El Repelente (Or the 2012 Antics of Anabela)
(On Thursday, July 28, at 4:37 p.m., I finally quit my job as a general assignment reporter for the Denver News.)
This is the story of how I, Anabela Quintal, jumped my linear tracks and entered a parenthesis – a Time within a Time – how I found my way into a world of wise digressions, happy asides and slant thinking. How I turned out to be an Agent of Chaos. This is my memoir of becoming and of the beginnings of Motherfather 10Snake in the First Year of the Sun of Lepidoptera Jagua, PMD, or Post-Magenta Diamond, 2012.
Newspapers hate grammatical playfulness. It’s Associated Press-style this, New York Times-style that, day in, day out. Newspaper editors are linguistic liturgists, casting the sin out of your syntax, the hype out of your ‘perbole. I was never attached to details. But I have learned that it is in details that we glimpse truth. The sky is a detail; “the ground” is an indefinite. Truth? Your truth or mine?
All this happened before the awful advent of powerful television news channels like CNN and Fox, before a vice president invented the Internet. Yet newspapers were the seedbeds for what was to come–the rolling-mouth Rushes and O’Reillys, the Bland Blitzers. I was in on the beginning of infotainment, and I was just as banal as my employers, just as complacent. I did not fret about the Denver News’ platitudinous prose, sensationalist headlines, stultifying miscellany and biases, as long as the place provided me with a paycheck and dental insurance. I believed I needed security. I believed in the Future. After all, I was an immigrant. If there is anyone who believes in the Future, who has no choice but to have faith in the Future, it is an immigrant.
I have three peculiar characteristics. Two are my feet. There is no retail size to describe them.
I’m a tiny woman, with olive skin and fragile bones like my Mamá and Tía Angela. These Cadillac paws must have dogpaddled in from a distant lagoon in the Quintal gene pool, or maybe they came from my father’s side of the family. I had no way of knowing. Mamá never mentioned Papá.
My toes are tapered like boa constrictors’ heads. When I was a kid, I painted snake faces on my toenails and held meaningful conversations with them. Later, although I was still tempted, I realized it was childish, even anti-American, to commune with my lower extremities, but there was a period when it seemed like my toes were my only friends. And so it was until I went to college and joined a consciousness-raising group, the Wednesday Weekly Weepers.
In college and until recently, I had a boyfriend named LaVon. Even LaVon, an all-star basketball player, whose high-tops were like canvas yachts, could not cork my calfskins. O LaVon! His big tongue sprinted down my little body, wriggled around my instep, squeezed my metatarsus, tickled my heels, squirmed under my golden arches and dribbled until I gurgled with agonized delight.
A woman can treasure her memories, can’t she? I adored LaVon. Nevermind that he dumped me for a National Football League quarterback. Deep down, I understood they made a much better match. But I missed him for a long time. He was blissful, thoughtful and wise. He reminded me of my Tío Ramón. When LaVon dumped me, I grieved and sulked for weeks, just as I had when my uncle disappeared.
It was my best friend, Euphrosne Flambé, who decided that I’d had a suitable mourning period. Euphrosne liked to make decisions for me and being a rosy, indecisive, complacent soul, I usually went along. She reminded me that the quarterback was prettier, more ambitious, a better conversationalist, more varied dresser and certainly more nimble and imaginative than I could ever hope to be, especially if I insisted on continuing along the bourgeois path I was on. At that, I burst into tears. What was LaVon’s lover’s name? I can’t remember now, but you’d recognize it if you keep up with the sports pages.
Euphrosne and I have known each other since college. She was my first real friend and a former Weekly Weeper. Correction: she was an excommunicated Weekly Weeper. Mind you, she never intended to be rude or mean. She was, in her way, a realist. Unlike me, she was intensely interested in Truth. She was a Truth vigilante, ruthlessly rooting Truth from whatever corner or closet she suspected it was cowering. So it was not only my feet or the boredom of being a general assignment reporter for a mediocre newspaper that propelled me into parenthetical mañana. Euphrosne had a lot to do with it. So did my sensational sense of smell:
Peculiar characteristic #3.
When I was a baby, otorhinolaryngologists concluded that I was sensorially overloaded. They suspected it might have happened on the trip from Quichemala to Ohio, but a second opinion determined that it might have been some scum floating in my DNA, a legacy from the aforementioned unmentionable paternity about which Mamá was mum. Regardless, the docs all expected me to grow out of the problem. I didn’t. I was the pickiest eater in the Americas. I can smell almost anything almost anywhere. I am a walking Ecological Malodor Detector.
I can sniff, albeit faintly, the fragrance leaking through the hole in the ozone layer. Not at all unpleasant. Quite the contrary. In space, most odors are crisp as Autumn Breezes with just the slightest hint of silver X-mas tinsel. Christmas is not, as you might think, the heaviest burden for an Ecological Malodor Detector, what with all the fruit cakes, pumpkin pie, mistletoe and frantic consumerism – which, incidentally, has an odor, though not a good one.
No, the heaviest burden for an Ecological Malodor Detector is a chronically aching conscience. I felt constantly, unidentifiably guilty. This, I told Euphrosne Flambé, explained my bogged-down career and creative paralysis.
There was no way I could stomach kale or tuna or frijoles. But those were the least of it. Oil spills anywhere in the Western Hemisphere could send me to bed for a week. Imagine how I wore out my annual sick leave. The scent of roasting rubber and tree bark in the rainforest chinooked into my sinuses whenever trade winds flashed across the Gulf of Mexico. The stench of orange Styrofoam beer-can coolers rapidly replacing Queen Conch on tropical beaches made me queasy. And ashamed.
“Tsk, tsk,” Euphrosne scolded.
“Aw come on, Eu. If your nose could ferret the inevitable choking of the Earth, you’d be embarrassed, too,” I said.
“Well, do something about it!” she replied. “Let guilt be your guide. Let your nose be the instrument that rakes the muck.”
But I was too pink to explore the stink.
Despite its ample alertness, my nose is precisely the right shape for my face. Like my Quichemalan ancestors’ noses, mine shoots bridgeless, imperial and elegant directly from my forehead under a gorgeous shiny mop of stock-straight, jet-black hair. It flares slightly at the nostrils. The flare became intense whenever I neglected to stuff them with lightly perfumed cotton balls to filter the Earth’s alien aromas. Only Johnson & Johnson Super Soft Puffs – discretely placed into each nostril so no one could see them – came between an olfactory coma and me. To say nothing of terminal despair.
Naturally, I had to breathe. With my nose fortified, my lips were always parted in a kiss-me-right-now! Valentine. It was chromosomal kismet: my parted lips were a magnet for men, and that was certainly a stroke of luck for a small, dark Indian with huge feet inevitably ignored in crowds of gargantuan gringas.
At the Denver News, my job was to rewrite police reports. The police beat is not a task reporters normally perform for ten years, but I was more or less content. Like other USean papers, the Denver News discouraged intricate thinking or analysis. For an entire decade, each of my mornings began with words to the effect of: “At fill-in-time yesterday, a fill-in-place-of-origin man/woman/child was stabbed/shot/beaten to death…”
“Somebody has to do it,” I told Euphrosne. “Routine and regurgitation don’t bother me,” I said. “I’m not really complacent. I’ve achieved serenity.” Euphrosne rolled her eyes.
Fact is, I had once offered my investigative antila in service to environmental muckraking, but the News editors considered it unnecessary to send me on expensive assignments where I could use my nose to track toxic-waste and global-warming culprits. Too much sniffing might reveal facts that would offend stockholders and advertisers.
(At 4:43 p.m., Thursday, July 28, I logged my last story. The last news brief I would ever write.)
I stood on the balcony of the Denver News building and inhaled automobile exhaust. My nose cotton was dry and itchy, caked as snot in the desert’s sinuses. Not one whiff of life clung to the hot summer breeze. No cheese, no flowers, no farts, no vegetables, no fruit, no sausage, no sewage, no dog or pigeon poop, no cigarette smoke, no sweat.
With the carefully cultivated nail on my pink-varnished pinkie, I reached into my nostrils and picked out each Super Soft Puff. My first post-Puff snort was a remote hit of the Ipswich garbage barge, still wandering homeless off the Atlantic Seaboard. There was a more distinctive drift from the local Wonder Bread factory, but that was upwind and not so bad if you’ve grown up on lardy tortillas.
Car exhaust was prevalent, of course, but the clincher was the chronic death-fetor at the nuclear weapons plant down the road. That covert smell – which no one else seemed to perceive – pretty much dominated the city’s odorscape. Today, it was worse than ever, as if someone had left the lid off Pandora’s Plutonium Pyxis.
I took a deep breath, coughed, choked, coughed, cleared my throat and quickly dropped my cotton balls into a trashcan. They looked like little brown clouds. I stuffed a clean pair into my nostrils, glanced at my Rolex and walked back into the building. My prize-trout feet flapped quietly across the newsroom carpet. I bent over my keyboard, called up my final police report of the day and for reasons I could not imagine, added parentheses to every paragraph. Except the last, which I deleted and replaced with the following unequivocal statement:
“I quit. I’m going where I won’t feel like a Q-tip dipped in turpentine. Hasta luego.”
What I did not see – though I may have smelled the energy and enthusiasm, the dedication and earnestness, but simply not recognized it – was a public protest taking place in front of the capital building, not far from the Denver News. The Nukes ‘Rn’t Us! Coalition, Gays For Gaia and of course the Wednesday Weekly Weepers were leading growing crowds, chanting and marching to demand that the nuclear weapons plant be shut down and the waste be disposed of safely. Safely? Talk about the triumph of hope over experience!
Oh well, good on them for trying. It was more than I would ever do.
(This is also the story of how I found my Right Work, my True Face, and my Second Heart.)