M. Leland Oroquieta has been a library page, draftsman, cashier, stray cat, and other things he can’t remember, while reading for a humanities course at university. He lives on a valley, near the edge of an ocean. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at Cricket Online Review, Eastlit, Eunoia Review,
Ink Sweat & Tears, Local Nomad, Lunaris Review, Origins Journal, Otoliths, and Queen Mob’s Tea House (Misfit Docs).
by M. Leland Oroquieta
Over time, lines along the southern edges of the eyes are destined to become eye-bags, despite armies of facial creams that annunciate myths about their eventual eradication; on the other hand, lines that gather near the lips have a way of making the smile look cynical and sinister, especially when it reveals dental discoloration, decay, or corrugations, due to inattention from the disciplines of care. At least half of my subjects are disciples of this laziness, oblivious to the mathematics of maintaining a healthy body, a behavior we often associate with youth, and youth’s nonchalance and casual awareness about it.
Indeed, the mind of my lab suffers a special dissonance at the sight of young bodies, bodies still calibrating and reconfiguring identities, laying foundations for dreams, acclimatizing habits in the early phases of womanhood, manhood, or whatever gender affiliation puzzles out the freedom of their thoughts. It’s always painful to imagine how their physical existence got caught in a vortex of misfortune, or whatever logic of events derailed them away from the foci of luck’s favor. In morbid terms though, their presence on my table may be a form of rescue from an arduous journey of entrapments, its broken hearts, family betrayals, the sudden attack of enigmatic cancer-cells, or however life might turn events into rites of passage. But still, the eye is weak against the arrogance of youth even as a dead body on the table of autopsy, now lifeless as fleshy plastics, sentenced to the last leg of bureaucracy’s culture of documentation, to obtain hard specifics on their early expiration.
Since this past week, I am still immersed in a state of disbelief, about the man on my table who looked at least five years younger than his calendar age; he was twenty-eight. But it wasn’t just another day at the lab, because I knew the body I was about to examine. I had met him, three years ago, at an unfortunate point in my life, when the amenities of peaceful living acquired the silence of deserted rooms, waiting for a morsel of change, excitement, and even redemption of some sort; I felt alone that time, detached from activities that might enthrall the imagination of the body. And so, maybe it was the way he took the dance-floor with the physics of mellifluous rhythms at Club Andromeda back then, garbed in muscularity exiled from fashionable tattoos. I even noticed something in his eyes, on our first meeting, some sort of pathological con man, which I ignored for their vigorous, boyish charm. And like any first meeting in a club, our first hellos were saturated with awkward silences at the loo, and at the bar, as though we were guarding ourselves from hesitations for something grand and predetermined, something that traversed on the field of clichés about first meetings. But how stupid can you be, if you don’t give in to a figure that could’ve been sculpted by Michelangelo, admiring you back, and secretly engulfing your desert with that notorious man-smell below the navel, so properly sprayed with enhancements from the erotic scent factories of Versace or Yves Saint Laurent.
In many ways, we clicked, or rather, the needs of our bodies clicked. I wanted him obviously, and he saw a desirable, older man. And for the first few months in our relationship, I felt as young as him; we became a discrete implosion of fucking, its frenetic eagerness, always resplendent in mirrors at my apartment, in the condos of friends, or in our suite on the Gulf of Mexico cruising on tropical humidity that makes Caribbean weather prime destination for civil servants like us, the types who view traffic jams as indelible to careers equipped with sweet retirement plans. But ten months into our breezy, and sometimes torrid companionship that never really longed for tying the knot, he’d disappear on me for days, drop phone calls, and block my emails, leaving me stranded at home, with the voices on the TV screen, or any noise that exiled me from thoughts about him. Soon, the disappearances and silences would stretch into weeks of worries and sweaty palms, and then into the color of a new season burying the ground with reddish, brown leaves cracking under my evening runs at the nearby public park.
And now, by some strange alignment of the stars, he was back, albeit detached from breathing, but still holds the splendors of youth at twenty-five I associate with him. The narrow, gorgeous waistline was still there, well-defined upper-arms, and a mound of chest muscles that lived on the pride of succulent nipples, which were still slightly erect that day at the lab. But three years ago, his body was still detached from the glory of tattoos. Perhaps he felt naked without sharp-spined snakes and dragons, now sprawled on his back and chests, hybrid creatures that resembled figures in Greek and Roman mythology. A solitary flower that rose from his right deltoid feasted on green and red colors, the kind of red that aspired to the color of human blood from a deep wound, like the wound on his right hip, then another just under the rib-cage, and two more on his back. All four stabs appeared to have the depth of whatever instruments were forced into his body in the most violent thrusts they could muster, as though the assailant or assailants never doubted who they were trying to eliminate. However, the presence of a dagger with a swastika on its handle, found on the scene of the crime, inspired multiple theories about motive and the history of the weapon, perhaps a weapon that isn’t artifact enough to its owner’s collection, since – according to a colleague, that is – it was only a reproduction of the original versions produced during Adolf Hitler’s reign in the 1930s. Or the dagger could’ve been stolen by seasoned shoplifters from a yard-sale of a deceased person’s estate, and soon acquired a history of ownership by delinquent hands, detached from the politics and history of symbols.
Though I wasn’t up to the spirit of light bantering with the other examiner that day, I made sure I went along with his jokes, as always, never giving him or my assistant a tell I once knew the person I was about to examine, someone I once knew as Hamid, but was now called Helmut on his records in the State of California. Indeed, the silence of the lab can take the mind into the most absurd, far-fetched, or mundane journeys of speculation about a homicide victim. Blame it on the surface of the skin that loves to whisper stories and keep me awake during examination, which in Helmut’s case are not exactly fiction: The inch-wide mole on his neck tells a story of a childhood choked on unrestrained frequencies of ridicule, a misfortune compounded by long gashes behind his upper thighs and lower back now covered with tattoos, courtesy of his stepfather’s temper, a man petrified by bad memories that lashed out on his stepson through a belt, or other objects and ideas that whips a child to delirious screams and crying.
Indeed, how could I forget his moods, the mutinies of their uncompromising up-swings and down-swings that glared into facial expressions gone authoritarian and bitchy, part of a temper that now involves a dagger with a swastika on its handle. And so, yes, the ancient symbol had a pressing currency, in light of the never-ending racial divisiveness brewing around the campaign trails of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, each poised to rule a world that’s embracing racial purity and hybridity in unpredictable dimensions. You see, Hamid was the whitest lover I ever had in physical appearance, one of those wild products of genetic permutations that produced pale complexions that turned red under the sun, plus blond hair, and sharp features that couldn’t have revealed he was a festive mix of North-African and Asian bloodlines on his mother’s side, and – according to him – “untainted, German stock” on his real father’s side who came from the city of Ludwigshafen.
A few times, he’d lure me on traveling to Europe. He longed for sweaty nights of dancing around Corsica and Marbella, and the mountainous landscapes in Italy, Germany, and in particular cities along the Rhine river. I understood then that he had a sentimental journey in his mind, back to his father’s homeland, a trip that couldn’t quite charm me to spend two weeks of vacation time, despite discount certificates for hotel and flight expenditures. In fact, we used to argue about those trips that, on my part, probably hinged on fears of terrorist bombings across Europe, and the growing far-right elements scrambling around this chaos, that could easily mistake my black beard and olive skin as a member of underground networks of resistance. I’m not quite sure. Or perhaps I was simply too lazy for multiple flight transfers and crowded airports in that continent. But all I know is that I couldn’t see myself visiting Europe three years ago, and somehow the feeling hasn’t changed since.
Now looking at this body, I could still hear the fuck-yous we hurled at each other between slammed doors three years ago, framed in assumptions that he had been seeing someone in my building, a short, and porn-gorgeous South African who almost hit my BMW in the underground parking lot, without any gesture of apology. There were nights back then when I’d make love to Hamid after verbal sparrings and thought of the bald and tattooed specimen from Johannesburg on our floor, who was probably with Hamid whenever he disappeared for days, and weeks. But before everything went downhill between Hamid and me, he had a routine that made me think about nights in childhood when I’d stare at the street outside my bedroom’s window wondering about the future: Hamid used to slip out of bed after midnight for the kitchen, to stretch his eyes, out there beyond the cliffs, into an area that belongs to a small, California county. Sitting there with a drink or a cigarette, he’d enter an aura of deep solitude, as though plotting for something, perhaps scheming for a new dimension in his life, unsatisfied with the status of a government clerk-typist, burdened with student loans that bought a humanities degree from a prestigious, public university.
One time, when I thought he had disappeared in my life for good, I received a letter written on paper with a letterhead of a hotel in Ludwigshafen am Rhine. The letter was flushed with somber lines that revealed Hamid was, in fact, born there and lived its streets and parks until he was eight, before his father took company assignments in London, India, Singapore, and finally Los Angeles. I still remember the letter’s sense of pride of that place, which today makes me think of outrageous associations, in light of his murder, that runs deep between Trump’s momentous victory, Hamid’s sexual orientation, the swastika on the dagger at the park, and three styles of swastikas tattooed on different parts of Hamid’s body.
Two park rangers found Hamid at the very same park where I let weekends run and sweat profusely, too afraid to see future selfies that capture the softened lines of my face and body transformed by weight-gain. They found him on the ground by the benches, into the trees, around closing time, just two hours before midnight, three nights after the stars and stripes refused to anoint Hillary Clinton with the Oval Office. I’ve never looked at a subject with intensified attention, in my ten years as an examiner, before and while putting on my gloves. I almost refused to work on his body. In fact, I felt guilty for violating my own ethics of the situation, for examining a body I had a personal history with, albeit someone I had not seen and heard in three years, ever since he disappeared from my life, despite the fact that we may have been neighbors all along. I was aware that, in the course of the homicide investigation, my name could surface somewhere, and that I’d receive more than a reprimand. I took my chances. But one could argue though, that some pathologists are sentenced to their own pathologies. I’ve never looked at a dead body’s dried-semen-coated lips and face, and consider the history of their behavior with me, or how they once turned many nights into something glorious. As I approach forty, it’s hard to detach myself from worries that I’m now entering the middle-ages of my life, a private life that, so far, has never failed to indulge in the male body that could’ve served as inspiration for masters that helped define the Renaissance.