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The Affliction

By
February 15, 2010

No one would have believed Ricardo Blanco if he had tried to explain that Javier Castillo could disappear. What was the point in trying to explain it to someone, explain how he had seen it himself, how he had watched as Javier Castillo stared deeply as if he were concentrating, and then, slowly, disappeared? Ricardo always began the explanation in the same way, by stating that it wasn’t a sudden thing, that no, no, it was a gradual thing that took sometimes almost as long as three minutes.

Ricardo was an odd man. He wanted to believe Javier Castillo was a god of some kind. But Ricardo did not believe in gods. He did not even believe in Christmas, angels, or miracles. He even found it difficult to believe in kindness. And yet, he had left his wife and family to follow this man, this Javier Castillo, a man he knew little about. What he did know about Javier Castillo was that he possessed an “affliction.” This is the word Javier Castillo used to describe his ability to disappear. An affliction. Ricardo wanted to believe that, but he could not find it in himself to believe. What he felt for Javier Castillo was a kind of envy. And maybe, somewhere inside his messed-up head, Ricardo believed that the longer he was around Javier Castillo the more likely he, too, would gain the ability to disappear.

He thought he was having a spectacular dream. But he was not dreaming. He was there in the Old Square, the old men strolling around smoking and talking slowly, others leaning against walls beside doorframes like awkward flamingos…

But Javier Castillo… Yes, the really surprising thing about Javier Castillo was not the disappearing act. Anyone can disappear. What was remarkable about the disappearances was the fact that Javier Castillo had control over where he reappeared. I cannot be certain when he first demonstrated to Ricardo his “affliction,” but I can piece together that it must have been early, some time within a few days of their first meeting. Did he demonstrate it? Or did Ricardo simply catch him in the act? I’ll never really know. What I know is that Javier Castillo had explained to Ricardo that as a child he had moved from Mexico City to Los Angeles, how one night, as he lay in bed, he wanted to be back in Mexico City so badly he closed his eyes and tried to imagine being there. He thought, for a minute, that he could actually see the City, the Old Square. And when he opened his eyes, he was lying on a ledge. He was lying on the lip of the fountain in the center of the Old Square, the fountain cascading over the flowering tree of sculpted concrete down into the shallow pool next to him. He thought the warm night was a dream. He thought he was having a spectacular dream. But he was not dreaming. He was there in the Old Square, the old men strolling around smoking and talking slowly, others leaning against walls beside doorframes like awkward flamingos, one leg firmly planted on the ground, the other leg bent at the knee so that the bottom of the shoe was affixed to the wall behind them. And when he sat up, when Javier Castillo sat up, nothing changed. It wasn’t a dream at all. It was anything but a dream.

Ricardo recounted how when he first heard this story he had closed his own eyes trying to imagine another town. But all Ricardo saw when he closed his eyes was the bluish white glow of the light bulb he had been staring at before he closed his eyes. There was the ring or impression of the bulb on the inside of his eyelids, but nothing more. He could see no other place. The round bluish-white mark on the inside of his eyelids was not even perfectly round. It was hazy and indistinct. It seemed to be disappearing. The light bulb was disappearing, but nothing else was. Ricardo had never been outside of the Los Angeles area. He had never gone anywhere except to work at the body shop and to work at LAX and, eventually, to the town in the Valley where Javier Castillo had been living. He could not picture any other place at all.

The recollection of the first time Javier Castillo disappeared stayed with Ricardo. How could it not? He returned to that story over and over. He couldn’t help it. He could hear Javier Castillo describing what had happened to him; hear his voice in his head. He replayed the situation over and over of opening one’s eyes and seeing not one’s bedroom but a square in Mexico City. But it was not because of the oddity of what had happened—the disappearance, the reappearance—but because Javier Castillo had not been afraid. Ricardo knew that if such a thing had happened to him as a young boy, he would have been terrified. He knew that he would have sat in the Old Square crying and wondering how he would ever find his way back to his family in Los Angeles. He knew he was not the kind of man that Javier Castillo was, that he was afraid of being alone. And being in another city surrounded by people you didn’t know was essentially being alone. Ricardo needed people, and he needed to know things. And, apparently, this was not something Javier Castillo cared about, not even remotely. Even then, thirty years after his first disappearance, Javier Castillo had no understanding of his affliction. He could not explain how it happened. He simply knew he could do it. And this knowledge was enough for him. It was, after all, his affliction, and he knew he had no other choice than to live with it.

Ricardo had married the girl next door, or so he liked to tell people. His parents had him marry the daughter of their best friends. She was beautiful, but she was not gorgeous. There was no better way of describing her. To describe her black hair or the color of her skin would be pointless. To describe the softness of her voice and compare it to water was pointless. What was important was that she was a beautiful woman, and he had walked out on her. On some days, Ricardo wondered what she was doing, wondered if his two sons were being good for their mother. He felt certain they were not being good. They were boys, and he knew boys at their age were trouble or about to be trouble. They couldn’t help it. It was not as if they chose to cause trouble; they just did. And his wife—she wanted those boys to be good, which in her eyes meant good in school, good at sports, good at something. But they would never be good in school. They would never understand why school was important. They would never be good at most things. They wanted to be old enough to drive a truck, to be able to drive to the edge of town and get high. Ricardo understood this. He had been a boy like them. He knew what it was like to get stoned and curse the sky because it was getting dark too quickly. He knew what it was like to smoke until the dryness in the desert became the dryness in your throat. He was no Javier Castillo, and neither were his sons.

That Javier Castillo could fade away, find himself somewhere else, Ricardo was fairly certain. Javier Castillo had told him how during his teens he had gone to Singapore, French Polynesia, Egypt.

Ricardo had watched Javier Castillo disappear many times. In many ways, he had studied this affliction, timed it. He visited the library once to look through books on physics. Sitting in the stacks on the newly installed carpets, the fumes from them like a tranquilizing gas, he had tried to read them. None of them had any information on this means of travel, or none that he could make out from the photos and diagrams. That Javier Castillo could fade away, find himself somewhere else, Ricardo was fairly certain. Javier Castillo had told him how during his teens he had gone to Singapore, French Polynesia, Egypt. It was then Ricardo really discovered the extent of Javier Castillo’s affliction. He would go to other places for a few hours or a few days. He had spent an entire week in Toronto wandering through Chinatown. Ricardo knew this but could not believe it. Ricardo felt the overwhelming need to test Javier Castillo. He needed something more than observation of the disappearing act and the stories then recounted to him later. He needed proof. And so, one afternoon, Ricardo wrote four numbers on a piece of paper and left it on the chest of drawers in the bedroom. He was convinced the numbers, which he had seen on television, were clues to picking the right horse. He convinced Javier Castillo to go to the horse races that afternoon. Shortly after finding their seats, Ricardo told Javier Castillo about the numbers, that he had written them down but had forgotten to bring the paper with him, that he needed them and couldn’t remember them. Javier Castillo excused himself. He went into the men’s room, entered a stall, locked the swinging door, and disappeared. When he reappeared in the stall a moment later, he went to find Ricardo. While at the house, Javier Castillo had written the numbers down on the back of his hand with the black sharpie marker left next to the scrap of paper Ricardo had forgotten, the marker left there intentionally by Ricardo. And when he showed Ricardo all four numbers on the back of his hand, Ricardo said nothing. Ricardo didn’t even say thank you. Ricardo wondered why Javier Castillo had written the numbers on the back of his hand instead of simply bringing the piece of paper back with him. Surely this meant something about the affliction. Surely a clue was to be found in this action, the paper still on the chest of drawers but the numbers retrieved and inscribed upon his hand.

Ricardo never knew what to say to Javier Castillo. Can you blame him? I wouldn’t know what to say to a man who could disappear. But in Ricardo’s case, it wasn’t that he couldn’t find the words. It was just that Ricardo never felt the words would be taken seriously. Why ask a question? Why try to discuss things? Javier Castillo always seemed to know the answers. I would have had many questions for Mr. Castillo, I think. I would have spent far too much time wondering about how it all worked. But Ricardo? Ricardo wondered if the affliction gave Javier Castillo special knowledge beyond that of travel, if somehow, when in that space between disappearing and appearing, there were answers. But this thought was too complicated and Ricardo, despite trying to formulate the right questions, simply remained silent. What he said to Javier Castillo, instead, was something about dinner. In the dimly lit Italian restaurant, the backs of his arms sticking to the fake leather booth, Ricardo stared at Javier Castillo, smiled, but said nothing. Ricardo thought about ordering pasta, the one that looked like little ears, but he didn’t know what they were called. Javier Castillo ordered that pasta for Ricardo without a single word passing between them. Yes, somewhere in that space between disappearing and appearing, there must have been answers, but Ricardo had no idea how one reached such a place without the affliction. Ricardo worried that one day Javier Castillo would go in search of answers and never return.

Ricardo first met Javier Castillo while working his evening shift at LAX. Ricardo worked a second job each evening as a skycap. In the gray space of the baggage claim, in the gray space of the check-in area, Ricardo had watched face after gray face arriving and departing. Javier Castillo was there to see his aunt off. Ricardo watched him the way he watched all people who were at LAX but neither arriving nor departing by plane. Accessories to travel, Ricardo had thought, accessories. They were not really people but means of transportation to or from the airport for these other people who were traveling by plane. Even years later, Ricardo could not explain why he continued to stare at Javier Castillo that night. It was not that Javier Castillo was a handsome man. He was, in many ways, rather ordinary in appearance. Javier Castillo had looked at him and said “Buenas noches.” They began to talk. Ricardo noticed the way in which Javier Castillo’s eyes were dark, a dark brown flecked with gray. That Javier Castillo had spoken to him in Spanish didn’t bother Ricardo. Many people spoke to him in Spanish, could tell from his face and dark skin that he was of Mexican descent. They exchanged small talk, nothing remotely exciting. And despite this, Ricardo had felt his heart panic in his chest. Ricardo left the airport with him. He never went back. He never went home. He never called his wife and family. He couldn’t think of what to say or how to explain Javier Castillo to them. He left the airport with him and drove for hours. In a corner of his mind, he believed he was being abducted, but he had not been abducted. He had asked Javier Castillo if he could come with him. And in the sun visor mirror, Ricardo noticed his own eyes were a different color green. His eyes were more of a dark forest green, darker than the usual pale green he had seen in the mirror all of his life.

Once, after almost three years of living with Javier Castillo, Ricardo felt the sudden urge to press his hand through him just before he completely faded away. He wanted to see if he would also start disappearing. The affliction. What must it have felt like? Could Javier Castillo actually feel himself dissolving? The hands, finger by finger? But Ricardo knew that when Javier Castillo disappeared, he did so evenly. It was not as if the chest dissolved leaving the heart exposed and beating. He just slowly faded into a shimmer, and then a shadow, and then air. It was gradual. There would be a man, and then a man seen through but still there, and then the dingy, yellowed wallpaper clinging to the wall behind where Javier Castillo had been standing. Dingy and dirty: the wall would suddenly be more sharply in focus, its browning yellow like the nicotine-and-tar-stained filter after smoking a cigarette. And though Ricardo had no explanation, he knew the disappearing happened faster at times, slower at others. He wanted to pass his hand through the shadowy Javier Castillo, the one about to become air. But he could never get himself to do it. Javier Castillo was always watching him carefully, and Ricardo feared that Javier Castillo knew what he was thinking.

What must such a life be like? Think about it. To live with a man half shadow, half something, something that you could not explain to someone else, much less yourself? Even after three years of living with Javier Castillo, after lying in the one bed next to him night after night, after sitting out on the balcony and smoking cigarettes watching the smoke coil into shapes that only disappeared, Ricardo did not understand Javier Castillo. Ricardo never asked any questions. He just didn’t know how to do so. He simply lived there, simply existed. He did not work. He did not worry about money or his wife and sons. The time simply passed, and the man known as Javier Castillo moved in and out of air. And finally that day arrived, the day that Ricardo could not recall with any great detail—Javier Castillo faded away and did not return.

Ricardo thought nothing of it at first. A week passed, and then a month. Ricardo had no money to pay the light bill or the utilities. He had no money to pay for anything. He had never questioned the fact that Javier Castillo always had money, was always able to pay for anything they needed. Two whole months passed before Ricardo realized Javier Castillo was not coming back. Without electricity, Ricardo walked around the dark house occasionally flipping switches to see if something would happen. The air was still most nights, the heat of the desert coming in through the windows carried along by the echoing howls of the coyotes hunting the nearby canyon. Ricardo was alone and without a dime. Within a day or two, he began to wander the streets. He did not remember how to go home, and he wasn’t sure how he would get back to Los Angeles. He wandered into the parking lot of the Travel Lodge just as I was stepping out of my rental car. I don’t usually talk to homeless people. It isn’t that I am afraid of them, but that I have no idea what to say to them. But Ricardo’s eyes were green, that dark forest green, and he looked haunted. I don’t really remember what I said to him, but he followed me, asked me if he could come up to my hotel room to take a shower, promised me he would not rob me. I have no idea why I agreed. He showered and then came into the room and sat staring off into space. I offered him some whiskey, and we sat and drank it. I told him stories I had heard in my years of traveling as a salesman, told him stories of the small island in the Caribbean where I had grown up, the people there, the way we swore the cats were spies. We sat in our jockey shorts and t-shirts drinking whiskey. We lapsed into and out of Spanish. It seemed as if we had known each other for a very long time.

Over the past three years, I have heard much about Javier Castillo, too much, really: the disappearing, the timing of it, the various places he had visited. I have never actually seen Javier Castillo, but there are times when I feel quite certain I know what he looks like. And Ricardo, though he never says so, sits sometimes staring at the chair in my bedroom as if waiting for Javier Castillo to appear. Do I believe in gods? In angels, in miracles? No. No, I never have. I am more like Ricardo than I want to believe. Before he goes to sleep most nights, Ricardo says the very same thing to me. He says: “Carlos, sleep now. Sleep.” Night after night, he says this, says it faithfully. And it makes me wonder if he had instructed Javier Castillo to go to sleep in much the same way. Lately, at night, lying in bed, Ricardo breathing deeply the way he does when he is lying down, I cannot sleep. I find myself staring at the empty chair. I half-expect Javier Castillo to appear. I would love to be able to say I just want to make sure the chair is empty or, at most, the place where I left one of my old pairs of jeans. “Carlos, sleep now. Sleep,” Ricardo says. But falling asleep is the least of my concerns. I know I will sleep eventually, much the way I know that one day soon I might… I am concentrating so hard. I am concentrating on another place, another town. “Carlos, sleep now. Sleep.” Yes, maybe I could disappear. Vanish, gone, in thin air, nothing left but the room, the bed, the chair. But I am no Javier Castillo, right? I am definitely not like Javier Castillo.

G

FictionBio80x100.jpgC. Dale Young is the author of three books of poetry, The Day Underneath the Day (Northwestern 2001), The Second Person (Four Way Books 2007), and TORN (Four Way Books, forthcoming Spring 2011). He practices medicine full-time and teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. A former recipient of the Grolier Prize and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Yaddo, and the National Endowment for the Arts, “The Affliction” is his first published short story. He lives in San Francisco.

Writer’s Recommendations:

What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg. I love this recently published book of short stories, each one rendered with an anatomist’s precision. Story after story surprised me. I am already anxiously awaiting her next book.

Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony. This remains for me one of Mahler’s most complicated, powerful, and beautiful symphonies. The Adagietto movement alone can bring a man to tears. And Tilson Thomas has a true gift for conducting Mahler. I think I may even have two copies of this CD.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. Although this masterpiece of nonfiction was published more than a decade ago, it is still an absolutely amazing read, at times more difficult to put down than a thriller. Diamond’s ability to see both the microscopic and the macroscopic of how different cultures developed over the past 13,000 years based on their geographic surroundings is absolutely spectacular to behold.

Homepage photo via Flickr

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One comment for The Affliction

  1. Comment by duncan on March 21, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    This was wonderful,thank you.

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