Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Life and Times of Jesse Pinkman: El Camino

El Camino, 2019.
directed and written by Vince Gilligan 

The best thing about Netflix release films, for reviewers, is having it right there, whenever you want it. For instance, should you watch El Camino, love El Camino, and then feel the need to rewatch it the very next day in order to better itemize the reasons why you loved it, it's right there in your house! Fans of the Breaking Bad series are well accustomed to the cinematic qualities director Vince Gilligan uses in his small-screen storytelling, and they're all present in El Camino, but one does get the feeling that such elements--shadowy shots at unconventional angles, time lapses of the New Mexican landscape, and even the opening credits--would be all the more impactful when viewed on the big screen of an actual theater. Either way, the El Camino experience is a fulfilling supplement to the original series which focuses on the story of chemist-turned methamphetamine empire boss Walter White's second-in-command, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).

As we witness the aftermath of the series' resolution and the events leading up to it, it's easy to start feeling a little guilty--Jesse's story is sad and terrible and quite honestly, I had forgotten most of it in favor of the conclusion of Walter White. In the race (via train heist, via great escape northward, via oscillating machine gun antics) to the end of the show, Jesse's experiences got a little lost in all the big plot moments and took a backseat to the bigger picture but the beauty of El Camino is that it doesn't need to hurry. The film doesn't only make us remember Jesse's experiences, it walks us through Jesse's emotion, pain, and humanity in every scene. Multiple traumas and humiliations have rightly made Jesse desperate: his face is scarred, his voice is low and strained when he speaks, and his main goal is survival. We mourn for the old Jesse when we revisit his friends Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), whose experiences with drugs and White have been significant, but no where near as damaging as Jesse's. Despite everything, their loyalty to their friend is touching, reiterating to us that in this unpleasant story, there are still people within drug culture still very much in touch with empathy and humanity.

The chronology rotates between flashbacks and the here-and-now in a lot of clever ways to expose little puzzles as the show once did--a phone book page, a hidden bundle of cash, a letter in an envelope-- specific objects refer to past events or are slyly referenced only to come back into the picture in very important ways. Pay attention or take notes if you feel like it might be helpful, just know that everything matters.

Do you need to do a complete re-watch of the series for El Camino? No, but you'll probably want to afterward. Definitely catch the recap Netflix provides and if you're really at a loss for the events, maybe rewatch the finale, which is also currently available on Netflix. Todd (Jesse Plemons), Mike (Jonathan Banks), Walter, (Bryan Cranston) and Pinkman's aforementioned buddies all factor into the story significantly but even if your memories of specific interactions between these characters isn't the greatest, the film is strong enough as a stand-alone to be an intensely compelling story. The late Robert Forester reprised his role as Ed, the escape-aiding vacuum salesman, and as with many of his other roles, plays his part straight-up, subtle, and with that deep genuineness that he was so adept at doing.

We'll miss you, Robert.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Sorry the formatting is all over the place on this one. I've tried a million times to put the text right and it's just not possible. Pro tip: a google document does not copy paste to blogger, like at all.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, 2019.
Didn't you traumatize me in fifth grade?
d. Andre Ovredal
written by: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman
starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Dean Norris 

“You like that scary stuff?” 
This is what the school librarian asked me the first time I brought one of Alvin Schwartz’s
short story collections to the checkout counter. It was the now-famous triology’s second
volume, More Scary Stories; the first had been lost or stolen and the third not yet released,
but I was still excited that my name had come up on the waitlist and I could finally get my
hands on it. I not only liked the scary stuff but thrived on it, and together with my younger
brother, sought it out regularly, anywhere I could. We eventually read all three of Schwartz’s
novels, and together with favorites such as Mother Bates, the beguiling Grady sisters of the
Overlook, and Pet Semetary’s Zelda, committed the stories and their creepy images (courtesy
of illustrator Stephen Gammel) to the depths of our horror-crazed memories. 

It was easy to get hyped for film adaptation--André Ǿvredal (Trollhunter) and producer
Guillermo del Toro are two brilliant, talented artists who have a solid grasp on the narratives,
techniques and themes of effective horror. Overall, the film delivered with a skillful mix of new
fear and old school ghost/monster horror (think Stranger Things or the recent It adaptations with
the music of Lana del Rey mixed in for fun), but I suspect true fans of the books, like me, would
happily trade a half hour off the film’s beginning or end for just one more of Schwartz’s stories. 

You don't read the book, the book reads YOU!

The vehicle of the stories--a group of awkward teenagers who steal a magical book out of a
haunted house--is intriguing, but it eats up a lot of time in setting up how and why everything
is going to go down. As it’s no longer unheard of to experience character development in horror
films, we get some, and it’s sort of nice, but not all that necessary; we came to the theater for
“The Toe” and “Me Tie Doughty Walker,” (not backstory) and we could forgive a few less
personal details in favor of a few more scary things from the books. 

Aesthetic detail, large and small, was what this film succeeded at best--the places and all the little pieces
within them gave a classic, almost John Carpenter feel to the story (rather fitting
considering all the hurting, maiming, and killing that begins on Halloween here). Dark and
shadowy nights alternate with gold, rusty days. It’s 1968, so the cars are huge, as are the
eyeglasses. Drive-ins are still a thing. Corn fields, haunted houses, and psychiatric hospitals
are pretty standard horror staples, and we see a lot of those, but we also get innocent little
objects like a music box, a wax cylinder recording, and a self-writing book that assume very
sinister properties in the context of the lighting, sound, and creature design of the film.

Without spoiling any of the story-within-a-story choices or accompanying villains,
I will tell fellow fans of the book to rest assured: you will recognize each “enemy” and
often cringe or shield your eyes because you know what’s coming next once it has been
introduced. I brought my kids to this film and afterward, each of us walked out having
been wickedly disturbed by a different character, so in addition to being well-designed
and true to the source, they’re a pretty broad reaching crew, as well.

Dust off the old books, grab a friend, and see this one for the nostalgia. If you, too, like
the scary stuff, let’s talk again next month after the second part of It, shall we?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Twilight Zone: The Comedian

I started watching The Twilight Zone in the early 80s with my parents and brother when the old black-and-white reruns aired on channel 9 at 10 o'clock at night. The first time I really remember being scared as a child was during the episode, "The After Hours," when Marsha White realizes (with the help of a blaring tuba blast) that the saleslady who helped her in a department store was actually a mannequin. Later, after our family moved to town and my dad signed up for the Columbia House Video club that sent out a beta tape of four Twilight Zone episodes each month, my brother, best friend, and I would watch the entire tape in one sitting, freaking out over how cool it was that something so old could still be so scary. Most of our favorites focused on those chilling horror elements so well-done in episodes like "The Living Doll," "The Dummy," or "The Grave." Who could forget that shit? I hear the creepy laughs of ALL THREE OF THOSE VILLAINS in my worst nightmares, even now!

When Matt and I were first married I subscribed to my own video club (VHS then, thanks) and made it a mission to watch each episode and review it, from start to finish. It was a wondrous project that I loved dearly--it reminded me of my dad and some of the greatest experiences of my youth. Watching as an adult led me to the conclusion that in a lot of these episodes, people aren't very nice, or in a somewhat gentler way, people really seem to have trouble with bad decisions, and now, some sixty years later, it's both reassuring and troubling that not much has changed. I think creator Jordan Peele understands this concept only too well. My overall assessment: This series is going to be amazing.

The Comedian (2019) 
written by: Alex Rubens
directed by: Owen Harris 
starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Amara Karan, Diarra Kilpatrick, Tracy Morgan, Jordan Peele

Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani) is a comedian who wants his standup routine to matter. He wants to entertain his audience yet he wants to inspire deep thought about important issues such as the second amendment or the shortcomings of the president. He also wants respect, followers, and money for his efforts. After a flat performance Samir meets comedy legend JC Wheeler (Tracy Morgan) at the bar where Wheeler shares what he's learned in the business. "The audience don't care about what you think, they care about you." Sharing deeply personal details, Wheeler implies, is necessary to win people over and gain followers, although he also warns (with a billow of vape-smoke) that this kind of sharing isn't without consequences. Samir continues to open each of his sets with the same oppositional rants but he eventually takes the advice and begins using material from his own life to win approval from the crowd. Wheeler was right---it works for Samir, instantly. The question is, just how long will Samir be able to continue feeding his audience, and at what cost?

"Once it's theirs, that shit
is gone, forever."
The technique used in telling this story pays great artistic homage to Rod Serling's original opening monolog (which creator Jordan Peele kept* and announced himself), namely the elements of light and shadow. As the majority of the scenes take place at night inside the comedy club or in the city streets surrounding it, shadows, lighting, and depth of field showcase beautiful darknesses that accompany these settings. Blues, blacks, golds, neons, and smoke look amazing throughout each scene.

The camera both takes its time revealing walls, ceilings, and corners (watch for HUGE Easter eggs from the original series on the opening mural and in fellow comedian Didi Scott's dressing room) and also overwhelms us with a series of rapid, manic shots when Samir, in the height of his success, goes on what can only be coined as a sharing-spree, firing off names and details with power and vengeance. Little musical effects punctuate shocking scene endings. At least three classic Twilight Zone episodes** are alluded to (via the comedy scene, the changing and vanishing of objects from the world, and the willful elimination of displeasing items), and The Shining is referenced through Samir's apartment corridors, the mural at the comedy club, and the mention of the family name, "Torrance," in a story that is told in passing. All of these technical elements show us that in addition to being an amazing writer and creator, Jordan Peele knows and loves his film and television ancestors; he's a smart guy who has a lot of interesting things to show us.

The theme present in this episode is very nostalgic for fans of the series--the issues being explored here are of the same vein as many of Serling's original episodes, but with modern updates and allowances for items such as social media, the commonness of curse words, and insight into the lives of people who aren't exclusively white and European. The theme overall that emerges is a common one, suggesting that age-old idea that things seem to go well for a while when an average citizen is granted a special type of power or control, but in the end, humankind never really can master that moderate middle ground between being satisfied with what is given and the constant need for wanting more. Samir could have stopped himself halfway through this episode, realizing he's good with the initial bounty of popularity, riches, and respect he finds, but he doesn't do this. The message that Peele is exploring here is that like Samir, humans rarely ever quit while they're ahead. Stephen King talks a lot in interviews about how he enjoys the idea in many of his stories of a "Pandora's Box," that once opened, facilitates the decline of lives due to the usually-fated tendency toward poor decisions that humans seem destined.

Also worth mentioning is the ethnic background and composition of the key characters in this story. Samir is an Indian-American comedian who competes with a white (presumably hetero) male, Joe Donner, and an African-American homosexual female, Didi Scott, onstage at the comedy club. Donner is identified early on as someone whose livelihood and future is effortlessly secured by his whiteness. He is overweight, vulgar, sexist, and guilty of a hit-and-run accident that resulted in the deaths of a woman and her infant, yet he is not only found innocent and allowed to continue performing comedy, he's a celebrated icon! Joe Donner is indicative of the larger (fat, criminal, white) system that calls the shots, controls the money, and largely influences the audience, who resemble his demographic more than any other. Joe Donner's character represents those who RUN THE SYSTEM.

Didi is an interesting character because she manages to remain true to herself and her values while at the same time functioning within a system that is stacked against her, knowing full well the rules and sacrifices that go along with what she's doing. She doesn't kiss anyone's ass, but she knows that she's subject to the obligations that go along with success and income, which largely involve playing to the white people with money. Didi's character represents someone who KNOWS THE SYSTEM and does what she can to FUNCTION SUCCESSFULLY WITHIN IT.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have been
Samir Wassan!"
Samir is the wild card, the character who has two conflicting desires: he wants to make people think with his comedy but he also wants fame and riches. Peele's point via JC Wheeler's character is that Samir cannot have both of these elements at once, especially as an Indian-American (although this concept could have worked with a character of any ethnic background, really). A performer will eventually have to choose between keeping true to himself or making a living. Samir chose to make a living, and in the end, it ruins him. Samir was at first a FLUKE WITHIN THE SYSTEM, but then became just another cog in the machinery of entertainment, ultimately losing everything that made him an exceptional human being in the first place. And what of JC Wheeler? Is he Jesus (JC)? Is he the devil (vape smoke seems too aesthetic at the right moments to ignore)? It's open for debate, although Wheeler is definitely a knower, an influencer of the game, and someone who sets acts in motion. Samir mentions in their early discussion that Wheeler was everywhere, then just disappeared. What happened to him? Having found out the secret of successful stand-up, did Wheeler decide to just hang around and serve as a sentinel, a guide, to others that were following in his footsteps? Or is he more than that, someone always waiting, always watching, meant to escort young performers to their respective demises? Is the episodes's message that a skilled insider is controlling the system or is it rather that humans will screw themselves and take whatever bait is put before them?

Hard to say where the line is drawn, or if it is, at all.

* Peele's updated introductory monologue substitutes the words, "one," and "one's" for "man," and "man's."

** "The Dummy," focused around a comic and ventriloquist, "Shadow Play," involved a death row inmate who could change the elements of his surroundings at will (because the entire story was being dreamt, by him), and "It's a Good Life," brought us Anthony Freemont, who disposed of anything he didn't like into his family's cornfield.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Fire and Blood part 1, Bird Box, and other conspiracy theories

Fire and Blood by George R. R. Martin

This is a book for fans of A Song of Ice and Fire and/or Game of Thrones who are looking for a slightly more long-winded historical account of the Targaryen family. Basically, me. So far this has felt like a very thorough, very "grievance-list" set of well-written family dramas. I've only completed about half of the 706 pages plus appendices, I had to rest it a while once I started getting confused about who was who and why they were pissed at each other--I mean the family tree appendix helps but damn, there are so many Targaryens! I fully believe Martin wanted this released before The Winds of Winter simply because there are several little tricky situations that explain many of the issues that affect the narratives of the proper book series down the line such as the initial doom of Valyria, greyscale disease, general madness within the Targaryen family, stolen dragon eggs, and even a bit about the future of dragons versus White Walkers (in regard to the protective enchantments surrounding the wall). Like a couple other short stories about the Targaryen dynasty, there are several little Easter (dragon) eggs that true fans will no doubt appreciate---in other words, PAY ATTENTION and TRY TO KEEP UP.

Tell me this isn't a role for Charlie Hunnam?
Composed of the collections of the official "writings" of various maesters and septons, the book begins with the history of Aegon the Conqueror, sister-wives Visenya and Rhaenys, and how the family's dragons and descendants shaped the seven kingdoms of Westeros. What makes this an interesting experience, more interesting than the same basic narrative explored in A World of Ice and Fire, is the 2018-weary, self-aware format of the way the facts are presented. The old, fat, white men in power are still the ones controlling the information, but every now and then you'll get a little burn on a septon or maester who has written some vital piece of the story or given a summary or opinion on something where he wasn't physically present and someone else (usually the Targaryen's court fool, Mushroom) gives a different account of the events. Kind of a nice dig on how history in general gets presented, if you ask me. Hey! Were you there? Did you see that baby get pushed into the world? Did you hear the king say that to the queen? Were you physically on that battlefield when the drama happened? Actually no, but you have a big book of empty pages and a fancy golden quill, you could write whatever you wanted, absent of any real facts and people would still listen! How relevant!

Alysanne: Shall we see
what lies beyond the wall?
Nah, I'm good.
Also, in the spirit of being woke, King Jahaerys I's sister: Queen Alysanne. I loved this character so much! Challenging the laws that govern the continued caretaking of widows, no more primae noctis, winning over the cold-ass Starks in Winterfell, and PROPER DRINKING WATER FOR KINGS LANDING? Highborn empathy exists! Westeros's first true feminist, mother of thirteen children, dragonrider of Silverwing and all-around badass? YASS, QUEEN! I squeezed the book in happiness multiple times during these chapters.

Hopefully the last half of the book holds as many treasures as the first, although it seems really mafia-esque in its general vibe of decline. Stay tuned.

"If you take off your blindfold,
Bird Box, 2018, d. Susanne Bier, screenplay by Eric Heiserrer, novel by Josh Malerman. Starring Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich

Confession: Outside of So Awkward/Blessed are the Geeks, I never read or watch anyone else's film reviews. I hovered over a few Netflix reviews of Bird Box after I'd watched it already and at first I didn't get why all the venom, but after a few days I have a few statements to make about it.

1. Ease up haters, this is not a typical horror film (and it was probably evil cell phones that brought about the insanity, so that's even more for you to hate)
2. Motherhood has a large effect on how the events of the film unfold
3. The story is smart and emotional but Malorie needed to hold onto those kids better on the boat
4. The ending is perfect, I loved it (no spoilers)
5. I don't know what everyone else is smoking, I don't see gross effects of Botox or cosmetic surgery on Sandy, like AT ALL, I think she looked great

I can't say this film experience is positive, it's anxious and disturbing, but it's a interesting, engaging story. At the core, I feel like the issues are extremely relevant to situations beyond an apocalyptic chaos story and honest to how mothers make decisions. Do I lie to my kids and tell them stories about how things are going to be fine or do I lay out the truth, be a hardass, and prepare them for the reality of life? Are they scared of me? Am I being too hard on them? Do I dare imagine a life where they are safe? Matt drew a ton of fire last month for criticizing the parenting in A Christmas Story when Randy won't eat, and I share his feelings---true, we live in relatively peaceful times now with plenty of food but we've never coddled our kids and never will. This film made me stop and think about what I would do in Malorie's situation. In the end, survival > liking your mom. When times are tough, you harden up, end of story.

Other Conspiracy Theories (Resistance Through Cinema Film List)

Last year around this time I asked everyone for favorite conspiracy or political films to watch for the new year. Funny thing, I still have the list even though I only watched like five or six of them. The remains of the list include Arlington Road, The Fog of War, Fahrenheit 9/11, 12 Angry Men, Wag the Dog, Dr. Strangelove, The Pelican Brief, National Treasure, Enemy of the State, The Crucible, Bob Roberts, The Manchurian Candidate (which I'm reading right now), John Q, The Hunt For Red October, Conspiracy Theory, Zeitgeist, SHOWGIRLS (I mean, why not?), The Contender, Deterrence, Bridge of Spies, 13 Days, The American President, LBJ, Swing Vote, City Hall, and Bullworth. In addition to the Great American Read book list that I'm still working on, I'll give it my best.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Amerikanerin

The Amerikanerin
by Anna Adams

 International School Tour

Thirty kilometers outside München, Germany
Late Winter, 19--

As the bus pulled into the approach at its destination, Tanya was thinking

about Malibu. White bottles, tiny, airline-sized bottles, at least a dozen of them

lined up in a row. When they had first arrived in the city, the instructors had taken

about an hour to get the three different school groups checked into the hotel, a

blessed, American chain. During that time the students were told to drop off their

things, get something for lunch, and meet back at the bus no later than noon.

Overjoyed to see the familiarity, Tanya and her friends, Michelle and Tracy,

had chosen the McDonald’s inside the train station just around the corner from the

hotel, where it was possible to order warm beer with one’s Big Mac. They hadn’t,

of course; Tanya hated beer. On the way back to the bus, however, they had come

across a small newspaper stand with dirty windows and an ice cream Automat.

While Tanya was emptying the remainder of her coin into the Eis machine, she
saw Michelle’s eyes widen. Just on the other side of the counter, where all the
tobacco products were stacked, had been the largest and most complete assortment
of miniature liquor bottles any of them had ever seen.
Baileys. Cointreau. Jack Daniels. Absolut. Malibu. Tanya’s heart had fluttered.
She and her friends had grimaced through countless warm beers, syrupy Campari, and
a sort of home-brewed apricot brandy concoction during the last three days they had
spent high in the mountains. None of it had been pleasant. While the warm, buzzy
feeling that came with each had been new and exciting, they were still taking,
guzzling, only what they could get on the sly, always looking over a shoulder for a
stray instructor.
Tanya wasn’t even sure that she liked drinking all that much yet but
knew it was what everyone else had come here to do. She had to be suspicious of
anything that made her face break out, especially if it tasted disgusting, which most
of it had and had again.
But Malibu? Tanya had smelled a cousin’s cup of it once at a wedding; it had
been heavenly. Now a million plans flashed before her eyes: Orange juice. Pineapple
juice. American Coca-cola. And it would taste good! Tropical and sweet! Maybe she
would run into Danny again, get to him before the Asian girl from the other school
group this time. Maybe coconut rum could be the start of something real between
them, something adventurous. She got giddy just thinking about the possibilities.
They had decided to wait until after the tour to come back and make their purchases
in the city, but for Tanya, the bus ride was one booze-filled fantasy after another and
she didn’t really mind delaying.
At last they arrived. Tanya had drifted off earlier, nodding in and out of daydreams with her forehead against the cool window; it was March and there had been snow off and on for most of the trip. The students began filing off the bus.
“Are you taking your carry-on with?” Tanya asked, grabbing hers.
“No, just leave it on the floor,” Michelle said and pulled her into the aisle; Tanya
accidentally stomped across her bag as she exited. Out the front windshield she saw the
majority of the three class groups assembling around the instructors. Danny was there,
talking to May, the Asian girl, who was beautiful, tall, and as ever without a shred of
makeup. He had even taken his headphones off, which, last time Tanya had hooked up
with him, he hadn’t bothered to do. She looked down at her fingernails, the polish had
chipped in several places the night before which now made her hands look messy and
“I hope this goes fast,” Michelle said as she stepped off the bus.
“Me too,” Tanya said. Tracy heard them and turned around.
“It’s ridiculous that we even have to do this,” she whispered.
“What do you mean?” Michelle asked.
“When my sister came two years ago, one of the mothers complained and
they got to skip it,” Tracy replied.
“Really?” Tanya asked.
“It makes sense. Did you hear Bob talking to that teacher from Colorado?
He said the last time he came with students the bus driver flat-out refused to
drive them.”
“What? Why?” Michelle asked.
“Think about it, “ Tracy said. “Kids come into the country and see this
place and like, leave with that impression of the people, to have built something
like this? I’m sure it’s, you know, still embarrassing.”
“Yeah,” Tanya agreed. She looked over at Danny again. He was digging
in his backpack as May watched.
“They should just bulldoze it,” Michelle said.
“Bulldoze what?” Tanya asked. The wind picked up and flapped her hair
into her face. She reached into her pocket for a rubber band and inhaled the smell of
Benetton perfume on her wrist as she tied her hair back.
“This place! What else?” Tracy said. “Why even keep it around?”
“So people like us can come and see it instead of getting hammered.
Like a distraction or something,” Michelle said.
The cluster of students moved into the entrance, although there wasn’t a gate
or anything in the way of a border. Apparently one was meant to just walk in.
Danny and May were still side-by-side. Tanya craned her neck beyond the bodies
in front of her to discover what he’d retrieved from his backpack and was now
showing May. A silver hood ornament. Tanya’s cheeks were suddenly hot.
“What’s with you?” Tracy asked. Michelle looked over in Danny’s direction.
“Is that the ornament from the Benz?” Michelle asked. Tanya looked away.
“Forget it,” she said as they followed the line onto the grounds.
Tanya did not enjoy the outdoor tour. In addition to the situation with Danny
and a throbbing headache, she felt herself starting to feel anxious about being there.
The trenches, the barbed wire, the brick buildings and the confusing, ominous
structures inside them---everything made her uncomfortable. Many of her classmates
took photographs and willingly absorbed their surroundings, feeling the need to blather
on and on with bits of information about the war, other camps like this one, statistics,
and so on.
The weather was bleak and wet but only slightly cold. Despite this, Tanya had
trouble with a nagging sort of trembling that rose from the pit of her stomach and
caused her to hunch her shoulders as she walked. Thankfully, Tracy and Michelle
didn’t seem to notice; they had caught the attention of an Italian soccer team and
were busy making eyes. Tanya tried to will her attitude to brighten by thinking again
of the Malibu bottles, how they would soon belong to her, how she planned to
arrange them in a perfect row on the night stand in between the two beds in the hotel
But the trembling soon became outward shivers and they began to exhaust her.
She shuffled along with the group, kicking gravel up with her shoes and looking
longingly back at the bus. If she could only lean her head against the smooth,
cold glass again.
“Tanya!” someone hissed; she looked over at her friends. Three Italians stood
with Tracy and Michelle, grinning.
Whatever it was that she was feeling, Tanya realized it was familiar. Though
she had never set foot in a place like this, she suddenly felt alarmed by recognition.
This awkward, slightly panicky feeling had definitely happened to her once before.
Tracy motioned for her to join the group. Tanya took a step toward them and
stopped. It was as if she had just gotten off an elevator, her knees prepared to buckle.
There was a concrete bench just over to her left.
“I have to sit down. I think my iron’s low or something,” she said.
Michelle frowned and started to say something. Tanya staggered over to the
bench and gripped the stone seat underneath her with both hands. She leaned down,
forward, pressing her forehead against her knees. The wind blew and her ponytail
flipped up over her. She turned her cheek into the gust and felt heat from her face
leave on the breeze. Suddenly a hand was upon her shoulder.
“You okay?” It was Bob, the group leader from one of the other schools.
“Yeah,” Tanya replied. “I just have a headache.”
“We’re getting everyone together so we can pop inside the museum building
over there,” he went on.
“Is it okay if I just wait here?” she asked.
Bob leaned over. He was an attractive, bearded man; he wore jeans and
occasionally cursed.
“You sure it’s just a headache?” he asked.
Tanya nodded. The shivers started again.
“You hung over from last night?”
“No,” she said immediately.
He walked over, around the edge of the bench and took a seat next to her.
“Listen, I’m not trying to butt in where I don’t belong, but I saw your two friends
over there cozying up to the Italianos from the soccer bus. I don’t want to see any
of you kids getting mixed up in anything dangerous, do you know what I mean?”
Tanya looked down. She twitched suddenly hard enough to lurch forward
but disguised it by coughing.
“Do you know what I mean?” he repeated.
“Not really,” she said, keeping her eyes on the ground.
“What is your name? Toni?” he asked.
“Tanya,” she said.
“And how old are you, Tanya?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes.
“Okay, Tanya. Every one of those soccer players is at least twenty,
probably older. If you and your friends make plans to go and party with those
guys, they’re not going to be expecting hickeys and dry-humping, you get me?”
Tanya inhaled and looked around, hoping no one had been close enough
to overhear.
“Okay?” he asked. Tanya’s cheeks kindled again with an almost painful
rush. Bob got up, patted her on the back three short times and made his way over
to the museum. She leaned forward again, still with the shakes. She wondered
why no one else was bothered by being here, why it was messing only with her.
She covered her eyes with her hands, wishing that the pain in her head would stop.
There’d be no drinking tonight in this condition, that much was clear.
After a few minutes, something inside her blissfully began to stabilize; she
was able to stop shaking and her head felt normal again. She took in a deep breath
through her nose. As she slowly rose from her bent-over position she became aware
of another presence on the opposite edge of the bench a few feet down. Determined
not to tense even the slightest lest the trembling should start again, she took another
breath, slow and steady, before turning her head.
He was a few years older, probably European, and not exactly beautiful, but striking.
He was hunched forward, as Tanya had been, resting his elbows on his knees. Just as
Tanya was about to look away in fear of being caught gawking, he turned to her.
She gasped involuntarily and felt herself turn red again. She had been wrong, he
was beautiful. Beautiful and different. The paleness of his skin offset the brown in his eyes
and hair, his lips were bright, almost coral-colored. She looked down and smiled a little.
As she locked her ankles together and swung her feet back and forth she caught
a peripheral glance of his moving forward on the bench. This time when she looked
over, she met his gaze full on; he was looking right at her. She looked away again
for a moment, in shyness, and then turned back to him and gave him a small but
legitimate grin. He stared incredulously back, even cocking his head a bit. Worried
that she might be misinterpreting what was happening, Tanya turned all the way
around, expecting someone else to be standing behind her but there was no one.
Then he spoke.
“Witaj.” he said.
Tanya raised her eyebrows back and shook her head. He kept his eyes locked
on her in a curious, almost disbelieving way, and repeated what he had said. She
shook her head again. He glanced away from her face down her jeans to her shoes,
and then back up again.
“Amerikanerin?” he tried.
She smiled again and nodded.
“What’s your name?” he asked, in clear English this time, with only the
tiniest hint of an accent.
“Tanya,” she said.
“Tanya,” he repeated. He suddenly smiled so genuinely at her that she was
nearly taken aback by it. In her experience, guys didn’t often do that, at least not
looking you right in the eye. He leaned back onto the bench.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Adam,” he said, his eyes still locked on hers.
She struggled to think of something else to say to him but couldn’t think of
anything. She swung her legs again just to have something to do. Another tremble
started to climb up from the pit of her stomach again but she recognized immediately
that it was different than before; nervous but somehow warm, too. She stared at her
feet and breathed in and out, feeling strangely as if the blood pulsing through her had
gotten lighter and the bench beneath her was hovering above the ground. She was dizzy
again, but a shade more controlled this time. She glanced over at him to make sure he
was still there.
“Do you live in the city?” she asked, finally.
He didn’t reply and his smile faded. A chill came over her; had it been improper
of her to ask him that? He swallowed and looked at the ground. What seemed like
ages passed before he spoke again.
“No, I don’t live in the city,” he said quietly. Something had gone wrong.
“Did I say something . . .” she began. He glanced over and smiled again,
but only politely. The light she had seen earlier had gone from his eyes.
“You look different than everyone else,” he said after a bit. Tanya stared
in confusion.
“I mean, I thought I recognized you, but, ehm, was wrong about who you
were,” he said, a bit hurriedly.
“Oh,” she said, thinking their conversation had come to an end. She was
embarrassed. She told herself to look at the ground, her feet, the black iron, or
the snow at the bottom of the trench a few meters out, anything but him.
“I thought you were---” he started. She rose a little in her seat, hopeful.
He shook his head and looked almost apologetic.
“Who?” she asked.
“I thought you were like me,” he replied.
She sat for a moment, still feeling a bit shell-shocked.
“But I’m just a, a dumb American, is that it?” she asked finally. His hurt
expression surprised her.
“No, not at all,” he said, “That’s not what I meant.”
“What makes me not like you?” she asked, her heart racing at her
own boldness. He glanced around and then leaned closer.
“You’re alive,” he said, in a whisper.

She looked around; they were still completely alone.
“You’re . . . dead?” she whispered back.
“I’m afraid so,” he replied.
“You thought I was dead, too?” she asked suddenly. The idea
confused her but wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
He laughed.
“Most living people don’t see me; you looked right at me.
Caught me a bit off guard, to be honest. I didn’t mean to insult you,” he said.
She hesitated for a moment. He was dead, yet moving around and
talking to her. And he looked completely normal. There were blue veins under
the skin on the wrist closest to her, and there was heat coming from him, Tanya
could feel it! But there really was no choice but to believe. Maybe he was just
crazy. Or she was.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking you this, but why exactly are you here?”
she asked finally. He smiled.
“You mean, in this place?”
“Was it, did you---” Tanya stumbled on words, trying to find a polite way
to go about asking.
“I died here, yes.” he replied.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said.
“Don’t be. It was quite a long time ago,” he said.
Tanya looked over his head where the museum building and another
brick structure stood. She looked back at Adam.
“Your family?” she asked. He nodded and Tanya immediately looked at
the ground. He couldn’t have been more than a few years older than she was
now. She folded her hands together in her lap. A stiff breeze came up over them.
“So Tanya, tell me something. Why are you here?” he asked.
She was almost afraid to speak again but wanted very much for him to
keep talking to her. She took a breath and considered, not wanting to sound ignorant.
“I don’t really know. To learn, I suppose. About the history, you know,”
she paused a moment and continued. “It’s not that I’m not interested in it, I mean,
I know it’s important and everything, but I . . . I’ve just felt really strange since
we got here and I didn’t want to go in there.” She glanced toward the museum
building and shuddered.
“Ah, so that’s why you’re, ehm, out here on the bench by yourself,” he said.
His “ehms” were lovely.
A crowd of people began to filter out of the museum doorway. She expected her group would be leaving soon. Just a few minutes ago she would have given anything to get back on the bus and drive miles away, never to return. Now she suddenly wished for more time.
"Adam?” she asked.
“Why are you here, on the bench?” she asked.
He leaned in again, cocking his head as he had earlier. His stare took on a curious sort of penetration and then suddenly, one of amusement.
“You want to know why I’m talking to you?” he asked. She looked down again.
“I noticed you from across the road over there. Your hair was blowing around
in the wind, I came in closer and I thought I could smell perfume. I just thought I’d
sit next to you for a while. Honestly, I thought you’d look right past me like
everyone else,” he said. “Although I wish you’d look me in the eye a bit more, your
eyes dart around like a hummingbird, you know?”
A deep smile involuntarily came over her, almost cramping the corners of her
mouth. She couldn’t remember ever feeling quite so pleased.
“Why can I see you?” she asked.
Adam shrugged.
“I don’t know. Some people just have their eyes open, I think,” he said.
“In a different way.” He turned to look behind him; Tanya’s class was approaching
in a cluster. He moved over, nearer to her on the bench. Her heart thumped as he
inched closer, their knees were almost touching. “I’m quite glad that you did, though.
I’d really like to know you better, Tanya.”
“Do you have to go?” she asked. Adam tilted his face downward so he was
looking up at her. He reached for her cheek and she closed her eyes. She felt his
skin brush against her for only a moment before the wind again picked up and flew
over them both; his fingers had been as warm as her own. She stared at her knees,
still smiling a little as he walked away, his long coat flapping up in a sort of wave.
Soon she heard a voice and felt someone pushing her shoulder as if to rouse her.
It was Michelle.
“Did you fall asleep?” she asked.
Tanya raised her head. Michelle was next to her on the bench and Tracy
was standing directly before her; both were looking at her suspiciously.
Knowing it was ridiculous even before she did it, she looked off to her right,
the direction she thought Adam had gone. He wasn’t anywhere in sight, nor was
there anything to suggest he ever had been.
She had a very strong sensation then, something about the way she
had felt anxious and full of trembles before seeing Adam on the bench,
again with a hint of familiarity. The gray color of the sky, the feeling that she
was both tired and spinning, a general sense of being rattled. She couldn’t place
when it had happened to her before or where, there was only the unpleasantness
of having to revisit it now.
“The bus is pulling up,” Tracy said, looking over her shoulder.
“Thank God, I think this is the most depressing place on earth,”
Michelle said.
As they began to walk toward the bus, a family group passed.
Tanya wouldn’t have even noticed them had it not been for the little girl
that suddenly broke free from the bunch, squealing and running. Tanya
stopped for a moment to watch her. The girl, perhaps sensing that she had won
herself an audience, came up to Tanya and halted. Looking up, she smirked;
Tanya smiled politely back.
“Mira!” someone called, and she was off again.
Tanya caught up to Tracy and Michelle, who had turned around to wait.
“See, that’s what I mean, why would someone bring a little kid to
this place?” Michelle asked.
Tanya looked back over her shoulder. The girl was on the bench, pacing
back and forth from one end to the other, her loose, dark hair whipping in
all directions as the wind blew. Tanya looked up at the sky and felt it almost
like a presence, hovering suspiciously.
Just then it occurred to her where else she’d felt the earlier tension and
clenching sense of distress. She had been eight years old, off at a friend’s lake
cabin during summer vacation. They’d been doing back flips off a large air
mattress, a huge, maroon rectangle that had the rigid texture of an old hot
water bottle, out a little further than was safe. On the fifth or sixth time jumping
off, Tanya had mistakenly used too much strength flipping backwards and
had come up skewed, directly under the mattress. She had tried pushing up
through it, grasping for an edge or corner, even screaming underwater, but she
was still trapped for almost a full minute, too scared to open her eyes. Just as
her lungs were starting to become strained and her ears were starting to throb,
she had flung her arms back and kicked with all the remaining force left in her
body, out from under and away. A few seconds later she resurfaced, embarrassed
and gasping for air. Once she finally caught her breath and dog paddled her way
into shore, she had looked up at the sky.
It had been a flat and troubling gray, changed completely from just moments
before. Maybe it had been all along and she only just noticed it then, but the sky
had scared her more than being stuck under the mattress. She had thought then
that the sky had somehow been in on her private struggle, had engineered it, and
the water, too. Two things much bigger than her, sneaking in and poisoning everything.
It all became different, as if she had been betrayed by the sunshine and inviting
blue water before and that the grayness, the ominous way the clouds made the water
look shadowy and bottomless, this was the way things really were. She hadn’t been
swimming since that day.
And from the moment she had gotten off the bus, she had felt this way again.
The sky over them had the same look and feel but with a chill this time and over a
much more serious history.
She looked at Michelle.
“They lost someone here,” Tanya said, not knowing exactly why she said this
or how she knew it, but she did. Michelle didn’t turn around.
“Yeah, they’re going to show that little girl what’s inside that brick building?
What are they going to tell her when she asks what those things were used for?
This is where the bad guys cooked your Oma and Opa!
Tanya shrugged her shoulders and said, “You don’t forget about something
just because it’s bad.”
They passed the last bit of the path that took them over the main trench at the entrance and filed onto the bus.
She spent the short bus ride again with her head against the glass but with a vacant smile on her face. Most of the other passengers had opened their windows because of the thick, head-splitting smell of perfume; Tanya realized upon re-entering the bus that it was almost definitely her fault as the smell seemed to be emanating from her carry-on bag and that she had probably shattered the bottle inside when she had stepped on it earlier. Michelle complained loudly of a headache and sneezed a lot but brightened as soon as they reached the newsstand, the place where the endless bottles stood in waiting.
They went in, adrenalized. As Tanya stood holding her bottles, six Malibus, six Absoluts, she watched the clerk, a woman in her fifties with a tangle of mud-colored hair, and wet, yellow eyes. Tanya met the woman’s eyes only once, but saw easily, without trying. It started as a simple feeling, worry, and the rest bloomed around the feeling like a rose, filling it. Explaining it. The woman was worried about her son, in jail, and the infant he’d left behind with his drug-addicted girlfriend. Tanya grimaced but somehow let it float over her.
She paid for her bottles and hurried out to the curb, where it happened again. A man waiting by a bench glanced at her briefly; his was relief. Business over, back from the north, he was waiting for a taxi and thinking of his wife, kids, and yellow dog. He’d missed them terribly on this latest trip. Tanya gasped and looked away, but couldn’t help smiling. Had he done this? Adam? She felt her insides start to light up again.
The feelings and their blooming roses continued. Michelle came out of the newsstand looking much happier. Tanya stared at her. Approval, but in the most general sense. Michelle just wanted someone to love her. Tracy followed, (sadness) she was tired, angry, and secretly homesick but excited to get good and drunk. Tanya felt her cheeks get hot again and wondered, was this how it was going to be? Seeing?
“Let’s hurry,” Tracy said, “this snow is getting really messy.”
“And what the hell are you smiling at?” Michelle asked, staring at Tanya.

The Italians had found them. Michelle and Tracy were nowhere to be seen, perhaps down on the second floor at one of the parties. Tanya stood at the window in her own room. She could see the newsstand, a little Imbiss, and beyond those buildings, the train terminal.
“That’s how we found you, you know,” the soccer player said.
His name was Enrique or Enrico, Tanya couldn’t remember. His accent was heavy and beautiful.
“What did you say?” she asked without turning around. She heard him stand up
and then knock over some of the bottles on the bedside table. She glanced over
and saw him fumbling as he lined them all up again.
“Were you planning to drink any of these or are they just decorations?”
he asked. She leaned against the window, glancing out of it again.
“The window,” he went on, pointing. “That’s how we found your room.
We asked one of your professors outside what room you were in and she wouldn’t tell us.
We saw you were standing there and we counted up the floors and windows.”
He had seemed slightly drunk earlier on, but different from the other
soccer players. Tanya had agreed to go down to one of the parties for a while, but had soon become overwhelmed at the aggression and sexual nature of the thoughts radiating through nearly every man in there. It had felt like the room was closing in on her, pulsing with manly, boozy danger. Enrique/Enrico seemed to notice how uncomfortable she had been and offered to walk her back to her room. She had allowed it but was careful to avoid any eye contact; it was becoming exhausting. She didn’t know exactly what to do now that they were inside the room together; what she wanted more than anything else was to be alone, to be rid of him.
“Do you want them?” she asked suddenly.
He laughed.
“If you don’t, I’m sure we can find a use for them downstairs,” he said.
“Yeah, you should take them,” she said, retrieving the plastic bag the
bottles had traveled in and gently stacking them inside. As she handed it to him the
glass clinked together and for a moment she thought she still might like to have them,
“Thank you,” he said, taking them.
She nodded. They stood facing each other for a moment.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
She nodded again, keeping her eyes on the wall just over his right shoulder.
“Is it a guy?” he asked.
“A guy?” she repeated. He smiled.
“You just seem a little distracted, you know?” he said. “I’ll do my best
to make you forget about him, if you want.”
She laughed and slowly met his eyes. He was genuinely concerned for her,
thought she was a typical, neurotic American, and though he desired her, wasn’t being
filthy about it.
Tanya knew then what she wanted, and how she would be willing to walk under
a thousand evil skies or swim an ocean of dangerous water in order to reach it, to feel
what she had felt before, even if it was only for a few minutes.
“Thanks, but I’ll be okay on my own,” she said.
“All right,” he said, “Ciao, then.”

Tanya watched Enrique/Enrico all the way down the hall. When the door to the
stairway snapped closed and she was sure he was far enough away, she ducked back
inside the room to grab her shoes and coat. Her heart sped up, half in excitement and
half in fear that someone would see her and ask where she was going. The elevator
seemed to take forever. Once it finally opened, Tanya rushed inside and found
Danny there, alone.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” she replied, punching the lobby floor button and looking quickly away.
Danny was a vodka drinker and because he was three years older, could do it legally
while he was here. She couldn’t smell it exactly, but felt it coming off him in waves.
She leaned back against the elevator wall and considered how silly it was that someone
who had mattered so much to her not five hours earlier could mean so little to her now.
And the hood ornament? The last night they had been at the ski lodge, Danny, quite drunk,
had asked her to help him pull it off an old Mercedes sedan parked on the street and she
had obliged. She had thought it meant something, this awkward, fumbling experience
between them, but now she was fighting the urge to laugh about it.
In order to avoid looking at Danny, she glanced at the elevator buttons, lighting up
one at a time as the lift made its way downward. There was a polished metal border
around the buttons; Tanya caught a distorted image of herself in its reflection. Her
eye makeup was smeared, probably from the snow earlier, and her hair was a ratty mess.
She smiled.
“Where you going?” he mumbled.
The doors slid open and Tanya sailed out quickly without a glance. His footsteps
trailed behind her, slow and shuffling. She headed for the glass double doors at the hotel
“Tanya!” he called after her. She stopped and slowly turned her head back toward
him. She was far enough away now.
“Catch you later, Danny,” she said, and was off through the doors.
The snow still fell but the flakes had become smaller and drier. Tanya pulled her
hood up and crossed the street that would take her back to the newsstand. When she got
there, the woman she had seen earlier was just coming out, carrying her own full size
bottle inside a brown paper bag. Tanya took a deep breath.
“Entschuldigen Sie, bitte,” she called to the woman, formally.
“Eh?” she asked, glancing behind her as she locked the doors to the shop.
She had planned to ask for directions, to ask about the trains but decided at the
last moment that this was wrong and not to ask anything. The woman stood there
briefly, grunted, and began to walk away, thinking Tanya was going to freeze to death
in the flimsy coat she was wearing and adding a longer word: Lächerlich! Tanya
wasn’t absolutely certain of its meaning but interpreted it as an emphasized ridiculous.
She sighed and looked back toward the hotel and then over it, over her own ancestors’
Vaterland, over the ocean she’d crossed and back to the way things had been in her
normal high school life. Acne meds, fingernail polish, photos of herself and friends
modeling clothes, styling each other’s hair. Other things that she knew no better than
to want. She drifted back to the list of calamities that had meant so much when she
had first boarded the plane nine days earlier and as with Danny in the elevator, realized
they had been ridiculous. She had been ridiculous. Trinkets, she thought, my silly world
of trinkets. Taking a breath of cold, her eyes straight ahead and wide open, she leaned
against the brick of the building.
The sun wouldn’t be up for hours, but that was okay. Things were already different,
and she kind of liked the way she felt out here now.