The Lake (beginning sneak peak of a story I’m writing)

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I never would’ve thought twice about them if it weren’t for the lake. The lake, a wide glass mirror beaming a triumvirate of inverted mountains like flower petals right before they fall. The lake, days away from most other human life, so still it shakes you with the sound of your own mind. You trudge uphill for unbroken hours through woods denser with pines than the New York subway with people, and you start seeing faces in the bark. The red dots marking the trail have faded, but turning back you’re just as lost, so you make up songs like your 6-year-old self and hope you’re on the right path.

And finally you, your throbbing legs and your overstuffed backpack, wind up the final loop and arrive. The chill of altitude, the sting of the close sun, the wrinkled burnt fingers of peaks cradling you from all sides. The large log house by the pebbled shore: the refugio, where you will stay. Your home away from home. You are ready to see people!

You throw open the front wood door and holler an “Hola!” ready for some smiling hippie to greet you with a hot mate tea. You’ve walked here from El Bolson after all, Patagonia’s bohemian bowl: a town with a dreadlocked tango teacher, more guitars than computers, and clowns swinging on makeshift trapezes in the main plaza. There French and Israeli farmers feed you organic blackberries, young Buenos Aires transplants preach the existence of forest gnomes, and little ethereal children pedal bathtub-shaped yellow boats in a pond.

“This is one of the last refuges left in the world,” a former Grateful Dead groupie tells you as you take a break from singing the Beatles at his campsite on the edge of town. He’s a 1970′s flower child from Spain who lives in a tent with no phone or watch.

A natural refuge, a haven from technology and the “system” as we know it. The wild mountains free us, make frogs become sage spirits and the full moon a magnet lifting our feet to levitate.

So when I open the front wood door at the lake, I imagine a sacred respite with a few other hikers strumming stringed instruments. “Hola! Hola?” But no one responds. I walk in.

Staticky voices argue in Spanish on a cube in the corner: a soap opera with weak reception through DirectTV. Shutters are drawn. A woman in sweats dips a torta frita (fried bread) in jelly and chews. She sits alone in the house, eyes stuck on the screen. She looks my age. I sink.

“Hola, necesito una cama?” I ask for a bed. Finally she looks at me.

“Si. Claro.” Of course. What a stupid request, she knows I need a bed, but I am interrupting her show and her home, she seems to say. She shows me upstairs, where the soap opera seeps through the floorboards to the ear-to-ear mattresses, all empty but for one couple of sleeping bag caterpillars who speak only German.

“Where are you from?” I ask my hostess in Spanish, somehow hoping she’ll crack and warm as the temperature drops in the air.

“Buenos Aires.” The big city. Dark mess of hair in a forgotten ponytail, face of a middle schooler in math.

“And how long have you lived here?”

“Five years. You can pay later.” She retreats to her chair and looks at the TV, not flinching as a bear-like man with wood in his arms walks in the doorway.

“Hola,” I say with a small smile. He looks me up and down then gives an awkward nod and looks away. “This place was recommended to me by a woman from the restaurant La Confluencia in El Bolson, She said her son owned it. Is that you?”

“Yes.” He stuffs the wood in the furnace, and says no more.

Heaviness pulls on me even as I step outside, and I walk straight to the lake. I try to meditate them away, but first a deep deathlike sadness fills my exhalations. I stand on my head to wash it away. The lake is my best friend.

Well, I came here to be alone. And that is what I will be.

Georgina, Poster Child for Argentine Sex Workers

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Georgina Orellano is a robust, assertive, doll-faced 27-year-old who has been abused by one man in her life: the father of her only child. Her strongest support to leave him and take back her autonomy came from her clients, who said she should never allow a man to mistreat her.

Those clients were all men. They were all paying her for sex.

Since age 19 in Buenos Aires Georgina has been a “sex worker,” which she uses instead of “prostitute” since she says the latter word is used derogatorily by people trying to banish the field. She’s the first sex worker with whom I’ve ever spoken at length–and she’s determined to convince me of the legitimacy of the job.

“I like the work. I like to stand on a corner and wait for someone to stop and roll down his window. I like the feeling of power over men,” she says. She’s got on a black tank with a sparkly bug-eyed owl and a skintight short pink skirt. “I like the ability to put a price on myself, to talk and to learn [my clients'] stories.”

Georgina tells me the work has allowed her to study in a university, to raise a child–and even to have power over men. She says the only problem has been the cops, who occasionally appear to demand part of her wages or those of her coworkers.

So Georgina joined the Argentinian group AMMAR, an organization of about 5,000 sex workers who have proposed to legalize and to regulate prostitution in the country. Right now no law officially prohibits or permits the job, but AMMAR’s legislation would allow people to work independently with protection from the law. The closest law that exists is in the Netherlands, but the Argentine law would not extend solely to a certain “Red Light District” as it does in the Netherlands.

Georgina also likes to be the poster child for sex workers–so she started working at AMMAR. She says the field isn’t for everyone, but neither is cleaning houses, or working in a factory, or being a nurse.

“I wouldn’t want to be a housekeeper, and that’s what my mother is. Other people work with their hands, but we work with our sexuality,” she says. “We work with our vaginas, and that’s what’s seen as bad. It’s just our work, but we live in a machista, conservative society and the theme of sexuality is totally taboo.”

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When I ask if she’s struggled with–or even changed–her relationship with her body from “working with her vagina,” as she says, she accuses me of carrying judgments like the rest of society.

“I separate. When I work I work, and then I’m done working.”

I try to imagine making that separation, but can’t. “She must be lying to herself,” friends tell me. Of course we’re all, at least slightly, different.

Georgina started the work the summer after she graduated from high school, and she’d only had sex with one person, a boyfriend. She’d gotten a job watching a well-off woman’s children while the mother went to work, and eventually the mother told Georgina she made her living as a sex worker. One wealthy 40-year-old engineer was on the hunt for a new, younger female–and the woman thought Georgina might just be perfect. Georgina decided to meet the man for coffee.

“I was so nervous, I thought the whole world knew what I was about to do,” Georgina recalls of that day. “But he was very sweet, and he treated me well. He paid me more in two hours than I made in two weeks watching the woman’s children. We talked for an hour and he told me all about his life, and the sex only lasted about 15 minutes.”

That engineer is still one of her regular clients (he sees her three times a week).

When Georgina decided to pick up other customers she went to a corner in Buenos Aires’ neighborhood Villa del Parque, and she started befriending the other sex workers.

“There’s a code. If a woman has already had your client she’ll tell you what he likes, what to do so he’ll finish more quickly,” she explains. “If I’m not attracted to a man, I’ll only go with him to his car because that’s 15 minutes. I won’t go to a hotel, take all that time. I’ll only be with him for a few minutes.”

A surprising number of Georgina’s clients have wanted more than the sex, she says–they want to go for coffees and talk to her all about their lives because they’re lonely. And she has three regular customers who have appointments with her twice or three times each week.

“Some men say it’s more economical for them to have a sex worker a few times a week than to have a girlfriend to have to pay for all week. We’re not going to bother them. We’re not going to go asking them where they are. It’s easier for them,” she says. “Our hour of work ends and then it’s over.”

Anti-prostitution advocates say the field is inevitably exploitative, but Georgina says that is a serious misconception.

“We’re not suffering for our work. We suffer if we’re single mothers,” says Georgina, who has been alone raising her 6-year-old son since he was one year old. “I’ll keep working this job until my body no longer works.”

Buenos Aires’ Fiberglass Jesus Man

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We cram together in stadium seats, waiting for 10:40 p.m. A packed audience from Chile, America, Brazil, and around Argentina pulls out cameras, ready to shoot. Parents clasp little ones in their laps.

A shrill “Hallelujah” recording pierces the Holy Land air. Time for the Resurrection.

He emerges from the plastic mountain and ceremoniously ascends. A fiberglass Jesus several times human size. Hallelujahs ever magnifying from the speakers embedded in the hill, crowd gaga-eyed and madly flashing photos.

Jesus turns his head to the left, leans it back and closes his dark haunting eyes. He turns back straight, opens his eyes and stares. At me? At you? A sacred robot’s grave stare.

Jesus wastes no time, and six Hallelujahs later he’s descended and disappeared again within the mouth of the synthetic rock. A 3-minute resurrection. If you missed it too bad, you have to wait until the next hour (or next day if you miss the 11:40 slot).

This is the top attraction at Tierra Santa (Spanish for Holy Land), Latin America’s prized only Biblical theme park right by the Buenos Aires airport. The constant planes overhead either distract or supplement the heavenly allusions, you pick.

Perhaps you’d like a reenactment of the birth of God, with a light show included? A chance to pose with naked Adam and Eve before their doomed first apple bite? Or a stroll through
fiberglass mini-Bethlehem?

The recent Sunday night I visited the park was packed–staff said it’s boomed with popularity this year since the new Pope is from Argentina. His photo’s in the entrance and employees have started saying that he’ll be gracing the Holy Land with his presence in May (but his visit to Argentina hasn’t even been confirmed).

“Yes, rumor has it,” one Biblically robed manager at an on-site restaurant told me about the Pope’s visit. “We’re very proud.”

The director of the park, however, wouldn’t respond to my questions about the gossip after I sent him multiple emails.

Pope or no, the 13-year-old Tierra Santa is successfully drawing a steady stream of visitors, mainly from outside of Buenos Aires.

“It transports you,” one petite twenty-something-year-old girl from Southern Argentina told me as she strolled in shorts through the little world with a friend. She’s been a handful of times the past several years and said technological advancements in the park had deepened her holy experience there.

And a teenage girl I met in Buenos Aires recently even went on a field trip with her elementary school (also called Tierra Santa) to the park. Years later she still vividly recalls, and praises, the light spectacle of the 7-day creation of the world.

“It was beautiful,” she said, insisting that young children could connect more immediately with such a concrete demonstration.

As for me, when I watched Jesus pop up from his pseudo-mountain I felt completely jarred. The shrill Hallelujahs gave me goosebumps as I marveled at the meaning bestowed in this painted synthetic stick.

Then my mind went to jeweled statues in churches, elaborate movie sets, even printed ink on book pages. Provocative language on signs or graffitied walls. A diamond ring or hundred dollar bill. Where do we draw the line in what to give significance and what to laugh off as the biggest farce of all?

Here’s to you, Fiberglass Jesus Man.

Uruguayan Utopia in Flux

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You find yourself galloping down a dune, hail pellets whipping at ringlets and swimsuit already salty wet from falling post-headstand into a tugging eastern bath. Thunder swept in fast and only rough grass or sand footprints, no roads, lead to the nearest refuge beneath the ledge of an empty white box hut. Others huddle drenched as well and a Brazilian girl compares this to “Into the Wild” in Portuguese which then cycles through Spanish and English. You’re all laughing as the only time passing is the number of raindrops emptied from the clouds. A boy from Montevideo sets rolled paper afire and weed smoke twists up with the mist.

Candles, a fat moon and Times Square of stars later breathe kind light on all who declined the day’s last open-air auto off the protected peninsula. A peninsula, but more like an island or nation with distinct freedoms and codes. Tango barefoot or splash naked in a storm while a cow saunters past. Walk door-to-door selling banana chocolate chip cookies. Approach a silhouette singing and become entwined on a dune.

Don’t drive, use the Internet or ask for the time. And if you want your own house, make your own plumbing and electricity stand-ins.

This is Cabo Polonio, a mystical beach village deemed a national park with no streets on the Uruguayan coast.

“If you could capture what magic it is, what it does to people, I’d be impressed,” a new Uruguayan friend tells me. The magic of the intimate, the essential.

Cabo Polonio is a sandy “V” shape robed in shorelines with the sole power for the lighthouse, a beacon reigning over rocks with hundreds of barking sea lions at the land’s end.

Year-round only 27 families remain in the hand-built rainbow shanties and a rural elementary school in a one-room blue cottage teaches five students math and how to put metal shoes on horses’ hooves or to spay a dog. Rough winds, remoteness and cold black long nights drive most everyone away, except for some fishermen, natives and a few who gain inspiration from the harsh winters.

But come January hundreds of visitors enter each day, staying for hours, or several nights, or several weeks, by riding in a few government-sanctioned vehicles from the park’s entrance several kilometers away. Cabo might just swallow you and tempt you never to leave. That’s what I felt, from the moment I lurched up in an auto across the dunes under the sweeping pastel sky.

Each day when the sun bows below the westward waves applause break out across the beach. Together we watch the orange moon climbing from the opposite sea.

Then time for guitar strumming, rest and empanadas. Starting at 2 a.m. the young and feverish dance in candlelit boliches (clubs) until the sun reappears, and then they fall into hostel bunks or bungalow rooms for a few hours of hard sleep.

Cut off, thoughts elongate. Conversations drift. Hours dissolve, and bonds quickly form.

It certainly seems that simple for the visitor, like me. But for those who have their whole lives here, they not only face the elements but fight a constant battle to keep their homes–there’ve been years of disputes with the government over who has rights to the land.
The history is more than complicated, but leads to a precarious existence for dozens of the homes.

The two sides of the peninsula have had two separate private owners, while the end including the lighthouse is state-owned. The government has ordered buildings demolished as part of its 2009 claim to the land as a national park, and one of the private owners is fighting residents in court with the claim they are squatters with no right to the property.

Then there’s the “wealthier” side of the peninsula, whose private owner already sold off the houses individually back in the 90′s to residents who could afford them and razed the rest.

But for folks still living in Cabo, there’s not a way to even imagine leaving.

“If they really make us leave I’m ready to fight the state in court. This is my life,” Danny Machado, the “president” of the community (who lives on government land) told me. The past two years he’s been holding meetings with other residents to draft a plan that would allow them to stay and also preserve the natural area. They just voted on the final plan this December, and are now waiting (hoping) for the president of Uruguay to sign it into effect.

Machado, who owns the popular buliche Lo de Danny, is third-generation Cabonian. His grandfather was hired by the government to plant trees in Cabo and then his dad hunted sea lions (also contracted by the state) and uncle became a fisherman.

Machado is convinced that the government’s conversion of Cabo to a park was so the state could take control of the land’s fate.

“They want to take [the land] for their own use and their own type of tourism,” said Machado. But the state has asserted their plan is to protect the delicate nature, and some residents are hopeful this is the beginning of talks to formalize rules over sanitation, sewage and other environmental concerns.

“They won’t clear out Cabo, the people have too much history here,” one summertime resident told me in disbelief that the state would really make such a controversial move. It can be hard to believe in large societal changes when you’re in such a wild and tranquil place.

But even without roads and electricity, Cabo has already transformed–from a discreet fishing village to a destination spot for well-off families, creative types and young vacationers from throughout South America. And each year Cabo has two faces, that of the two-month summer and of the empty rest of the year.

“You spend 10 months alone and all of the sudden you see all these people. By the time you get used to them all the people leave,” Cabo life-timer Gustavo Olivera told me. He runs a restaurant in Cabo and has thought about leaving the peninsula “for ambition,” but any other place feels wrong.

“I don’t have an alternative. There’s not enough oxygen elsewhere,” he told me.

I, too, choke when I pull up to Montevideo after days in the hushing cloak of salty winds and candles. Maybe I will return.

Argentine Ramblings (written 1/18)

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Apart from the mind rattling heat, I keep failing to believe I’m on the far end of the opposite hemisphere. Buenos Aires is perhaps the easiest new place I’ve ever tried to settle into, a sleepless but mellow (compared to New York) maze of low reaching buildings, a convergence of immigrants consumed by their own styles, families, quests. Greenery, bold street art, inefficient buses and trains and the expectation you’ll be later than you say.

A self-assured city, even amidst a mini-crisis of electricity and finance: some buildings have gone weeks with power outages this summer and the “illegal” (but unmonitored) black market to trade dollars for pesos is at a dramatic 11 pesos per dollar. When I bought my ferry ticket for Uruguay, the boat company wouldn’t even let me use pesos when they learned I was from the States. Foreigners had to use other currency since the peso is so unstable.

I’ve been keenly turned outward, yanking buckets of answers from the people I meet. The journalist, searching, searching for just what I can share about the place. Have written two brief articles (drafts really) about a group of sex workers fighting to legalize prostitution and about a transgender nurse who overcame odds (about 90 percent of transgender people in Argentina apparently enter prostitution), and am researching more about prostitution/sex trafficking/gender expectations here. I know these issues abound in the States too, but for some reason it’s taken coming here to become so fascinated in them.

And what else? I’ve visited a Biblical theme park where a fiber glass Jesus is “resurrected” every hour by popping out of a fake mountain, turning his mechanical head and shutting and reopening his eyes, and descending back to disappear (more on that in a future blog post or article).

I’ve ridden ignorantly on a borrowed bike with a flat tire around Buenos Aires and almost been hit by a car.

I’ve chatted with a 70-year-old poet with a milk-blonde bob and two pampered puppies named Gala for Dali’s wife and Theo for Van Gogh’s brother. I’ve been rejected from taking her picture since her first husband overly photographed her and so in a way stole her soul.

I’ve made a kind new friend who baked me a loaf of challah bread and calls me “patience” to remind me of the quality I supremely lack.

I’ve met a man who bathes in a mausoleum of the famous Cemetery of the Recoleta since he works repairing the graves and says he has nowhere else to go. I’ve been interrogated by his uncle, who runs the grave repair company and wanted to make sure I wasn’t a journalist…

I’ve spent a day with a 17-year-old girl I met randomly asking for directions and then learned she’d been without power for 2 1/2 weeks in a middle class neighborhood of the city.

And I’ve gotten eat by bugs on an island off Tigre (north of B.A.), where people use only boats to get around.

And more…

OK, now that I’ve written this less than poetic blog post from my journeys I expect and hope to be freed to write more. It’s always about breaking the ice…

Off to the majestic (so I’ve heard) Uruguayan beach of Cabo de Polonio.

Learning in the South

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You learn and learn what’s outside of you and it all leads you back to you.

Geography color taste conversation the laws and unkept laws of other countries beverages requested in another language cardboard collectors young sullen eyes graffitied propaganda  platform sandals January heat unclimbed trees all sweeping back to the topic at the bar:  What is life.

Argentine sushi overpriced red wine that’s not overpriced for the unjust gift of informal markets

Claim your own lostness

“Did you come here to denigrate yourself”

“You just denigrated yourself”

“What does denigrate mean” the third person asks at the bar table

And we both feel better, elevated in our self doubt

We all know bankers and politicians and priests don’t own the world. We do. And that’s what’s so terrible.

The Queen of Williamsburg on Furs and Death

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He has an Australian accent and a fur headband dangling between pinched fingers.
He is torn.

“Honey, you hesitate, you lose.”
Thick tulip lips a relief sculpture co-dominating her face with square Dior goggles.
A cartoon stationed full-time on Bedford Avenue.
89 and a face printed on Brooklyn Industries t-shirts.
A cartoon speaking aphorisms.

“Don’t wear low-cut shirts. What are you, trying to prove you have a breast? Don’t get tattoos, cannibals get those kind of things.” The first words I heard her speak last year.

She is called the Queen of Williamsburg. She virtually owns the block. She knows everyone.
It’s like she’s never alone.

“You know everyone,” a friend told me walking through the neighborhood recently. I nodded, waving at a subway singer I’d written about and a restaurant host I’d picked up at a bar. “It’s like you’re never alone.”

The Queen wears a red coat for fall, so bright her walker disappears.

“This girl put me on the Internet,” she tells the indecisive Australian. “I’m famous.”

I did put her on the Internet.

Then I saw her so often smiling on her bench that she became a nuisance, tugging at me to stop when I passed so I started crossing the street.

Last week she tapped my shoulder in the pharmacy. We both had colds. She hugged me.

“My husband died when he was 51. My son died when he was 41. You didn’t know that, did you.”

No.

“I got there when my son’s body was still warm and I threw my body on his. Then I couldn’t stop screaming in our apartment. I just kept screaming and screaming, they didn’t know what to do with me.”

“How did it happen?”

“I kept screaming.” Pause. “Some people just aren’t lucky.”

Grabbed my shoulder.

“You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” she said.

Eyed me with love and walked away.

A few days ago I dreamt about Leonora. Plump cheeks vacuumed from her face, shriveled and spotted with mascara. Naked eyes withered peas.

But here she is, reigning over the block.

“Buy it. Don’t hesitate,” she tells the Australian. “If you wake up tomorrow dead, it’ll be too late. You never will have had that fur.”

The fake dead animal expands like a grow-a-dinosaur in water.

“She’s a wise woman,” I tell him. I don’t wait around to learn his fate, though I’m the most indecisive person I know.

Stranger Love

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She tosses a blanket over her head, prays to the pigeons beside her upright roller suitcase. Like me, chilled after extreme heat. Perhaps.
Red shoes. White sweats. She is done. Or undone.
We could be in the Andes in Peru, I cocooned in a sleeping bag on a schoolhouse floor, she a shepherd on grass she was born to guard but never own. Seasons rip before us.
Sit back a moment, she nods, huddled and clutching her fleece cover around her ears like a bonnet in the breeze. Let’s relax.
There is a despair here, yes, but here we are.
She drifts into kisses and candles, birthdays and tiny toes pumping a swing like an elevator operator. Just a push of the button.
Whose toes? Her toes.
Blowing her nose, saying Hail Mary’s. No one will bother her here.
Real life, I’m not sure what you are, are you the suit puffing an E-cigarette bobbing past,
to the Hare Krishnas’ cymbal soundtrack, unawares.
Are you the coral lips under sunglasses screaming “cockroach” in the deli and shaking straight blonde hair.
Or the Bible piled with sweatshirts and bottles in the grocery cart by the park statue.
Are you the lattice work, endless endless building of we don’t know why or what and then we don’t see as our eyes skate past too often, horses on a carousel.
A growing up and out of a center that seems the magnet of Earth, all centers spinning forth.
Let me go crawl under the shepherd’s blanket, across the concrete where shoddy green pockets charge up in the aftermath of a cheap haircut, so for a moment we are warm.

The Summer That Never Came

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It was the summer that never came. September sneaked in and store racks preached the hour of hoodies and leather, but the Earth had skipped a beat. The summer had never come.

“Can you find the goodness in all beings? Find the goodness in all beings, you can.” Wisdom spoken in her head in the grocery store.

Two blocks away a man stood peeing on the sidewalk.

Did he ever have a summer?

“I didn’t have a summer either,” the crystal healer said to the over-analyzer in the supermarket. “Nobody had a summer. It went too fast this time.”

But it wasn’t a matter of speed. And it wasn’t because they hadn’t gone swimming or earned sunburns. Not for lack of hallucinogens or 3 p.m. techno mosh pits.

They’d soared in jets, skinny dipped in rivers, bought and broken sunglasses.

Lathered glitter on their backs, sung Paul Simon.

But the summer had never come.

“That’s stupid,” the peeing man would have said had he heard them. “Sounds like summer to me.”

But they never arrived, never gasped into the fresh bright sweat-air afire with shock and desire. The people-sea was not pregnant with tasty heavens or blunders.

They moved, but because they should, because that’s simply what they were to do.

Because that’s what they’d done last summer.

It’s true, the peeing man would have said, I piss here because I’ve pissed here before. This corner, by this coffee shop. This is what I do.

Summertime is just a few months of warm weather. So the supermarket pair picked up and headed south.

Switch hemispheres. Try again.

Why We Dye Our Hair

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When you tuck an iris behind my ear, and we crawl through the cave as the rain comes,

even when “you” are just my hand and and “we” are just my left and right sides I feel like the softest loved-est flower girl about to bless a Southern wedding

with my bare feet on a grass aisle;

I feel like all the people running with their headphones should probably take them off since the taxis yelp to drills and heels clanking in concrete sync;

I feel like that bouquet you caught in the back of the school bus last month is my own rock, the amethyst one I kept in a box as a child and padded with pillows like a mummy in a well-tended tomb.

When you toss my legs over that branch like that, and you hang me upside down to swing like a monkey on a jungle gym and you sing “Om” with me (which they say was the whole world’s first sound), I feel like you and I don’t need Facebook or chewing gum or even movies to keep us going. We don’t even need men or ice cream.

When you shove my stomach against the trunk, and we’re 12 feet up and you glue my limbs around its waist, we breathe in as it breathes out, and we notice.

But let’s face it: we’re too antsy to live 300 years in one place. So we go get highlights in a salon.