Anacondas in the Park



Parque Forestal. Photograph by Arturo Rinaldi Villegas, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC0 BY-SA 3.0 Deed.

“Pedro Lemebel, one of the most important queer writers of twentieth-century Latin America,” writes Gwendolyn Harper, his translator, was “a protean figure: a performance artist, radio host, and newspaper columnist, a tireless activist whose life spanned some of Chile’s most dramatic decades. But above all he was known for his furious, dazzling crónicas—short prose pieces that blend loose reportage with fictional and essayistic mode … Many of them depict Chile’s AIDS crisis, which in 1984 began to spread through Santiago’s sexual underground, overlapping with the final years of the Pinochet dictatorship.” Over the next few weeks, the Review will be publishing several of these crónicas, newly translated by Harper, as part of a brief series. 

And despite the man-made lightning that scrapes intimacy from the parks with its halogen spies, where municipal razor blades have shaved the grass’s chlorophyll into waves of plush green. Yards upon yards of verde que te quiero verde in Parque Forestal all straightened up, pretending to be some creole Versailles, like a scenic backdrop for democratic leisure. Or more like a terrarium, like Japanese landscaping, where even the weeds are subject to the bonsai salon’s military buzzcuts. Where security cameras the mayor dreamed up now dry up the saliva of a kiss in the bigoted chemistry of urban control. Cameras so they can romanticize a beautiful park painted in oils, with blond children on swing sets, their braids flying in the wind. Lights and lenses hidden by the flower in the senator’s buttonhole, so they can keep an eye on all the dementia drooling on the benches. Old-timers with watery blue eyes and poodle pooches cropped by the same hand that hacks away at the cypresses.

But even then, with all this surveillance, somewhere past the sunset turning bronze in the city smog. In the shadows that fall outside the diameter of grass recruited by the streetlamps. Barely touching the wet basting stitch of thicket, the top of a foot peeks out, then stiffens and sinks its nails into the dirt. A foot that’s lost its sneaker in the straddling of rushed sex, the public space paranoia. Extremities entwine, legs arching and dry paper lips that rasp, “Not so hard, that hurts, slowly now, oh, careful, someone’s coming.”

Couples walk by on the path, holding hands, gathering bouquets of orange blossoms on their way down legality’s shining aisle. Future newlyweds who pretend they don’t see the cohabiting snakes rubbing against each other in the grass. Who say under their breath, “Those were two men, did you notice?” and keep walking, thinking about their future male children, the boys, warning them about the parks, about those types who walk alone at night and watch couples from behind the bushes. Like that voyeur who was watching them just a little while ago. He watched as they made love in the sweetness of the park because they didn’t have money for a motel, but they enjoyed it more than ever, there in the green outdoors, with that spectator who couldn’t applaud because his hands were busy running full steam ahead, leaking out an “Ay, I’m going to come, slow down won’t you.” So the woman said to the man, “You know I can’t if someone’s watching.” But at that stage, “I can’t” was a moan silenced by fever and “someone’s watching” just a sprinkling of Egyptian eyes swimming among the leaves. An overwhelming vertigo that bred a pair of bronze pupils inside her, in the eyes that sprung from her pregnancy. And when the boy turned fifteen, she didn’t say, “Be careful in parks,” because she knew those golden eyes were the park’s thirsty leaves. That’s why the warning stuck in her throat. Maybe “Be careful in parks” sums up that green gossamer, that hurried drawing back of his young foreskin’s curtain. That launching of himself into the park to wander over the gravel like an asp in heat, playing the fool, he smokes a cigarette so that the man following him can ask for a light and say, “What are you up to?” And, already knowing the reply, gently pushes him behind the bushes. And there, in all that damp, he kindles the curled pubic forest, his lizard tongue sucking on balls of wild hierbabuena. His fiery kiss climbing to the tip of that selenite stem. And while cars and buses careen along the ribbon of coastline, the boy hands over all the stagnation of his fragile fifteen years, years now shipwrecked like paper boats in the soaked sheets of grass. And who cares if the rustling branches tell him that someone is watching, because he knows how hard it is to see a porn movie in this country; he’s watched before, too, and he’s familiar with the technique, parting branches to join the park’s incestuous trinity.

Maybe watching is like assisting a murder, strangling the victim’s voodoo doll until it drips its rattlesnake poison down your fingers. The watched scene is repeated behind glassy irises, a carbon copy in the tear ducts, like generous handouts to satisfy the hunger of anyone watching. That’s why the park’s humidity melts the adolescent into an anonymous pervert. That’s why each night seeps into the crisscross of his feathers and he doesn’t mind coagulating with the other men, who snake along the path like lost anacondas, like cobras with jeweled hoods who recognize each other by the urgent stoplight of their rubies.

Laborers and students, office workers and seminarians—they all transform into ophidians who shed their uniforms, their dry skin, tribalizing desire in rattles of opaque becoming. Their steady gazes hold something abject enough to accumulate a Sahara, an Atacama, dusty salt-flat fields that hiss in the parched trident of their tongues. Barely a drizzle of semen fraying the lips, a silvery strand of drool shooting straight to the burrowed heart of a nest ribboned with toilet paper, which absorbs the leaking tears. Nests for a clutch of condoms that collect in the meadows like stuffed cabbage rolls of polyethylene, waiting for the sun to ferment them in the magnolias’ saffron mulch.

At night the parks blossom in a dew of lonely pearls, a shower of rice that spills in the circle jerk, an ecosystem of passion that surrounds the consummating couple. Collective masturbations that recycle childhood games in their frenzied handiwork: the toboggan, the swing set, the seesaw, hide-and-go-seek in the dark with fraternities of men, rudders erect, who cling to each other as the cartilage adds up. Cock in hand, hand in hand and cock askew, they form a round that collectivizes the rejected act in a carousel of fondling, in a blindman’s bluff of touches and grasps. A tribal dance where anyone can hook their caboose to the midnight express, its rails the warp for a cocoon woven in the penetrating and being penetrated beneath the swirling acacia trees. An ancestral rite in a milky ring that reflects the full moon, bouncing its light into the centrifuge of shyer voyeurs whose hearts throb in the tachycardia of brass knuckles between the weeds. Nights of ring-around-the-rosy that break off like a pearl necklace at the police’s whistle, at the siren’s searching purple, its blinking strobe that bloodies the party, breaking it into flashes of buttock and scrotum. At the clean thwacks striking the law into the hollow drums of their backs, to the safari rhythms of bigoted phallacies. They dodge beatings as they try to get away but fall to the ground, pants shackling them, hands covering their stunned sexual gladioli, still leafless and warm. The flashlights scour the weeds, lashing at haunches camouflaged by the cool velvet of violets. Trembling beneath the hydrangea bushes, the rookie closes the zipper biting into his pelvis—he’ll change his underwear when he gets home. Someone makes a run for it by zigzagging between the cars on the highway, gunshots trailing him all the way to the bridge. In a suicidal leap, he flies over the railing and falls into the river, its waters swallowing him. The body turns up days later in Parque de los Reyes, tangled in muck on the banks. The newspaper photo makes him look like a skinned reptile left for dead on the rocks.

The stratified recreation areas inside Santiago parks are successfully pruning daytime desire. It’s no longer so easy to slip in a squeeze under the public eye, and so city dwellers will continue to seek the lapping cover of darkness for reigniting human touch.

This crónica will appear in A Last Supper of Queer Apostles by Pedro Lemebel, which will be published later this month by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group. Translated by Gwendolyn Harper.

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