimed to be as suicidal and hopeless as the best or worst of them but yet seemed to thrive off it. Joe did not, complicated by the fact that, contrary to Raúl who was always able to wrangle a contract, grant, or money to live on, he had to work to make ends meet and most of what he got as jobs involved mind-numbing clerical tasks that after the mandatory eight hours rendered him unfit for any social interaction beyond a bottle in a corner bar.
They grew old together and gravitated toward each other as if from storms and fires to contemplate their lives in silence. They knew each other too well to lie, held together much in the way of super powers by the threat of mutual destruction. But they weren’t always together. They had wives and lovers and new acquaintances they could lie to and hold themselves in a more favorable light, as the thwarted promises that they could be if only life were fair.
Raúl had always had an endless pool of lovers to his dying days as is only fitting for a hoary poet in his waning years when life became too unbearable at night to bear alone. Joe in his last years had only the bodily ills resulting from a lifetime of drinking and chain-smoking. He only had the advice of a yoga teacher he once dated about creating a mind picture, an astral plane, that he could project himself to in times of pain. One night in a moment of excruciating liver pain he remembered her words and even the mind picture she had created for him then. Desperate, he tried picturing the small waterfall, the pond with wide lotus leaves, and the inviting mossy ground where he would lie. It took some doing, but at last he was able to take himself to the astral plane and lie by the pool and listen to the waterfall. It was magical. He did it every night when the pain, whatever it source, would creep into his mind.
When young, Joe would grin and bear it when suffering a bout on anxiety or depression, but these pains in time gave way to real physical pains that doctors of varying specialties warned that if left untreated would put him in an early grave. In the beginning, he heeded their advice, tried to be a better man, a more healthy and positive person. But then, when Joe saw that his existence, albeit a healthy one, was as wretched as before, that he lost wives and lovers in the same equal measure, and could not then even write a healthy poem, an epic to wholesome thoughts, a paean to a positive view of life, he ran to the closest bar to drown his sorrow in the only way he knew how. He often joked about it to Raúl and often they would fall off their barstools in laughter. They knew they were doomed. That was the whole point.
But now at night, without even Raúl to sit in silence with, and the pains so real that he could not think of anything else but their throbbing presence, he tried the astral projections because talking about it to whoever was sleeping next to him was like jumping off a bridge. There was just no point. But the problem was that the mind pictures waned, lost their colors and sounds, as if they yellowed in the suns of too many astral flights. He could not reach that plane. He realized that he had to imagine another mind picture. A fresh one, newly minted in his mind.
About that time, an acquaintance had invited him to his apartment with the excuse of picking up something he had left behind for a favor he had asked Joe to do. Joe had taken up Tai Chi at the insistence of Barry who owned the apartment and whom he knew through Raúl. He was about to quit because the Tai Chi was difficult to learn and easy to forget and had become just one more horrible thing he had to get through. He had thought it was like buying a six-pack and sitting on the beach and watching the sun sink into the ocean. But it was an undecipherable sequence of moves that kept him up at night like a heart attack. Barry’s apartment was in a condo in that part of town considered up-scale by the locals. It was just a few traffic lights from where Joe lived in a squalid tract house where his parents once lived in a neighborhood just one step from becoming a slum, populated by immigrants whose past poverty made their new homes seem a tropical paradise. But Joe’s middle-class upbringing denied him the comfort of seeing it through their eyes. For Joe, he lived in a dump next to crazed Dominicans who kept goats in the backyard and had their merengue spewing radios on the highest notch on the dial. But the rent was a nice even zero and he could not argue with that. Barry’s apartment was tiny, a corner studio in a solid upper-middle class condo. Barry had cajoled him into taking the elevator because he had a pleasant surprise and what would that be wondered Joe.
As he entered he was instantly mesmerized by the view through a plate glass window, which covered the width of the apartment, of an enormous tree, its branches and leaves dancing in the wind. It had the visual effect of engulfing the entire apartment, creating the dizzying sensation of pulling you into the tree itself. The apartment seemed to be in the tree, a part of it. Barry told him that the tree was the reason he bought the apartment even though he and his second wife could barely fit all their stuff, and that when his kids from the first marriage stayed over it was total chaos. Joe sat down in the small dining table, across from the second wife whom he forgot to greet and just sat there looking out, immersed in a peace he had never really known except for the first few fucks back in the day or maybe while writing a poem in his teens. I knew you’d like it, Barry said. He truly did and soon after it became his second mind picture, his ticket to the astral plane.
Shortly after that, he quit Tai Chi since Barry’s apartment was just as good if not better. In those last years Joe lived alone because he was too fat and old and could only seem attractive to some Dominican woman looking to get citizenship through marriage. It was one of the few things the island had to offer by that time. All else was falling part. The Puerto Rican dream became the Dominican dream. It was tempting for Barry and he often dreamed of his pecker on fire in the body of a voluptuous island woman, but he feared they would eventually machete him to pieces and bury him in someone’s backyard. But at those times he recurred to what on the island they called Manuela, a dry hand job in the dark. That is, if one of his many aches would not drive him to desperate distraction and he’d scurry to Barry’s apartment in his mind and sleep to the swaying of its branches like in the arms of a lover.
It wasn’t always easy for Joe in Barry’s apartment because all sorts of people would drop by and upset the interior decoration that he worked so hard to create. The cool blue or green light throughout, the modern furniture almost hugging the floor, the gray pastel walls. It was nice when an old lover passed by but often it was a crowd and after a time Barry’s apartment faded away in neglect as Joe would stay away too long, aside from the fact that Joe felt guilty in taking the apartment away from Barry, of practically taking over and throwing Barry and his second wife out on the street so to speak. In fact, he avoided Barry as much as he could, fearing that Barry would know that it was him, Joe Vázquez who did it, got him thrown out of his own apartment. It was years later that Joe found out that Barry eventually lost the apartment when his business went on the skids and that his second wife, as the island saying goes, took to the hills.
Joe was sorry about Barry’s apartment but after a while it wasn’t doing the job, it wasn’t taking him to that astral plane where pains cease. But Barry looked fine. Got a new apartment in the old city itself that was big enough for his two kids and close to everything. He was now Sifu Barry, a master and teacher of the internal arts of China. Joe thought all’s well that ends well. But he didn’t know if it would apply to him. Joe found out that creating mind pictures was not an easy thing. He even tried to go back to Barry’s apartment but found that others were vying for it also. It seemed that astral planes were like real estate and places went to the highest bidder. It was not his any longer. It seemed to Joe that astral places could well be by invitation only, much like the literary scenes that in the past had closed him out. Although with the advent of the Internet Joe found that publication was only as far as a button and so he dragged out all he had written from the musky drawers and set out to type it all anew into the site he set up after much trial and error. This task relighted old embers he thought buried in the sand and for a few months he went about like a mad poet laughing to himself in the street. But the pains returned after a few erred lapses of judgment at the local bar and when he thought all was lost and that all he needed was the courage to pull the plug on his own life, just like that, as he lay trying to breathe himself out of a pain that shot through his lower intestines, he found himself transported to what seemed like a dim cellar with only a window at street level. It was raining.
He was in an astral plane. A cellar of a building in the old city that looked out on the Plaza de Armas. There were others there, all involved in a plot to overthrow the government. It appears that Joe is also involved although he does not know any of the other persons there. Joe found that his part in the conspiracy consisted in looking out that window onto a rain-swept plaza. A second ascension transpired the same, with Joe looking out the window at the rain falling copiously on an empty plaza at night. It was one of the most stable of his mind pictures out of which many versions arose with Joe always peering out into the rain as it fell on a dark and empty plaza. His fellow conspirators never asked Joe to join in the planning. They remained lurking shadows aware of his presence, tolerating his presence. In an offshoot from the cellar, but with the same rain at night in a plaza, Joe sat opposite an old university professor that was his mentor of sorts. It was a drier place, because the cellar did leak, how, nobody knew, and had more of those creature comforts that the old prof lectured him about. Also a failed poet, the old professor warned him of the folly of not preparing for the time when youth failed us and park benches were no substitute for a warm bed, a full pantry, and slippers to protect aging poets from the cold and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He, like Raúl and Joe, had many wives and lovers, and one who died in her sleep next to him, and was also an obscure poet. But contrary to them, he had tenure and was able to retire and comfortably drink himself to death. This new version of the mind picture Joe knew was modeled after a space the old professor had in an apartment he shared with his deceased lover close to the beach in the tourist sector of the Condado. There and before the professor had railed against Joe´s lack of ambition and in time Joe accomplished the professor´s fear that he would end up a poor bum in a bar. When he heard about the old professor´s death from a university colleague while waiting in line in a supermarket, Joe was chastened enough to try again to be the poet he promised to be. But it was too late and no one cared.
Now that he was dead and sitting before him in that empty space overlooking the plaza, they shared the silence of the dead and the defeated, just conversed about the more cheery parts of their mutual past and sipped their cognac in peace.
Just when the old professor was replaced by Raúl Joe was at a loss to say. But there he was, old Raúl, just as he looked in his heyday and inviting him to sit. For the first time Raúl asked that Joe read his poems and listened attentively, then fell silent. They then decided that it was better not to read poetry, not to talk about the failures and losses of the past and just sit in silence looking out at the rain as it fell relentless on the plaza. They were dry, warm, and together. That was the point. Some things never change. Some things just go on forever.
© 2015 j.a.morales-santo domingo