This week's New Yorker includes a stunning story by John Lee Anderson entitled 'Slumlord'. It tells the story of Caracas, Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, a city I no longer recognize. Ben and I lived there two decades ago, and started our young family there, and for me, Caracas will always be the city where I learned to fly. So in honor of that, I post a story, published ten years ago, in Woman Abroad, a magazine now out of print~
April in Caracas, before the rains. The Avila turns to a still, dry brown. Through binoculars, tiny scarlet cracks bristle on the mountainside. Forest fires, Frank tells her.
The city holds its breath, static with anticipation. But at night the tree frogs sing. Rennie lies awake, listening to Frank breathing in the dark. Then something brushes her skin, lifting the diaphanous curtains at the balcony door. Her feet touch the tiles as she steps outside.
The Avila mountains are an inky shape in the moonlight, swelling towards the high rises, like folds of theatrical fabric. Before them nestle the modern apartments, and the small white church of Santa Eduvigis. Her eyes adjust to a sway in the palm trees. She pulls a chair between the rubbery plants on the balcony, and scrambles onto the balcony wall. A dog barks in the flat yard below. She balances briefly, and then leaps into the darkness.
It’s the very first time, but she knows just how to do it. You push forward, holding your arms to the side, like you’re gliding through water. She surges and swoops towards the lane and the church, then rises up, hovering above the trees, pushing from the knees, and flying towards the mountains.
The hills are greener here, the landscape more complex. The undergrowth is thick and colorful. Rennie alights on a ledge and birds startle, with a scatter of wings. Her skin feels warm. A silent laughter fills the atmosphere, a bird conspiracy in consciousness. The air is new and she’s suddenly sure that rains will follow.
A strange hotel stands on top of the Avila and she runs towards it, barefoot down the path. This hotel has been deserted for years. Windows are cracked. Clouds float through the bedrooms and fog up the glass.
Six months before this Venezuelan life, Frank and Rennie went for drinks at the Rainbow Room on top of Rockefeller Center. That’s where he told her they’d offered him a job. “But Rennie,” he said, “we can stay in New York for the rest of our lives, if that is what you want.”
Caracas. She imagined herself standing at a coffee counter or dancing the meringue at parties. Contrasting this with long hours in a stuffy office on West 54th Street, there seemed no choice. Besides, the Rainbow Room was empty that evening: the wrong time of year. The season was over and the windows were white with clouds.
“What if you looked out of this window and saw a face peering in,” Frank said, “an angel with a harp tucked under one arm.” He pretended to be such an angel, wiping fog from the glass, and tapping at someone to open up.
Back in bed, after her first flight through the Avila, Rennie awakes to the aroma of coffee. Frank sits beside her, wearing only boxer shorts. “I think it’s going to rain,” he says. She kicks off the sheets and he grabs her foot in one hand. The sole is black. “My God, Rennie. Look at your feet!”
She looks down at the filthy soles, not knowing how to explain them. “I can’t wait until they turn the water back on,” Frank says. “This one hour a day business is getting old.”
She suspects she wont be weightless for long. Then, at Clinica La Floresta, the doctora moves something cold across her slimed belly. She points to the pulsating center on the ultrasound. “That’s the baby, right there.” Rennie listens to the heartbeat through a stethoscope, and imagines the baby like a tiny pony, galloping through water.
She must forget about flying. Instead, she stands at the balcony overlook, and watches a man with a papaya truck smoking cigarettes on the corner. If only she was the sort of person who took good photographs! But later that week lying on the bed, she can’t resist closing her eyes, and feeling for a second breeze.
A bird calls, and the zapatero blows his whistle on the street. Then she shifts into weightlessness. Her concerns become as light as paper. Her hands and feet prickle with a magnetic wrenching from inside. On the balcony, she stretches her arms to the sky. The air of Caracas is fragrant with sap. The mountains are like velvet, brushed with the shadows of passing cloud.
Then she lifts off and wafts with the breeze towards Parque del Este where monkeys chatter in their cages. Flamingos are poised one legged in the pond and she flies above it all, pushing and falling back in her invisible swing, forward and back, swooping and receding.
Several days later, she walks here with Frank after a tennis game. As they stand together at the juice counter, she opens her mouth to speak, waits and then begins. She wants to describe it perfectly: Caracas from her bird’s eye view.
Rennie clears her throat, looking at his face. After a tennis game, he manages to be both flushed and pale both at the same time. “Frank,” she begins. “I know you’ll find this is hard to believe, but I know how to fly. In fact, I’ve flown right here, over this very spot. I’m learning how to be weightless.”
He sips his parchita juice, and looks puzzled. “Weightless? What do you mean?”
But before she’s had the chance to respond, and while they are still side by side at the juice counter, the Avila suddenly changes. Shadows fall across the top of the mountains. The sky darkens, breaking with a crack and suddenly it’s raining hard. Her hair flattens to her head and she turns towards Frank, who shakes his head, soaked and laughing too. He grabs her by the hand and the dash up the hill, her sandals like wet cardboard flapping on her feet, and water running in rivulets down the curbside gutters.
Mango trees drop their fruit. She lies beside Frank on the bed, thinking up names for the baby. But no name is big enough to contain the child they imagine.
And still this other fantastical thing preoccupies. She cannot let it go. When she falls asleep at night, she sometimes tries to urge that magnetic feeling back into her limbs. She concentrates hard on each portion of her body: on kneecaps, thigh, and belly, until she’s ready to let them go. She waits to rise up and fly. But nothing happens.
The maid is ironing in the kitchen. Rennie goes to the balcony. She stands on a chair with sun bruising her eyes. Birds sing. The ice cream van on the street below whorls its mindless jingle. She opens herself to the possibility of flight. Lift, she urges. Lift up, now ~~
“What are you doing, Senora?” Rennie opens her eyes to see the maid, with an armload of ironed shirts. “You look so strange up there, Senora,” she says. “You frighten me sometimes.”
She sits for hours in the salmon pink living room looking at the mountains and listening to music. Her stomach grows and the baby inside kicks her. She feels something jutting out, a tiny elbow or a knee.
Then suddenly it dawns on her. It makes so much sense she wonders why she hasn’t considered it before. She’ll take the teleferico up to the top of the Avila and visit the abandoned hotel, alone, before the baby arrives. This will lay the flying to rest.
She sets out on a morning when clouds waft like scarves across the mountain top. She waits in line for twenty minutes. A cable car jerks up the hillside swinging and stopping along the way for tourists to photograph the view.
The top is misty and crowded with visitors. Vendors line the walkway to the hotel, selling gourds and macramé. There’s also a large cafeteria where you can buy yourself a snack. Rennie heads down the path towards the hotel.
Nothing is as she remembers. The hotel is different in shape and dimension. This is a 1950s monstrosity, while her hotel had been tall and delicate. She sits on a bench to catch her breath. Two or three boys loll against each other on a wall opposite, grinning. They have a huge black insect tied to a thread. It buzzes around their heads while they watch for her reaction, hoping to startle or repulse her.
Her mind has turned to other things. To a sense of betrayal that requires explanation. It unsettles her to feel self doubt when before there’d been conviction and the feeling of being chosen. There’s no need to stay at the top of the mountain much longer.
She decides to devote herself to the baby. She’ll shop for curtain fabric with a pattern of clouds and rainbows. There will be a baby shower, and birthing classes in a granite high rise downtown.
When its time to deliver, the birth is nothing like they described. Her belly is overripe and she’s passed her due date when something bursts inside and water runs down her legs. Frank drives her to the clinic and she sinks to the floor of the car.
There’s a blur of time and one long contraction while she pushes. The pain is almost pleasurable. The baby separates from her, moving through her and peeling away.
It could happen right now. If she wanted she’s sure she could fly. Her limbs buzz and the tips of her fingers cry out. Her breath becomes distant and a humming from within draws her upwards. But she doesn’t intend to fly any more. She is rooted here and Frank is holding her and he can see the baby’s head although she is somewhere else, climbing out of herself.
She pushes her infant into the heavy world. He’s here, a heavy slippery weight in her arms, compacted into flesh, his tiny face closely drawn and exact. The baby cries, outraged at the disturbance that insists he be here.
Later in her room she feels exhilarated. Her stomach is a collapsed parachute. Her breasts are full and hard. She’s amazed at his unfurled fingers and ears the crown of his dark head as he nurses. His face reminds of her a little old man, changes expression like the Avila changes with clouds that cross it.
Then she discovers them, starting at the shoulder blades as discrete as folded fans. She tugs gently on one, and watches it expand she takes in the beautiful web of cartilage and veins. They are not how she imagines wings at all. She always imagined feathers. But these are human wings so they don’t have feathers. They are delicate like silk and infinitely stronger. The skin is bluish, thin as egg white.
Frank stands in the doorway. “The doctors say we’ll have to decide whether or not to operate. She’s worried that he won’t be able to lead a normal life.”
Rennie smiles and Frank’s face relaxes. They know what they’re doing and will keep the baby just as he is.
She remembers, once in New York -- funny she should think of it now, but she remembers once she was waiting for a train on the platform at Rockefeller Center, and she caught the interest of a fat man with carrier bags. He wore a hat covered in badges and he rocked on his heels. He looked at her and gasped, as though at a vision she didn’t understand.
“Will his wings get wet when he flies outside,” he asked. It had been so long ago. Rennie was a different person then, and couldn’t think what he had meant. She thought he was mad so she never answered. Instead she turned away, ashamed. A train came in, and she took it.