Conversations at a Wartime Café
Sean Labrador y Manzano is a single father, a poet of postcolonial eroticism, and independent scholar. He believes in poetic justice: that one day soon he can pay all his bills (child support, student loans, credit cards, etc) through writing. In the mean time he ambles from gig to gig to gig. The experience of underemployment compels him to contemplate at wartime cafés (as all cafés are wartime cafés during a time of war) the benefits and contradictions of military reenlistment.
New Look Army.
Do you have any tattoos or body piercings? YES / NO
Do they advocate any antigovernment, racist, or sexist activity? Explain.
Of course, don’t you know both my father and stepfather have tattoos of their own? Followed by uncles. As early as I can remember, I have told myself, I will have better ink than them, with more depth and definition. Why limit art to an anchor, or to a military acronym, or a caricature of a sailor on shore leave?
1. Hic Sunt Dracones. A palimpsest. Between the scapulae, two opposing dragons, one green, one orange, both gravid, entwine a sword the length of my spine, faceoff at the hilt, a grim reaper erupts between them, mediates their violence. My 18th birthday present to myself, 6-months late and 6-hours in the making, completed at Skin Deep, Honolulu, between University of Hawai’i Summer Session poetry workshops with Cathy Song. I have always wanted my first tattoo to be done in Hawai’i. I wanted a design representative of what I was at the moment: restless, chaotic, not in spiritual harmony. The grim reaper contained an immolating potential. Reigned it in. For how long? Without a tiger?
Most people shudder entering a parlor. It’s antiseptic, the chair salvaged from a retired dentist, and the stenographer pumps up or down, the body scaled within reached of the needle. I am good under the gun for three hours, riding the drone, obeisance, afterwards the immune system repels the field composition, pushes out ink. Yes, the body discourages inscription, rawed image into ekphrastic slurry. How to justify “resistant harmonies?”
Four years later, a more promising piece: Indra dreams, fetal in a lotus corm, tribal egg, third eye awake, anticipates emerging, anticipates destroying the world. Fail not to mistake Hermann Hesse’s Emil Sinclair homage. The heads of dragons, drowned beneath petals. He is 15 hours old in a thousand year life span. He is the foreshadow, the uncanny resemblance of my son. Yet snakes in the mirror pool, avatar of Abraxas. I can only hope for the best.
2. Stigmata. Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” inspired the mermaid ascending the length of the right rib cage. Her gas mask allows her to breathe in her polluted element. Her wrists are sliced, and not reluctantly perpendicular to veins. Including the aura of finger waves, she matured at 9-hours. I commandeered Zebra’s sound system, meditating on Kitaro.
3. When Raven roosts nearby, a death approaches. Who carries the soul to heaven? Raven. Who carries the messages and prayers to heaven? Raven. Who is sign and signifier? Raven. When omphalos is the center of the universe, the Raven in Braids, of Tlingit-origin, it’s belly my navel circumference, deliberately reaches below the waist line, talons entangled in pubic hair, resigned to fly to no other heaven, because it is heaven on Earth. What if I got waxed? For 3 hours? Would I still desire the sky? Only when he midwifes the second coming.
4. An Asuang. Until she haunts my left rib cage, I will continue to imagine her eviscerated. What other creature of the night is a mermaid’s companion? She’s not political at all. Or, she keeps politics out of our relationship. She is morally manic. Feeds on stray lovers. She will never go hungry. Without her, I have a slight tilt in my step, a limp only she can lift.
I have been asked why I do not sleeve? Rather, why I am not as explicit, advertising, boasting. Betweenness of public and private. Sleep with me, shower with me, find me at the beach or in the pool, or dance with me then again be the voyeur at a dress-optional club, be the doctor administering my physical. Nuts and I will cough for you too. Be an Asuang, and I will self-identify, here is codex, the writing is beneath the skin.
Have you ever or have you now: Rashes, sores or scars?
YES / NO / UNSURE
Do your scars hate? Explain.
1. Barbed wire from barbed wire trellis. Harvested in Apong Pio’s cinderblocked garden in Kalihi, reminder of out of reach bittermelon. Right arm snagged when pod refused, the verse rusted from elbow to wrist. My first meditative endorphin high. We had dinner without it.
2. Salmon-colored splatter, or dendrites abstract rendering. Benign cyst cauterized from right shoulder performed before the first tattoo by Navy Reserve Dermatologist at Oaknoll Naval Hospital. Yes, health care at its best. No bureaucratic paper work.
3. 2-inch branding, perpendicular to flexors. My fading left triceps Zippo happy face administered by a Bowling Green U.S.S. Port Royal shipmate in Portsmouth, Virginia two years earlier intrigued Big D. After a slow episode of Babylon 5, over a blue flame, a straightened paperclip glowed magnesium-white. Lady Jessica, of the house of roadside burgers, watched in horror; flinched for me. Like butter, like consent, like lava, it melted skin, lodged in to subcutaneous flesh. Good thing I was drinking. The endorphin high lasted to morning. Lingered the smell of my burning. Sex does not compare.
4. Take your pick:
b. Rat bite
c. Baseball Bat
e. Manila Hemp
g. Christmas lights
h. All of the above or none at all
I lather daily 1000 i.u.s of Vitamin E on my neck. The scar, more like a rash or in appearance, the size of a palm, reptilian, worse days like cheese grater, is the next obstacle delaying my paperwork to continue on to MEPS. Army Recruiter wants it clear, perhaps smooth as a baby’s bottom. There’s no turning back the clock. Rather, 240-grit is reachable. I tell him, in its former condition, the scar collared. A rougher neck. He is convinced, that even in its diminished form, it would not pass the physical. Which puzzles me. I would be expecting scars after a tour in a combat zone. So why am I expected to enter the service without them?
Army Recruiter only noticed because I cut my hair. Before that, he did not insist inspecting each and every tattoo or scar. Though I have described them on paper. Now, he’s stupefied, the dimensions render several conclusions.
I should have informed him that two women have deliberately kissed me there. Though one was drunk, the other sober. Perhaps affection is not a passing grade, but it should warrant readdressing the social stigma. I am not chimerical. I am not monstrous. I heal slow.
So the timetable is pushed another month. Now I alternate free-weights between the pushups. The condominium pool has been uncovered for spring. I look forward to the run and the pull-up. I am more fit than when I first enlisted. My regimen is similar to how I prepare my body for tattooing.
So again, the multiple choices. I have entertained each:
Before it grew into immense size, a peck no different to a love bite, it was suggested, then a few day later, erupted another peck, thus another hickey. Succubus? Ghostly lover? Am I an amnesiac, do not remember the names or the faces of the evening tryst? Who gave me first hickey ever? The Mitochondrialist never addressed the discoloration. To this day, I think she suspected I was cheating. I wasn’t it. Sadly, even though I suspected that she suspected that I suspected, we didn’t have the words or courage to bring it up. It wasn’t a hickey. And I saw no one else.
b. Rat bite
Speaking about immense size. Where I lived in the loft, I was not alone. I would have preferred counting sheep. Rats in the walls, I suspect, indulged while I slept, gnawed my neck. They had to be Rodents Of Unusual Size. Have I been wearing the plague? Where are superpowers?
c. Baseball Bat
Another suggestion, this time from a New York Mets fan from Queens. A slugger sent my neck down town. It must have happened at the bottom of the order.
Such a kiss proves the existence. I have been looking for this species of Vampire, first in New Orleans when in my search for the “White Pilipinos,” the product of inter-racial breeding between Manilamen, deserters of the Spanish fleet and European colonists of the Louisiana territory. I surmised I would be better off looking for them prowling the wharfs or the clubs of the French Quarter. I offered myself. I swear meeting one at The Crystal. Her name was Nicole, from Oregon, looking for her kind too. The Asuangs unintentionally brought to the New World when pressed into service, what calling card do they have? Punctures? It is the only explanation why some Filipinos survived the Pacific crossing while others did not. Food was aboard. While Anne Rice coped with “her loss” writing Interview with the Vampire, I contest the ethnic identity of Big Easy’s bloodsuckers. Lou Diamond Phillips is Lestat! And so I did feel her there, on the floor or at its edge. Found the predatorial glance, a territorial acquiescence.
e. Manila Hemp
What was inherited, when a ghost passing in the night, gave up his noose when he saw me peaceful? The hangman’s knot claims. Malakas is the strength of a yoked beast of burden. No one knows exactly how many Pilipinos were lynched in California for violating the color barrier, or when the last hanging drew applause. When you have been imported for stoop labor, lifting your eyes at woman has no value in asparagus. In an earlier posting, I defined the male gaze within the context of postcolonial eroticism—returning the gaze onto the oppressor (male or female), onto the predator, to reverse a gaze that desires to one that makes the object undesirable. For every gaze a lynching my neck shares. At home in the branches, I gaze back at you.
Before Americans lynched Filipinos, Spanish cranked the chair, the rawhide biting. Was I found guilty for petty theft, transporting contraband to irreverent mountain tribes, or the link to an Illocano rebellion? When choked, even lies lacked air. Was I found worshipping Buwaya, or warning derelict priests the Asuang looking for them, or was I so indigent, far from home, I paid the family debt, field-testing apprentice executioners.
Again Hic Sunt Dracones. There’s an alternative to cleaning shit, piss, puke, snot, guts, blood after an execution, and it’s not not having one. Wonder why crocodiles have a taste for humans? Buwaya rolled into the shallows and snapped the neck, ate his meal in silence, the zebu in the pasture, glad it wasn’t him.
g. Christmas lights
The Mitochondrialist’s surprised birthday decoration. Above my futon bed, taped mini-lights to ceiling. One cold night after the holiday, losing adhesion, fell across my pillows. I rolled on top of them, and unaware of the slow even cook, burned through the night. Rarely, do I think it, but the mark reminds me of her, what is she doing with her life? Where in the world does she live? Would I meet her again? Perhaps the best girlfriend ever? Drug free. Not an addictive personality. Didn’t even drink or smoke. Didn’t fidget. Didn’t fidget. First person I told about the story found in “Conversation 14: What Little Boys Are Made Of,” from a Monterey County founding Irish family, I was from the other side of the tracks, living in a loft she illuminated. She studied psychology, how chimpanzees communicated humor. Everyone else studied fiction or poetry. No vocal or inimical Catholic baggage. Our only talk of marriage was not having sex before it. Otherwise, she’s the only girlfriend to not talk of children, vows, commitment, or sharing an apartment. Junior year, she studied abroad in Scotland. Of course the relationship ended when I professed waiting for her. A year later, I met her in the stairwell of Moffitt Library. She was going up, I was going down to the computer lab. I almost did not attend Cal—but I thanked her for being the only person to believe that I can get in.
h. All of the above or none at all
All, what else can explain the scar’s ontological persistence? Withstands apricot scrub and pumice stone? Cortisone or loofah? Finger nails?
Or, none, because sometimes facts cancel each other out. Some phantoms are more convincing.
Sadly, I exceed the US Marine Corps’ age cutoff. I’d be the perfect Leatherneck.
Scratched what I could not have. Myths to live by.
Christmas lights? Army Recruiter shook the truth.
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