The sailor came here in 1974. San Diego was an exotic port. He felt strange and free. The attraction was aesthetic. There was no snow. (He was from Minnesota.) There were palm trees and beautiful parks here. The light was wonderful, the days were always bright and warm.
He was not your average Navy man. He liked to paint. He listened to jazz and samba music. He read A Moveable Feast, lying in his bunk and imagining such a life for himself. The sailor used to play his flute while on guard duty at Miramar, strolling between buildings in the pitch dark. He got in trouble for that, eventually. That and going AWOL, without realizing it, when he first arrived. They gave him bread and water in the brig. But he didn’t drink beer or buy sex magazines or play loud music on a cassette player. He had a buddy — he had one buddy — who was a painter too.
After a year in San Diego, the two sailors moved off-base to live in paradise: a furnished apartment in East San Diego. They added two easels, a piano, and a globe (suspended and spinning madly from the ceiling). Their refrigerator was always empty. They ate at Roberta’s, three blocks away.
Across the street from the sailors’ apartment was an old but unfinished house. You couldn’t see it from the street; it was shrouded in pepper trees, bougainvillea, morning glories. The house belonged to a person who called herself Corsica Bascurain de Kuprinska, an old woman with white hair and thick black mascara. The sailor figured she must have been in her late 50s. An aged, would-be Paloma Picasso. A quasibruja. A painter who didn’t paint anymore, just drank rot-gut gallon bottles of Cribari burgundy. She chain-smoked Delicados. Her speech was laced with insults, and her insults were laced with words like “bureaucrat,” “Nixon,” and “ cochino .” Like the building inspector, who would come around once in a while.
Corsica wore baggy black cotton trousers and men’s shirts, from which she had torn the collars. When she was watering — clippings planted in coffee cans, the bougainvillea, the morning glories — she wore big boots with broken zippers. The sailor thought she looked like a Communist.
Also living in the house were dark, nubile girls: Corsica’s 17-year-old daughter Citlali, and Citlali’s friend Barbara Korn. They would wash Corsica’s white Rambler on the dirt road leading to the house, wearing halter tops and shorts and long boots. Lali had a Mexican blouse stitched with flowers that the sailor liked. In the evening, the sailors would see the girls leaving the house in mini-skirts or shifts that stopped at the tops of their thighs, their long hair swinging.
The two sailors invited Citlali and Barbara over for “wine and talk.” Citlali and Barbara told them about Corsica and about Citlali’s younger brother Tlaloc. Corsica had named her children after gods. The sailors did their best to impress the girls and to appear sophisticated and artistic. The sailors and the girls spent the entire night talking and getting very, very drunk. They paired off toward dawn.
Citlali took the sailor over to her house one night to listen to records. Cher records, all of them. The ceiling in Citlali’s room was very low. The sailor kept hitting his head on it. The entire house was crazy like that. Beaded curtains in doorways. Potted plants hanging from bolts that jutted out of the unfinished walls. They weren’t walls at all, just the wooden framing; if you leaned against any of the walls, you would be in another room. Everything in the house was painted olive green (there were gallons of olive green paint, where did they get it all?) streaked over with black for what Corsica called an “erusticated effect.” Their furniture, mostly theatrical props from the Old Globe, included a bookcase with book spines painted on plywood.
The sailor felt comfortable and scared in the place. It was like a doll’s house. Spaces in the unfinished walls were jammed with Corsica’s junk. Pieces of colored glass. Gris-gris. Cheap Mexican bric-a-brac. All of it full of meaning, full of Corsica’s stories.
Corsica would sit at a table in the front room, drinking and talking in English and Spanish. The sailor and Corsica would talk about religion and painting. She had this idea about men, this idea of machismo. She idolized Gregg Dumas, a local TV personality.
The sailor used to ask her why she didn’t paint anymore. She would say that part of her life was over. Her life had been destroyed, she would say. “If I hadn’t had these children. If I had been able to stay down there ....” Meanwhile, she’d be drinking the whole time. He wanted her to be sort of a mentor, tell him what the tricks were, but she never told him how to paint. She would ask him what his painting was about. He would say they were fantasies.“Well,” she asked,“what do they mean to you?” They were his dreams, he told her. “Why don’t you just paint your dreams and not tamper with reality?” So he painted his dreams: gondolas surrounded with clouds, chocolate babies, nests of termites, roads leading off to infinity.
When Corsica drank, she was very bitter about life. She would show the sailor her scrapbook of newspaper clippings and magazine articles: Corsica, hair long and black, leaning coyly against David Siqueiros’s shoulder or arm-in-arm with Diego Rivera. She had looked just like Frida Kahlo when she was young. She seemed to know a lot about the personal life of Luis Buñuel.
Corsica had lived in Mexico City when her children were born. There were pictures of her with a baby Citlali and a baby Tlaloc sucking sweets in Chapultepec Park. The sailor was enchanted. Corsica told him about a famous matador, who had fathered Citlali and Tlaloc. He was a philanderer, and they never wed, or he was killed in the bullring, depending on Corsica’s mood. It seemed Corsica’s life in Mexico City had been a triumph, and the sailor felt that he could bring that back to her, to Citlali. Corsica told him he was the sort of man she used to hang around with in Mexico City. He was flattered. He wanted to be a part of her mystery.
The real mystery was that Corsica looked like a WASP. Pale grey eyes. Pink skin. But she hid it beneath layers of makeup and heavy jewelry. She had an accent, on and off. When Mexican friends would come over, she insisted on speaking only Spanish. But she spoke Castilian Spanish. The sailor suspected her name was fraudulent — and Tlaloc preferred to be called Johnny — but you did not question Corsica because she would get angry.
He wanted, so badly, to be a part of Corsica’s exoticism. They called him “Juanito.” He fell in love with Corsica. But she was too old, and he didn’t feel he had much of a chance, being pure gringo, which she was always going on about. The thing was that Corsica’s skin was so rough, and full of crags and crevices, and she’d get nasty and scream about Nixon and gringos. He wanted a happy Corsica, but the closest he could get was her daughter.
Corsica told him, drunk, in the kitchen, that the best a woman could do was screw a man over. And a person without a vice, you can’t trust him. She wanted “her girls” — Citlali and Barbara — to be whores. She said it. Just like that. That way, they could make money off men but not be tied down. They could be wild. He remembered books he’d read, about the romance of living life to the fullest. He took everything Corsica said and fit it into his romantic ideas. It was easy.
The sailor began to spend time at Corsica’s house with Citlali. They would watch the Cher show; it was like religion to Citlali. Barbara and the sailors thought it was funny, the way Citlali would whisper “Cher” under her breath as the woman appeared on the screen. Corsica’s son Tlaloc would walk through the room and disappear. He didn’t spend a lot of time at the house. He was popular at school. He had a drum set that he would play really loud. He was always getting yelled at by the neighbors. They lived on food stamps and food commodities. Corsica had a job downtown, and the sailor would go down with her, spending his time at the library and walking the streets until she was off work.
The sailor would go to Mexico with Corsica and Tlaloc in the Rambler. He took peyote, spooned from bubbling earthen pots, in an abandoned sawmill in Tecate, with Corsica and her brujo friends. They were Indian laborers. He felt sort of strange because he didn’t understand their language. It wasn’t Spanish. Corsica could speak the language. She quit translating for him after a while. Then it didn’t matter, because he came on to the peyote. There was something going on, something religious, that he didn’t understand.
The sailor went to Yuma with Lali and Barbara. They went to the Yuma prison and bought a paperback book on it, which they took turns reading aloud in the car. They saw the Colorado River. They used to go to La Jolla Cove. They had a rubber dinghy. The sailor and Tlaloc would go out in the boat while Lali sat on the sand reading books.
The sailor and Citlali didn’t talk much; they made out. Eventually, the sailor gave Citlali his virginity. He had been saving himself. He hadn’t wanted to waste it on some whore in Pensacola. He wanted to give it up to the right girl. He thought he had found her. It was very romantic for him. She had this new white dress. They made love all night. He wondered how it was he was able to keep going. The next day he bought her some earrings. Then he bought her an earring tree and a whole lot of other earrings. He felt wonderful the whole day. He felt like telling everyone. He felt like calling his parents and telling them he was going to get married.
The sailor moved his easel and brushes and canvases over and started painting on Corsica’s veranda. Soon he moved in with them. Barbara moved in with the sailor’s friend. The sailor was happy with the simplicity of things, happy at how simple this happiness was. He was loved in Corsica’s house. He was in love with Citlali; the next step seemed logical. It seemed the fulfillment of all his dreams: it reeked of romance and exoticism. There was a civil ceremony in National City. ing healthier food for the family and better wine for Corsica. Corsica had this idea that he would be the rich American who would take care of all their needs and problems.
Corsica and Lali wanted him to buy a house for them to live in together. While he was at work, Corsica would drive her car around and look at places. Once, she told him she had found a wonderful place. It was a very hot day, the hottest day he remembers of his life, when Corsica drove them out to the house. It was a barren bungalow on a dirt bluff in Golden Hill. You could see Southeast and the Tijuana bullring. The realtors were there, talking VA loans and termites and shorings. He had no intention of buying the house. He was completely frightened of spending 25 years of his life paying for something, of spending 25 years in this house. He told them so. Corsica was disgusted with him, and Lali was brokenhearted.
He and Lali took an apartment. A deluxe Huffman building, with a parking lot, and a swimming pool, and piped-in music. You couldn’t turn down the music’s volume all the way. You would hear this faint country-western twang whatever you did. He ended up removing the fixture and cutting the wires. He couldn’t stand it. But Citlali liked it. Citlali wanted the sailor to talk with her the way he had talked with her mother. She asked him about religion. He told her everything he knew about it, hoping to disillusion her. She wanted to be saved. He told her to go back to high school and get her diploma. But she wanted to be saved. He took her to a Baptist church. He showed her what it was. He expected her to be disenchanted with it. He wanted her to hear sermons and the boring of church; instead there were rock concerts and speeches about the anti-Christ: Kissinger one week, Brezhnev the next. Citlali wanted to go up front and be saved. She insisted he go up with her. He did. He figured, how could this be bad for her? He had things he believed in; he should let her have such things. She got really caught up in it. She bought things from the Marantha gift shop. Banners, stationary. Soon the apartment was full of it. He couldn’t say anything, because he’d led her to it. He discovered that other sailors from the photo lab went there too. The sailor and Citlali began to socialize with these Navy men outside the church. But the whole idea of Christian fellowship revolted him. And every week a different anti-Christ. He quit going to the church.
Corsica had grown bitter towards him since he’d refused to buy the house. He feared he had become just another man to her. When he saw her, they weren’t able to talk the way they used to. She was more drunk than ever. Tlaloc had moved out.
He discovered Lali was more American than he wanted her to be. She wanted to live like an American. Started calling herself Susan. Idolized Sonny and Cher. Read movie magazines. Wanted to drive a Camaro with an Indian painted on the door. They moved again. Lali desperately wanted a child. The doctors said she couldn’t have children. Ovarian cyst. It was swelling and obstructing her fallopian tubes. She would clip pictures of beautiful children from magazines and put them in a scrapbook. She picked their child out — it had to be a cross between the two of them, black hair from her and his blue eyes. The little girl on the blue Northern bathroom tissue package. She would only buy that kind of bathroom tissue. She would save the wrappers.
The sailor’s parents — Minnesota Lutherans — came out to meet the bride. Citlali later told the sailor that his father had Frenchkissed her when they met. He couldn’t believe it. But suddenly he could see the picture of Citlali forcing her tongue into his father’s mouth. His father had said nothing when Corsica said she was a pagan, that she had named her kids after pagan gods. His parents just smiled at all of it, those effervescent grins they could not remove. Lutherans don’t talk, they wait until they get home, and then they pray and simmer.
His brother came to visit, his little brother Paul, to see the Pacific Ocean. Before leaving, Paul asked to see the sailor alone. Paul told him he thought Citlali was a slut. The sailor slapped him, hard. But it didn’t seem worth bringing up with Citlali. Things would get better, he was sure.
He came home from work, another hot day. The windows were open and he heard a phone conversation. Lali was talking to a sailor she once knew. Telling him how excited she would be to see him.“I can get away from him on a Friday night. I can say I’m going to my mom’s,” she said. He went in and told Lali to hang up. He was angry and jealous. She said she was going to see the man anyway. The sailor told her to get out. She left in a couple of days. Moved back to Corsica’s. He helped Lali bring her things over. Corsica looked at him as if he were the devil.
He was dazed. Everything he knew was wrong. Everything. He had been deceived and rejected. By everybody. The Navy gave him a lawyer. The divorce happened so fast. Two signatures on a piece of paper. He was cracking up. He asked his superior officer for sea duty as soon as possible. The CO got him into a photo lab on a Canadian ship for months.
When he came back, his Navy stint was over. He was disillusioned with life. He got into therapy. He got back with his Navy buddy. The buddy told him things he hadn’t known, things Barbara would tell him after the sailor and Citlali had gone off together. He found out that Barbara and Citlali used to go to the USO to meet sailors. And make money. That Corsica was born Mary Smith in Columbus, Ohio, and had gone to Mexico City in the ’30s.
He ran info Citlali five years later. It was at a shopping mall, and she had a man with her. An overweight man with long hair. Citlali had remarried. The sailor had been married and divorced again. Citlali asked him,“Do you still believe in Our Savior?” He said no and that he thought maybe he never had. She said Corsica had died of cancer. He felt very bad. That woman, with all her makeshift ideas, he had thought was going to live forever, but she just turned to dust. Citlali lifted up her dress, right there in the shopping mail, to show him the scars from her operation. She was so proud of it. “I can have babies now,” she said.