Phantom Femme and the Invisible Fingers

My assailant was waiting for me in one of those grab-and-go salads. The moment I drove a fork into the vinaigrette, it splashed into my eye. It was not balsamic, this assailant, and another one would issue a deeper wound later that day—and all the doctors in the world wouldn’t be able to help.

Onboard the shuttle bus, I was fine for the time being, grazing on salad, doing Arabic calligraphy in my Moleskine among strangers. This was absolute heaven. I was free. I was me. I don’t do calligraphy or design around my friends, husband, mother or brother. My father once caught me drawing when I was a child and threatened to arrange for me and Walid—who enjoyed lighting people’s hair on fire—to be married and work in his family’s fertilizer plant. With Walid’s pyromaniac proclivities and tons of flammable material around, it was only a matter of time before I would perish, with hundreds more, in a workplace accident.

Neither my father nor Walid was my oppressor though—let me state that for anyone who believes all Muslim men stone women to death. They were merely part of the tradition I am now beyond. Let them have their traditions. And I will invent mine.

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eL Seed by Ouahid Berrehouma – Salah Zribi for DaFoxInDaBox., CC BY 3.0

I suppose it’s ironic that the calligraphers and artists I find inspiring happened to have penises—the French-Tunisian street artist, eL Seed, and the Syrian calligrapher, Mouneer Al Shaarani—but I don’t need to verbally, emotionally or physically castrate men in order to be a feminist. 

I simply add my voice to the human conversation through my calligraphy and design—the way that I love to speak. My ink, my paper—my vocal cords. My art, my vision—my voice. No one at my law firm knows this about me.

basmalah-1wmSo the shuttle bus took me to the airport. Inside I put away my Moleskine just as a man bumped into my carry-on bag and knocked the nearly finished salad out of my hands. Before picking up the leaves and shredded carrots, I looked to the man for an apology but he had already walked away.

When I had advanced through the security line and set down my bag on the X-ray’s conveyor belt, I heard the most soothing Levantine Arabic whispered by the woman behind me:

“There’s a bomb in your bag. You have three minutes before it goes through the X-ray machine.”

The voice sounded so familiar I turned expecting to see my grandmother, even though she had died in Damascus when I was young, and instead found an Asian woman in her forties, her hair in a loose ponytail and wisps around her temples. She was wearing a blue hoodie with “Cal” on it. I glanced at my bag sitting on the belt and then at her.

“Why would you—why would say something like that?” I replied in Arabic.

“‘Why’ is for another time,” she lilted. “For now, you can move that bomb without touching it, without even moving your body. Put it somewhere far away from anyone.”

A TSA agent brought a stack of plastic bins, studied us for a second, smiled, and put the stack down by the conveyor belt.

Although I was wearing only a blouse in November, I started to feel the heat rise between the fabric and my skin. A layer of humidity formed. Sweat beaded my face. My hands were slick, and I stepped toward my bag and then stopped.

The TSA agent noticed and walked over to me. “You forget to take something out? Water? Liquids?”

I pursed my lips and shook my head so I wouldn’t risk sounding nervous. He gathered more plastic bins, and I turned to the woman. “I could turn around and leave right now, taking my bag with me,” I said.

“You could but you don’t know when it’s going off. Maybe it explodes when you’re taking Uber.” Her eyebrows rose.

“Well, I could just leave the bag here at the airport.”

“Maybe it explodes in the next few minutes and you could have done something about it. But you didn’t. And many people died.”

“Why are you doing this to me?” I said.

By now, travelers all around were staring at us—speaking Arabic in an airport can do that—so to avoid their eyes, I watched my bag being carried away on the conveyor belt until it stopped before the mouth of the machine.

“One minute left,” said the enigma.

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By Hussein Alazaat, CC BY 3.0

I had spent the last week litigating in court. I took a deep breath and exhaled, “I’m not playing your game.”

“I promise you this bomb is no game.”

“You and that man planted something on me. I know this,” I hissed. “And it’s on the airport cameras. The evidence will exonerate me.”

A smile beamed and she nodded. “Such a lawyer. But that’s just an identity you bought and paid for at Harvard.”

My carry-on went into the X-ray machine that very moment. Tight chest. Shallow breaths. Unblinking eyes.

The X-ray technician stopped moving the belt and examined his monitor. He looked up, turned to another TSA agent, and asked him to come over.

They spoke closely, studying the monitor, with occasional glances at me.

Finally my bag came out of the other side of the X-ray.

“Hey! Are you going to go?” a man shouted behind me.

I turned around. No enigmatic woman. Only a middle-aged white man who flung his hands up in the air. “Seriously! What the fuck? I’m going to miss my flight!” he grumbled and pushed past me to go through the metal detector.

On the plane. An entire aisle to myself. No need to share my terrifying experience with anyone. Or hide it on my face. First I let my elbow spill into the seat next to me. Next I drew—hoping to release some stress—but my lines were squiggly. I set down my Moleskine and my trembling hand, and I melted where I was. I stopped wondering about Phantom Femme and Phantom Bomb, and I fell asleep during takeoff.

When I woke up, I was quite sure I was still dreaming.

“How did you sleep?” asked Phantom Femme, now sitting next to me.

I yawned and said, “Your Arabic is uncanny, so perfectly pronounced, like you were raised in Syria with elocution lessons.”

“Maybe I was.” Her lips curled. “You probably want to know why I’m here.”

“I do but I don’t. Everything out of your mouth makes my life suck, so I’m just going to close my eyes and you will be gone.” I closed my eyes and opened them again. Phantom Femme was still smiling.

“Okay, I give up. Why are you here?” I asked.

“Because you haven’t moved the bomb. And when it goes off, you’ll be remembered as a terrorist. You’ll get really good coverage in The New York Times. Your mom will actually die of shame.”

“What? No.” My hands became clammy again. “There’s no bomb or anything—nothing. My bag went through the X-ray machine. They didn’t find anything. You bluffed. You lost.”

“My exact words were ‘You have three minutes before it goes through the X-ray machine.’ I never said they would detect it.”

“I’m not playing your game,” my voice withered this time.

“Think about it. It’s a bomb. You think whoever makes it is going to make it detectable? In the X-ray machine? Before it gets on the plane?” she asked.

“So it’s still here.”

She nodded. “You have ten minutes before it goes off.”

“Can I get you anything to drink?” asked the flight attendant.

“Cabernet. Three of them, please,” I said.

The flight attendant then asked Phantom Femme who requested tomato juice. Very gently I moved my finger toward Phantom Femme after the attendant left. We both watched my finger float her way, and upon contact with her arm, Phantom Femme said, “Yes, I am actually here. Nine and a half minutes left.”

“Nine and a half minutes left to live,” I muttered.

“No, you haven’t begun living.” Her eyes cast down and I felt her sadness and my own ambivalence about wanting to console her and wanting her to fuck off. Our silence brought the other passengers to life. In the row behind me, a boy demanded to play Angry Birds while his parents were invested in their iPads. In front of me, a true bromance unfolded between two college students lauding last night’s beer pong that led to someone named Caitlyn dancing and stripping to Whitesnake.

I found myself envying their oblivion and hating them. Why did they get to have it so easy? Why didn’t they have to speak Arabic to their mothers and feel embarrassed to do so in public? I didn’t choose to be Syrian, and I didn’t choose to have my father’s last name, or his argumentative nature, or his anger, or his anything. My eyes became hot and blurry.

Just as my tears started falling, Phantom Femme loosened my grip of the Moleskine in my lap and opened it to the letter I’d written to my father. He had never read it because he had died before I could share it. A drop hit the page and Arabic letters bled. More drops fell, and I tried to close the Moleskine but she held it open.

“Wait,” she said.

“Wait?”

“You accept living when you accept feeling.”

I wiped some tears on my fingers, touched the page, and unintentionally created ink wash. It moved everywhere. The writing became illegible. I hadn’t looked at this page in a long time. I didn’t feel like a good daughter when I did. I blamed him for so much.

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But now I could see the words becoming something else in the tears and ink. It was the movement I had never allowed and a new space for new things. The idea of who I was started to die inside and my heart started to drum louder, deafening everything in the airplane cabin. My invisible fingers crossed the distance between myself and my carry-on in the compartment above, and like this I reached without lifting my arms. I entered the bag and sensed the contents, remembering everything I’d packed. I then sensed a small box I hadn’t packed. I held this box with my invisible fingers and I plunged it into a lake six miles underneath me. When I felt the explosive was deep enough in the water, I let go with such an exhale that I was short of breath, and I almost fainted. I closed my eyes.

“You just spent all the calories in your body, doing what you did,” Phantom Femme whispered. “Tell the flight attendant you’re hypoglycemic and you need a sugary drink and also something to eat. I recommend peanuts for fat and protein. Lots of peanuts.”

Phantom Femme was no longer there when I opened my eyes. The flight attendant was however and she gasped. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” I said weakly.

“Your hands,” she said.

I looked in my lap and I saw them shivering, wet, and covered in silt from the lake.

After Connor picked me up at LAX, I kissed him lightly and told him I just wanted to zone out, go home, and take a bath. He understood and listened to sports radio for the entire drive to Pacific Palisades.

At home, my phone rang as I ran the bath, and I wouldn’t have ordinarily picked up but the caller ID flashed, “A Brief Chat,” which was certainly not a person in my Contacts.

“I’ll make this quick so you can relax,” said the enigmatic woman on the other end of the line.  “You used energy changing your molecular composition. It’s why you were so tired after moving the bomb. Some people wanted you to never learn how to do what you did. The man who planted the bomb in your bag worked for them.”

“And I’m supposed to relax after you tell me this?” I was growing irritated.

“You’re not in danger anymore. They’re afraid of you now.”

“But that would put me in more danger.”

“You sound like your father,” she said and that shut me up, and she continued, “The secret of how to move something like that bomb is simply the secret of how to move in general. The thing you move doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know how to move. It’s the process you practice in your art. All art moves. You’ve just been afraid of it because it comes from that thing you’ve tried to control your whole life.”

My heart started pounding, knowing it was being discussed.

“Let it speak. Start by asking what it needs.”

“Is that all?” I sighed.

“There’s a man who can do what you do. When you’re feeling ready, share your art and Galen Gorry will find you and help you.”

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“You work for this guy.”

“No. I work for you. I’m your qarin,” said the jinni who then hung up.

I turned off the faucet. Even though the bath water was inviting, I went into the master bedroom where Connor was lying in bed and scrolling through his phone. He gave me a look of concern. “Didn’t you want to take a bath?”

I untied my terrycloth robe, let it shrink to the floor, and climbed into bed. I rested on Connor and described my day without sparing a detail, and as he took in every word, I felt more naked than I have in months.

— K.J. from Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles

Ξ

Art and magic are no different. But we are.

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We wrote the 5 mysteries.

Help bring us to life here.

Hello, Terror

“Vera, take that cat out of your mouth!” I shouted. It was my usual 1 o’clock walk with this Siberian Husky except for the animal in its teeth. That shit is not part of the service contract. My heart was racing. My stomach was churning.

Vera just kept chewing—blood spritzing out of her mouth—and I kept tugging on her leash and telling her “No!” as though this would stop the delicious taste of cat.

We three—human, dog, and cat—then stumbled awkwardly onto someone’s front yard not far from Elysian Heights Elementary. I fell and grass poked my eyes, and the dog and cat invented a new form of dance. My hand was still around the leash, and I pushed myself up with my other hand (and accidentally squished some plant), and I prayed for Vera to let go, because pretty soon Vera would move on to the cat’s neck. Yes I, the guy who didn’t think Mary was a virgin, actually prayed.

Echo Park shifted that moment. Cars went on mute. Sun didn’t stare as hard. Day laborers on the roof of Fix Coffee put down their hammers. And Vera, the cat-hungry Husky, lay down and opened her mouth. The cat hobbled away and quieted down. They both went to sleep. I let go of the leash and my hand went limp after having to strangle it the last few minutes.

nature-garden-grass-lawn

I looked at my other hand and saw lavender smeared on my palm. I looked at the cat again to make sure it wasn’t dead and saw teeth marks closing up on its leg, sealing, fur growing back. Time was going in reverse.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” I whispered.

My phone buzzed.

“NO,” the message read from a number I didn’t recognize. “YOU.”

“I don’t understand,” I wrote back.

“JUMP SHIP OR DIE AT 5:46 TODAY.”

“Okay now I really don’t understand.”

“AT 5:46 YOU WILL.”

I canceled the rest of my dog walks for the day. Creepy text messages have that effect on me.

At home, Kara was still in bed where I left her naked this morning but now she was wearing panties and a tank-top. She said she wanted to go to the dispensary, and I just closed my eyes and lay next to her. “You’re no fun,” she said finally and slid into her skinny jeans. I asked her to stay (“Please,” I even added) but she knocked over my guitar case on the way to getting high somewhere.

Alone once more.

Hello, Terror.

Hello, it replied.

And I listened to it. And I was small again, young again. The boy in the basement. Chained up by a man who approached me at the park and claimed to be friends with my parents. There was only a window the size of a brick in here, and one day, there was a cat looking through it.

And I needed the cat.

And I needed Collin but Collin didn’t pick up his phone. Maybe he was at Bobby’s. I needed to get to Bobby’s. I needed to finish my album. I needed my band. Bobby grew St. John’s wort among many things, and I was out of anxiety meds.

“ST. JOHN’S WORT IS MORE THAN AN ANTIDEPRESSANT,” my phone flashed at that moment.

Psycho-psychic-stranger was not helping. I turned off the phone, and I went to Bobby’s and my band mates were laughing on the living room floor, passing around a two-foot bong. On the record player was Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, which I always loved because it didn’t sound like the jazz of its era. It dared to go its own way.

milesdavis_bitchesbrew

“You like it too,” said a woman I hadn’t noticed until now. I looked around and no one else seemed aware of this pretty creature, eating a slice of pie (since when does Bobby have pies?) and leaning against a bookshelf. She appeared an Ivy League student in both age and attire with a dark blue sweater and long plaid dress. Middle Eastern eyes rested softly on me. She offered her name “Foxtrot” and an enigmatic smile to match it.

I said my name in reply and turned to Bobby and the guys. “Help me with the album today,” I asked them, and they said what they always say, “Let’s do it tomorrow.” I told them about the dog and cat episode and only Foxtrot was lucid enough to follow the story.

“Tell me what plant you crushed,” she said, so I told her, and then she explained how lavender had magical qualities of calm and healing—which could be activated with intention—like my prayer. “You actually cast a spell,” she said.

I didn’t know anything about that, but another part of me spoke up:

There was only a window the size of a brick, and one day, there was a cat looking through it. I held up my bleeding fist. “Tell someone I’m down here,” I shared my thought with the cat. Blood ran down my hand and wrist. The cat jumped away from the window and I never saw it again.

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My heart started racing again and my stomach started churning.

“I have to go soon,” I said to Foxtrot as my insides continued protesting.

“You’re going to work on your music.” She nodded.

“You Ivy Leaguers are sharp. Wanna help me?” I asked quite jokingly.

“I thought you’d never ask,” she said quite seriously.

It was 3:16 p.m.

When Foxtrot came over, she didn’t ask for anything to drink or smoke—she didn’t ask anything of me. It was the strangest thing.

She brought over her saxophone (turns out she’d just graduated from Berklee College of Music) and I kicked things off on my guitar, and we began as such different animals, in temperament, in instinct, but we found a way to meet each other. Notes, chords, scales eventually conspired with their counterparts. By 5 o’clock we had curled and collided sonically and recorded it all as a raw demo.

Hoping to spur my band mates into collaborating, I texted Bobby that I’d made a new demo and wanted to share it. He told me it was a bad time to stop by. But I went there anyway. When I got there, Collin was just walking out the door. He said Bobby had already mixed an album after removing my vocals and guitar parts, and that’s what Collin would be moving forward with. He shrugged, said sorry, and rode away on a bike that he’d stolen in Venice. The night swallowed him and my vision got fuzzy.

Blood ran down my hand and wrist.

“Tell someone I’m down here,” I shared my thought with the cat.

The cat jumped away from the window and I never saw it again.

An hour later, policemen raided the house and found me in the basement.  

night-dark-blur-blurred

“Come on, man. Don’t be like this,” Bobby said. I blinked a few times. The yellow flowers of St. John’s wort were just above my head. I was lying on my back on his front lawn. He was standing in the doorway and drinking Tecate.

“You’re killing the vibe, all right?” Bobby threw his hands up in the air. “So leave me your demo, go home, and we’ll talk about this later.”

I was still on the ground and through the open doorway behind him, saw everything upside-down—the guys spewing smoke and talking about the things they were going to do one day (just not today, tomorrow, or the day after that). The wind picked up, the rope that held the porch swing twisted, and Bobby pressed his foot harder on the floorboards, making them creak. Sounds of the night. Sounds of a ship. One I couldn’t survive on. Not any longer.

Bobby held out his hand but didn’t pull me up. “I’ll take your music now,” he said. “You burned me a disc, right?”

I reached up and plucked a yellow flower from the shrub of St. John’s wort. And I stood. And while Bobby spoke, I closed the petals of the flower and deprived him of words. He mouthed, “What the fuck?” but his voice didn’t obey him.

I tossed this flower through the doorway and when it landed, the living room went silent and the only thing out of their mouths was smoke.

It was 5:46 p.m.

At home, Foxtrot wasn’t there. No note. No scent of her. Not even a glass stained with her lips. Only a 10-second recording she left on my computer. I hit Play and she whispered two words, “Galen Gorry,” and the recording ended. It meant nothing to me at the time.

Alone once more.

Hello, Terror.

Hello, it replied.

Goodbye, Terror.

Goodbye, it said.

Hello, music. I picked up my guitar.

Hello, magic, it sung back.

— T.P. from Los Angeles, CA

Ξ

Art and magic are no different. But we are.

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We wrote the 5 mysteries.

Help bring us to life here.

the day we didn’t wake up

Los gatos were missing this Tuesday. The bus didn’t pick me up this Tuesday. I’ve seen no moving cars this Tuesday. I’ve seen no person this Tuesday.

Los gatos are the men who hide in the bushes. Los gatos is the name I gave them. But only I know that name and now you. Los gatos hide from the sun, not from predators. Los gatos I see every day because I ride my bike past them. They are sometimes more like cats than cats. I know cats. I grew up with cats. Cats kept my abuela from being lonely. She’s dead now, so the cats are lonely.

Los gatos are not scary men doing scary things in the shadows. Los gatos are working men like my father. Working in places other than offices. Yards. Warehouses. Construction sites. They have no break rooms with shade and air conditioning. The sun is always staring at them in Los Angeles.

city-skyline-los-angeles

The sun is staring at me now. I’m outside the front door of the shipping and logistics company where I move freight around. The door’s locked. I look through the tinted glass door. I can’t see Ashanti. I can usually see Ashanti chewing on her pencil at the front desk. I can still see her mug that says, “Ssshhh…There’s wine in here.”

I’m very sweaty because I had to ride my bike from Boyle Heights to Baldwin Hills, because the bus never showed up. I didn’t want to be late for work. I’m really late for work. I call my boss on his cell phone. My heart’s going really fast because he told me to only call his cell phone if it’s an emergency. I leave him a voicemail that it’s an emergency.

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I bike home to take care of another emergency. Home is where I can use the bathroom. I feel funny peeing in bushes. I don’t want to pee where los gatos take their breaks. After I pee a long pee in the bathroom, I see my mom and dad’s car in the driveway and I see their door is closed. They’re usually at work at this hour. I leave for work in the morning before they wake up.

I enter their bedroom and they’re still sleeping but they’re not making a sound. My dad makes sounds because he snores. But not today. I shake my dad to wake up. I shake my mom. They don’t wake up.

“MOM!!! DAD!!!” I say.

They don’t wake up. I feel their wrists and I feel a pulse. I call 9-1-1 but no one answers. I start calling everyone in my phone but no one answers. I start shouting and crying but my mom and dad don’t wake up. The cats are all coming into the bedroom now. Someone once told me six cats were too many for our house. That someone hated cats.

Our six cats arrange themselves in two neat rows lining the doorway. It’s like they’re waiting for red carpet to roll out between them. They lie down and a shadow stretches from the doorway to my feet. My tears are dry now so I can see. I can see a cat the size of my father. Large green eyes. And fiery fur. The Cat of All Cats stops in the middle of our six cats. I can see our cats are not just lying down; they are submitting to it.

“I wish everyone would leave me alone so I can draw.” I hear my voice in my head. I don’t understand why.

You said that yesterday,” a different voice says in my mind. A woman’s voice. And I believe it’s the Cat of All Cats.

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Sí, es mi voz. You said that yesterday when you were feeding a bug to your abuela’s favorite cat. You were tired of working in the warehouse and tired of helping your parents around the house. All you wanted to do was work on your graphic novel. So I made your wish come true, because what your abuela never told you was that her favorite cat is my acolyte. And when you give my acolyte a sacrifice—even a little bug—it’s a big deal because you’re calling upon me to answer your desire.”

I see the Cat of All Cats watching me, waiting for me to say something. I wonder if it will eat me while it’s clawing me or eat me after it kills me. I see my parents are not moving. I see Los Angeles outside is not moving. I begin to feel sick. I begin to feel like crying again.

You understand now. Yes. Nobody woke up today because of you. You got your wish so you can draw more of your graphic novel.”

“I don’t want to draw right now. I want everyone to wake up.”

The Cat of All Cats licks her paw and looks at it a moment, and then looks at me and sends another message to my mind, “Sure. But it’s going to take a bigger sacrifice to wake up the whole world.”

Whole. World.

Did you think only Los Angeles was affected by your spell?”

I wonder if the cat is lying but don’t know if cats can lie. “What do we do?” I ask.

You mean, ‘What do you do?’ Easy. Kill a man for me. His name is Galen Gorry.

I think I must be dreaming. I think I must wake myself up, so everyone else will wake up too. I feel myself grimacing as I walk past the Cat of All Cats. I imagine a flash of lightning if it swipes at me. I imagine my stomach gushing open. But the gigantic green eyes just track me when I walk past it.

I jump into bed so I can fall asleep in this dream and then wake up in the real world. I close my eyes. I get comfortable. I stay like this but I cannot fall asleep. And I cannot be alone. I open my eyes and the Cat of All Cats is standing over me. I feel uncomfortable being watched by a five-foot cat so I turn away and look at the wall where I’ve pinned all the pages of my graphic novel.

You wouldn’t have to do anything at all. Put a pillow over his face. Maybe drown him in a bathtub. He’s not going to struggle. He’s in a coma like everyone,” the Cat of All Cats says in my mind. “He’s a dangerous man—Galen Gorry. Believe me. You don’t want to meet him when you’re awake.”

bastet_2

“I—I don’t want to kill anyone.”

You killed a bug for me.”

Our cats climb into my bed. I look at my abuela’s favorite cat. I see it represents something bigger than itself. I look at the wall of my art and storytelling. I see it represents something bigger than itself. I start to understand how this works, this magic the Cat of All Cats is talking about. I do have to make a bigger sacrifice than the first one.

So the world can wake up.

So I can have a world again.

I take my graphic novel pages off the bedroom wall.

Stop!” the Cat of All Cats says. “Put those back.”

In the kitchen, I turn on the four burners of the gas stove and I drop my graphic novel on the blue crowns of fire.

You’ll lose your greatest work!” the Cat of All Cats cries.

Pages curl. Flames chew through them, bite on edges, turn my story and artwork into black memories. I open the window. A breeze comes in. The Cat of All Cats disappears as gradually as the smoke does.

Los gatos are back in the bushes on their 10-minute breaks. I am back in the warehouse moving freight around. My mom and dad are back on their feet and working again. My graphic novel is not back. It is still ashes. I am in bed now, remembering the next page I was going to create.

Someone calls but I don’t know the number glowing on my phone. I don’t answer. A few minutes later, my phone chimes with a voicemail. I play it. It’s a man’s voice:

“Everyone lost a day but no one knows why they were in comas. But I know. And I know what you did to help us. It was brave and you spared my life. Not everyone would have done that, and that’s because you’re not just anyone. Do you think an Egyptian cat goddess visits everyone in east L.A.? Yeah, your graphic novel’s gone, but your imagination isn’t. If you’re curious, I can help you use it to create things that no fire can destroy. It’s true I’m dangerous. Bastet wasn’t lying about that. But I’m not dangerous to you. And as for her, I doubt you’ll be seeing her again unless you want to. This number I’m calling from is a pay phone. I’ll call you from my phone after you start sharing your artwork online. It’s too good to simply pin on your bedroom wall. Then we’ll take it from there. Goodbye.”

My abuela’s favorite cat jumps onto my bed when the voicemail finishes. She’s purring. I pick her up and put her outside my room.

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I have work to do now. I turn on the scanner and begin digitizing my drawings.

— C.Z. from Boyle Heights

Ξ

Art and magic are no different. But we are.

tamil_om

We wrote the 5 mysteries.

Help bring us to life here.

Rasputin never emailed

Friday, I saw an army of amputees in Pershing Square.

They were coming my way while I was drinking coffee. The only thing I could think of was that I had signed up to be an extra for some horror movie, and I’d forgotten. I forget things sometimes. Ask my locksmith.

“I should run,” my left brain said.

“I should see what happens when they get here,” my right brain said.

Fatal fascination, you win this time. I stayed there, sipping coffee, watching the amputees get closer. They were all ages and ethnicities, but the one thing uniting them was their missing forearms and their heads that bowed forward.

As the sun turned up its “fuck you” dial, my skin started cooking, and as the army got nearer, I started seeing the army was not made of amputees but ordinary Angelenos with full-length arms—all folded in half and raising a cell phone. I had perceived their focus on their phones as bowing, and that might have been just as true, for their devotion to their devices.

“Thank you for being here on time,” said a woman sitting next to me.

My heart skipped a beat but I contained my surprise. She wasn’t there a second ago.

“I’m not sure why we couldn’t do this over email,” I said.

“Did Rasputin use email?” Disappointment colored her tone.

“Well, I don’t really like it here.”  

“Hmmm,” she said and glanced at everyone and then at me. I took more than a few glances at her legs that were more slender than mine and her skin that was ivory. I had once wanted straight blond hair like hers decades ago when none of the princesses I saw in books had my afro.

“We don’t want his name mentioned in emails. That’s why we’re meeting,” the woman said and opened up William Butler Yeats’s Mythologies. Letters were circled all over the two-page spread—letters that spelled a city councilman’s name.

“Got it. Look. Is there any way we can move the assignment to another night?”

She gazed at me for a minute and smirked. “You want to make it to your art show.”

“That would be nice.”

“Funny. That’s not the business you’re in. Being nice. I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear your question. You’ll do what we agreed on—on the night we agreed on.” She snapped the book shut. “And we’ll quadruple your pay if he jumps off the Biltmore.”

The coffee in my stomach started chewing into my spine.

No, Lady, Liar, that’s why we’re meeting—you didn’t want to say this over email.

“You don’t have to decide just yet,” Lady Liar said sweetly as a policeman walked by. “Just think about not hustling for a while, and having more time for your art. It’s why you’re in LA, isn’t it?”

The night of my assignment, the Colony on Spring Street was exhibiting my work in a group show and featuring my piece, “I Don’t Drink Johnny Walk Her,” in the main exhibition hall, on the poster, on social media, and on their weekly email. This was new for me—people paying this much attention to my art. Venus, the gallery manager, texted me that I should at least stop by and mingle for an hour.

I didn’t respond to Venus.

I showed up where I was paid to: a fundraiser at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.

pexels-photo-25748

My name was on the list at the door (as I was told it would happen), and I had no trouble accessing the rooftop (as I was told it would happen) and the councilman met me up there (as I was told it would happen).

He smiled for a moment and then his smile fell away as he took cautious steps to meet me. His hair whipped this way and that and looked onfire, as the wind assailed us, and his jacket fluttered as he gripped the bottom edges.

“I was told you have something for me,” he said.

I nodded and opened a mini wine bottle I’d brought with me in my purse. As I spilled merlot on the roof, I whispered:

brother Coyote, have a drink

prepare the man to carefully think

“Pardon me?” the councilman asked.

I leaned right and looked past his leg and he followed my eyeline until it reached Coyote a few feet behind him. Coyote stared into the man’s eyes. “I don’t understand,” his voice drifted.

“They say if a coyote crosses your path, it’s probably because you’re taking life too seriously, like that ballot measure you’re asking people to support,” I said and glanced at Coyote who hypnotized the councilman.

I walked closer to the edge of rooftop. Below on Olive Street, I saw couples hand in hand, groups of girls who had used too much hairspray, solo wanderers, businessmen with fast feet, and I saw my financial freedom—a broken body on the pavement—the price of coasting comfortably without working, years of just making art, no more dumpster diving and going to the LA food bank. It would just be another sentence to say out loud to this politician, catalyzed by the persuasion of Coyote.

I retreated from the edge and returned to the councilman and said, “And after you put some distance between yourself and the ballot measure…”

I looked at the edge.

I looked at Coyote.

I felt my heart knocking, looking for any way out except this one.

“…you’ll live longer if you leave this city.” The words I really meant to say came out, because they were the words I’d been wanting to say to myself.

The councilman took out his phone, called the LA Times reporter who had interviewed him last week, and rescinded his support of the ballot measure and even invented some reasons why.

“Thank you, Coyote. That will be all,” I said.

The animal stared at me and backpedaled into the shadows until I could no longer see his amber eyes.

LA_1

The following week, the news confirmed the councilman denouncing the ballot measure, Venus also asked me to leave the Colony. She only exhibited artists willing to show up for their career and that included connecting to the people who believed in them. She said I was absent in that relationship, that art was more than a solitary pursuit, that it was channeling something beyond the five senses of a person.

Friday, I returned to the same bench in Pershing Square. The Angelenos roamed again, their lives remote-controlled by the phones in their hands. Once more, Lady Liar materialized without a sound. Her nails had been recently done and were crimson candy shells in daylight.

“My employer is willing to pay ten times what you earned last week,” she said.

“I won’t go that far.”

“You haven’t even heard the offer.” She smiled. “He wants you to teach him the thing you do. That’s all.”

“But that’s not really for sale,” said a man sitting next to us.

He too had somehow arrived here without being noticed.

Lady Liar’s eyes bloomed and she grabbed her high heel pumps and dashed barefoot out of the square.

LA_4

I turned to her source of fright and only saw a thirtysomething white guy with messy brown hair, his hands patiently clasped in his lap. He watched her run without pleasure or astonishment. A pigeon landed nearby and he gave it the same regards.

“Should I be scared?” I asked dully.

“Never,” he said.

“What was that about?”

“I’m a friend of Coyote.”

“He has friends?” I asked.

“Not many. Probably because he eats kittens. Anyway he told me about you, said I should check out your art.”

“My art? Why?”

“I know what an artist can do when I see their art.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not in a gallery anymore.”

“And you think that means you’re not an artist?” He looked worried for the first time. “All right then. Join the rest of these robots.” He gestured to the people around us with his palm. “Start believing that the only thing you are is what people tell you.”

“The hell do you want?” I stood up.

“For you to make art,” he said softly. “For you to explore your other abilities, not sell them to just anyone.”

“You’re asking for a lot.” Clouds parted and the sun stabbed my eyes. I put up my hand to block it and the man was gone, but in the palm of my hand was a date, a time, a location, and a name—Galen Gorry—all written in black ink. I didn’t know exactly where this place was but knew it was somewhere in the Arts District. I made my way out of Pershing Square, thumbing the details into my phone, blending in with the rest of amputees.

— W.R. from West Adams, Los Angeles

Ξ

Art and magic are no different. But we are.

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You have until Friday

“WHO CAN TELL YOU THE MOST ABOUT MAGIC?”

It was one of those text alerts you get from companies—without a 10-digit phone number to call back—only this didn’t sound like any company I knew. And I didn’t see an option to write “STOP” to cancel the SMS service.

“Galen Gorry,” I wrote back.

“NO.”

“I can hear you just fine without YOU YELLING.”

“NO. YOU’RE WEARING EARBUDS.”

A chill up my spine. I took out my earbuds and wrote, “STOP.”

But the stranger didn’t and instead wrote, “YOU HAVE UNTIL FRIDAY.”

“For?”

I stared at my phone for five minutes. No answer. I resumed retouching the photos I had taken of the Santa Fe Art Colony. A few months ago, I had submitted these to a contest for emerging artists. Now I was preparing them from my Tumblr. It was Monday.

Tuesday morning, I drove through two hours of Hell “A” traffic to get to Smashbox Studios—where I do not work as an emerging artist but as a lightning technician for photo shoots—and right when I parked, I got a text alert: “YOU SHOULDN’T CUT OFF PEDESTRIANS LIKE THAT.”

What. The. Fuck. Ten minutes ago, I had turned right on National on a green light while this guy was on the crosswalk. I got pretty close. He slowed down or else I would have killed him. Anyway I was feeling pretty bad about it still, but also pretty creeped out now.

“WHO CAN TELL YOU THE MOST ABOUT MAGIC?” the stranger continued.

“You,” I replied.

“YOU HAVE UNTIL FRIDAY.”

I texted Mike and said I needed to talk to him after work.

But then around lunch, my boss swung by my desk and told me that if I stayed late to work on the Flaunt magazine shoot, I would be working as a photographer from now on. He had just fired the previous one, and he recognized how hard I was working as a lighting technician and knew I had camera skills. But if I didn’t take this promotion, he’d have to find someone else who would.

Half a sandwich was in my mouth, so he let me think about it. I logged on to Tumblr and reviewed the portraits of artists I took at the Santa Fe Art Colony. They weren’t expertly lit and the subjects didn’t have special wardrobe or makeup. But I preferred photographing this way ever since I studied Vittorio DeSica, an Italian neo-realist. I found magic in that rawness and authenticity, and none of that would be in the magazine shoot.

SantaFeArtColony

I left work at my usual time, and at Mike’s downtown loft, we really didn’t talk until after he scratched an itch I had. I put my dress back on and said, “Didn’t you tell me Gorry was the guy who taught everyone magic?” Mike was panting, staring at the ceiling, and wiping himself off with a tissue.

I poured myself to a glass of tequila and looked at some oil paintings, drying by the warehouse windows overlooking Santa Fe Ave. I sort of only liked one of them, and that’s sort of one reason Mike and I stopped seeing each other. Sort of. He also never had any limes for tequila.

“He doesn’t teach magic,” Mike said. “He helps you accept it, once you realize you’ve had it all along.”

“You know magic?” I grinned.

“What do you call what we just did?”

Friday, 8:52 a.m. I left my boss a voicemail that I wasn’t feeling well. It wasn’t a complete lie. My knees were red and raw because I couldn’t stop scratching them in between cigarette drags (I emptied my ashtray twice last night). I turned on my coffeemaker and thumbed through people’s Snaps and Instagram posts, until my phone shook and the screen lit up with “WHO CAN TELL YOU THE MOST ABOUT MAGIC?”

My heart thundered and I typed in the four letters I’d been thinking of all night: “I can.”

“YES. NOW GET SOME SLEEP. YOU’LL NEED IT.”

“For?”

I stared at my phone for five minutes. No answer.

— F.A. from North Hollywood, CA

Ξ

Art and magic are no different. But we are.

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