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The Jazz Somnambulist

Christopher Miguel Flakus

My name is Diego Monterola, but it’s possible you have heard of me by another name.

I wouldn’t say I’m famous. In some circles perhaps. Aficionados of a certain niche; detectives scouring that vague intersection between psychopathology and art. Lost souls haunting the internet, collecting strange cases for their own private menageries.

You wouldn’t believe the kinds of things, the kinds of people that exist right under our noses. The kinds of things people get interested in; there’s just no telling. I suppose there’s some comfort--pride, even--in knowing that amongst the broken my name rings out, has even come to be associated with a certain panache.

Of course, I didn’t think of it in these terms at first. Keep in mind, my life changed overnight. Everything turned inside-out like an old, withered sock.

Listen closely now; it’s important if you want to understand the rest of my story: It’s not that I don’t like jazz particularly, it’s that I don’t really care for music that much in general. I never have. Well, maybe some Beethoven. When I was younger, I briefly considered taking piano lessons after seeing that film, Immortal Beloved, with Gary Oldman. But it went no further than a child’s whim. I’ve always been more interested in books and films. As far as music goes, I’m just not that picky. Something nice and unobtrusive in the background. A good soundtrack that enhances the movie—that’s all I need.

I prefer to read. And I read best in perfect silence. Novels, especially.

You see, I’m a professor of literature at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. I wrote a novel when I was a younger man. Not my favorite work, but by far the most successful book I’ve ever written, a kind of youthful bildungsroman influenced by the hippie writers of the Mexican literary movement known as La Onda. Not that I’m a hippie, or ever considered myself one, but I adored the works of José Revueltas and José Agustín and, being a middle-aged Mexican intellectual, I shared their leftist ideology in a general sort of way, which is pretty much a prerequisite for working at the university. My family were a bunch of proud lefties too; you could say it’s in my blood. My uncle even described himself as a Stalinist. We were proudly proletariat, though I’ll admit to becoming more of a moderate as I’ve grown older.

Alright. Since we’re being honest here, my little novel is the ONLY book I’ve ever written and I still don’t care much for it. But it earned me enough acclaim and secured my position as a scholar. For many years after its publication I wrote in peace, submitting to journals from time to time and lecturing two semesters of the academic year and most summers. Every now and then I’d attend a conference or give a talk.

I spent my personal time reading alone and watching films. I didn’t even own a dog. I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t unhappy. One day looked and felt very much like the next.

I’ve always told my students that life’s too short to develop more than one major interest. It takes complete focus and dedication to become an expert in any field. Writing and teaching took up all my energy. For this reason, I regarded other interests, even most human relationships, as distractions.

So, dear reader, try to imagine my surprise when I began waking up to Buddy Rich LPs stacked next to the bed. Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Fruschella, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Bill Evans...all these musicians I’d never heard of before or had heard mentioned only in passing, their faces staring coolly from monotone record jackets, holding the keys of their instruments as if they were a pair of brass knuckles.

My first thought was that some prowler, some warped jazzman night stalker, had broken into my apartment and left the records as his esoteric calling cards.

I live in a neatly furnished room on the third floor of an apartment building in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood on the corner of Calle Salamanca and Sinaloa. It’s a small apartment building, but we do have a security guard in the lobby. A youngish man no older than thirty named Lalo. I don’t know his last name. To me he’s only ever been “Lalo,” in charge of buzzing people in and out the front door.

I called down to his desk and asked him if anyone had come into the building after I’d arrived for the night. He said the only person he saw after midnight was me. I’d gone out uncustomarily late and returned just before sunrise.

I had no recollection of this. As far as I remembered I’d read in bed for an hour or two as is my custom, then turned the lights off no later than nine-thirty.

The front door to my apartment was locked and deadbolted from the inside. No sign of forced entry. Everything looked exactly as it had the night before.

Except for the records and an expensive new turntable, receiver, and amplifier which I discovered set up in the living room. That just about gave me a heart attack. My palms turned cold as ice. It looked so strange, tubes still glowing faintly orange, dials and smooth wood grain panels fresh from styrofoam packaging that had been scattered carelessly on the rug.

I felt a bit like those monkeys at the beginning of 2001, when they see the black monolith. The object in my living room seemed equally alien to me. I choked back a kind of scream. A knee-jerk, primitive reaction to the situation—not at all dignified.

I looked through the boxes and found the receipts: everything in my name. I checked my banking app and saw every single purchase reflected. I assumed someone had hacked me or was playing some kind of bizarre prank—online trolling as the gringo kids call it (another North American export the world could have done without). I cancelled my cards and the very next day went to the bank and received new, temporary ATM cards. I felt sure that would be the end of it.

But this was only the first experience. The first of many.

With the new credit cards, new charges appeared. Drinks and meals at the Zinco Jazz Club on Calle Motolinia almost every night. It seemed I had been driving, searching the city for late night jazz clubs, record stores, and placing orders online. All of this while asleep. It defied logic.

I began receiving packages almost every day. Square cardboard boxes marked “fragile” in

faint red letters, sometimes up to a dozen at once. Inside the cardboard packaging I’d find three to five records pressed in bubble wrap.

After a quick online search, I realized that some of these records were exceedingly rare and expensive. Collector items.

This strange affliction threatened to drive me out of house and home. I couldn’t trust myself when I fell asleep. There had to be a way to put a stop to it.

I made an appointment with Doctora Calderon for the following day. I woke up, showered, shaved, and got dressed. I tried to remain focused, but on my way out the door I stumbled over a new drum set in the living room. I fell onto the carpet amid a crash of symbols and hollow floor toms.

I didn't have time to deal with the unwelcome instrument. I didn’t even need to search for a receipt. I knew by then that I’d purchased it.

Or rather, the Jazz Somnambulist had purchased it for me.

Dra. Calderon took a special interest in my case. She had been my shrink for the last twelve years. I couldn’t say whether our sessions had helped me much, I still struggled with bouts of depression from time to time, but over the years our routine had become something of a comfort to me. And she was enthusiastic, always into some alternative approach, often going to symposiums and writing books that no one bothered to read. I had several signed copies collecting dust on my bedroom dresser.

She was smart and I enjoyed our sessions, if for nothing else, the chance to verbally spar with her once a week.

The doctora seemed positively fascinated, almost gleeful when I gave her the news of my new condition. This annoyed me at the time, but she also promised to help rid my mind of its invader. I had to believe that she could.

“This is what must be done, Señor Monterola,” the doctora said. “You must reconcile with this other part of yourself. It’s no more than a manifestation of your deepest, most repressed desires. Your condition bears similarities to other cases I’ve encountered. This is an area of some interest to me. To quite a few of us, in fact. We’re on the fringe of our community, so to speak. Not exactly in the mainstream. But then again, you’re not a conventional man yourself and we’ve been working together for many years. I normally wouldn’t do this, but there’s a conference at the Auditorio Fray Bernardino de Sahagún at the Museo de Antropología this weekend that I would like for you to attend. Do you know it?”

“Yes,” I told her. “I’ve been there before, speaking on a panel about the works of Mariano Brull, the Cuban writer.”

The Doctora smiled approvingly.

“There will mostly be other psychologists and academics in attendance, but all of the patients will be there as well. It’s an invaluable opportunity for you to better understand your condition. And of course, a chance for some of my colleagues to meet you. There’s much to discuss in your particular case. Somnambulist Studies is an emerging field. A lot of very prominent people will be there. Diego, they’re going to be thrilled to meet you! You own a tuxedo?”

“I think so. It’s bound to be somewhere in the back of my closet. I can’t remember the last time I wore it. But listen,” I said with irritation, “do you think there’s a cure?”

“With the proper treatment,” the Doctora replied, lighting a long white cigarette. “But why would you ever want to be cured? You’re going to be a star now. You’ll see. Your affliction is career-defining. And you’re an academic. Think of the possibilities! Maybe one day you’ll write something about your condition. A first-hand account by an established could shine a spotlight on the work we’re doing.”

“I’ll write a book,” I said brusquely, “as soon as you cure me.”

“Imagine the possibilities,” she said, her eyes glazing over as if staring at something only she could see. “They might even make it into a film one day!”

My taxi dropped me on Reforma avenue, right at the entrance to the museum where the enormous statue of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, stands forever in silent testimony. Five minutes later I arrived at the Auditorio Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a conference hall at the center of the Museo Nacional de Antropología. The walls were painted the color of a blood orange, a fiery color, warm and inviting. Although a small sign announced that smoking was banned indoors, the air was thick with cigarette smoke.

I lit one myself and stood for a moment admiring the mural at the entrance to the auditorium. It’s quite beautiful, depicting a feathered serpent battling a jaguar. Splashes of green and yellow blurred to give the impression of movement.

I was surprised by how many people were there. All kinds, of all ages, some of whom seemed quite strange and out of place. Young people with rings in their noses and tattoos on their necks. Certainly not the usual crowd for this auditorium.

Inside the conference I met others afflicted with inexplicable sleepwalking maladies. Susana was a woman of around forty, originally from Venezuela, with straight black hair and a wide, friendly face. She awoke every night at precisely 3:00 am, always at a completely different age. Of course, physically she remained in her forties, but mentally she woke and found herself much older or younger than she actually was--sometimes a two-year-old infant, wailing and afraid, completely helpless. Other days she’d wake in her eighties or nineties, too depressed and weak to leave the house, baffled by the multitude of digital channels on her TV.

Most of the time Susana ended up somewhere in her twenties or thirties. She’d learned how to function with her somnambulism at a relatively high level, though she was always a little slow the day after a particularly intense episode. She worked from home as an internet coder and this profession, she explained with a radiant smile, had turned out to be quite suitable for someone with her affliction. She made her own hours and worked at her own pace.

I enjoyed Susana’s company. I found something very reassuring about her. She seemed to have made peace with her condition.

Some of the others I met at the conference were less lucky.

Jonas Fuchs was a young Jewish man of German descent who’d been born and raised in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City. He came from money; I could tell by the way he dressed and spoke, but there was nothing arrogant about him. He told me he had no profession himself, though he’d attended several years of university. He had bright, almost orange hair, smooth as corn-silk and just as fine. His skin contained the kind of pallor I’d only seen before on corpses.

He was an unfortunate looking young man, and like me, Jonas’ subconscious invaded his mind while asleep, though it seemed to house an infinite number of personalities. Each had its own specific characteristics and proclivities. Some were male, some were female. Some were extroverted, uninhibited—completely unlike Jonas. Others were inaccessible to him. He’d awake as if from a deep, dreamless sleep with no recollection of the night before.

Jonas Fuchs was a thin, drooping man with hunched shoulders and a skittish expression. He gave me the impression of being someone who didn’t get out much—a man who chose to live in isolation. He explained that he came to these conferences only out desperate need, in the hopes of meeting someone who might help him.

More than once, as we spoke, Jonas was unable to make eye contact with me, though he acted perfectly polite in every other way. As we talked, he turned slightly away from me and spoke softly. Several times during our conversation he gave off the unsettling impression of talking to himself, as if it didn’t matter at all whether I was there to hear him speak.

I stayed close to Jonas, listening intently, and came to know the horror of his life. My heart filled with pity.

Jonas never knew who or what would take over when he closed his eyes. Would he wake up with a swastika tattoo? A gun in the bed? Would he wake up with a shaved head, having converted at some point during the long, obscure night into a Hare Krishna or Buddhist? Jonas lived his every waking moment tormented by the endless possibilities of sleep. He often woke and found himself in bed with men and women he’d never met before. A truly awkward experience, especially for a shy person like Jonas. He’d mutter something about having had a nice time and how he shouldn’t drink so much, then snatch his clothes and bolt for the door.

Other personalities were darker, more destructive. Jonas shared his worst experience with me: the night he woke up in an alley inCoyoacán, soaked in blood.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” he said in a trembling voice. “I suppose it’s because your own condition, how you describe it, seems very much like mine. Even more than any of the others here, I mean. What I wouldn’t give to have it be more like it is for you! Christ, I’d embrace it, even if I fucking hated jazz! But perhaps this is why I feel comfortable enough to avail myself to you. You’re the only person I’ve met who can come close to understanding.”

“I see why my condition seems preferable to yours,” I told Jonas, “but what scares me is that it’s so unpredictable. Sure, it’s jazz records today, but who's to say it will stay that way? He can do anything with me, has complete control! And I have no idea what he--what it--wants.”

Jonas shrugged and drained the small plastic cup of white wine in his thin, bony hand before continuing his story:

It was late at night when he awoke bloodied, not far from his house. It was sheer luck he managed to walk home without anyone seeing him. He showered and searched his body for the source of all that blood but was horrified to discover no wounds. The blood wasn’t his.

Jonas scoured the newspapers for reports of murders and found several that were grisly enough to account for the amount of blood. He struggled over whether to turn himself in, bewildered by guilt, but in the end decided to leave it up to chance. If homicide detectives somehow discovered proof that he’d committed a crime, he would confess and accept whatever punishment awaited him.

But no policemen ever came and no explanation ever surfaced. Which isn’t very surprising. This is Mexico City, after all.

“In some ways,” Jonas told me in an anguished whisper, “not knowing makes it so much worse. It could have been an animal’s blood. It doesn’t necessarily mean I hurt or murdered a person. But living in fear that I did, that it might happen again, is unbearable!”

His story had a profound effect on me. Compared to Jonas, my condition was positively benign. I felt a deep affection for this tortured young man. In an incredibly significant way, his curse made my own feel much lighter.

I’ll admit that I began to feel quite at home among my new comrades. I didn’t mind the attention. Everyone seemed so interested in hearing about my case--the mysterious records I received by mail and the instrument that had appeared in my living room. I felt a bit like a movie star doing a Q and A session. What confused me is that some of the people in attendance didn’t seem to suffer from any sleepwalking malaise. There were a few students of psychology, but the others just seemed to be, I don’t know, interested in us as if the whole thing were a comic book convention and they were just fans. It was strange, to be sure, but I accepted it. I even started to embellish a bit, here and there, to add a little dramatic flair for my new audience. Never before had so many people (certainly not my students!) ever listened to me with such focus and consideration.

“So, you’ve never had an interest in jazz before?” Susana asked me. “Have you tried playing the instrument?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know how.”

“Have you ever just tried? To see what happens?”

I admitted to her that it had never occurred to me.

There were different stages of acceptance I should expect to go through, my fellow somnambulists explained. The initial shock, followed by fierce denial. Then paralyzing fear. Intense panic. Ultimately, they all wound up wallowing in a serious depression. Susana told me that some had taken their own lives during this phase. She considered it the most dangerous step in the journey. She’d barely managed to get through hers, a dark period that lasted almost a full year after her initial diagnosis.

“It felt like the ground disappeared from under me,” Susana said, “and I just kept falling. I could have kept on falling forever. That feeling—it was absolutely bottomless.”

She sighed and brushed an errant strand of black hair away from her face.

“This is the important thing: The last stage only happens if you reach for it,” she went on. Her tone of voice became serious then, almost stern. “You have to accept your condition fully and understand that it may never go away. Some of us can’t be cured. To be quite honest, most of us won’t be.”

I told her that I understood. I began to feel terrifically warm and safe sitting there with her, not at all disconcerted by the serious turn our conversation had taken. I nodded and looked directly into her eyes. I became aware of how much I enjoyed the sound of Susana’s voice and her smell, soft and flower-like with hints of orange and something else, something warm, like freshly baked bread.

“Ironically, that’s the only way you’ll overcome this, by giving into it a little. And remember,” Susana added, taking my hand in hers, “you don’t have to do it alone.”

I’ve had ample opportunity in my life to analyze loneliness and how it can behave, at times, almost like thirst. You don’t realize how parched you’ve become until you take that first sip of water. Then you can’t stop drinking.

That’s what Susana became to me: a cold drink of water for my parched soul. It’s true that she wasn’t the most beautiful woman I’d ever been with, but she proved to be kind, fiercely clever, and above all we had our conditions in common. One of us stayed awake while the other slept walked. We kept each other safe. Out of this grew a bond so strong, so unexpected, that I couldn’t imagine my life without her.

On nights when she woke up as an infant, I swaddled her in wool blankets and brought her warmed milk bottle. I rocked her gently back to sleep in my arms. On nights when I woke up as the jazz somnambulist, Susana spent the evening listening to records with him.

She tried several times to start a conversation, but he always lifted his hand (My hand? Ours?) to indicate some change in the music, an intricate drum solo, modal playing, or a dazzling piano scale. His eyes closed in rapture, his feet drumming along to the beat on the living room rug.

Susana decided not to be pushy. When she became too tired, she’d simply ask the jazz somnambulist to keep the music down. He’d nod politely and give her an emphatic “thumbs up,” reaching for an expensive pair of headphones he’d purchased the week before.

Susana and I developed a happy life. At ease around each other, more in control of our somnambulism than ever before. I stopped having episodes every night, but there were still two or three a week.

When she moved into my apartment it felt as if we’d already been together for many years. Living together seemed the logical next step for us. I could work in my study when I needed to, or read. Meanwhile, Susana would sit on the TV room sofa and write code, laptop computer balanced on a throw-pillow, her fingers dancing rhythmically over its keys.

In our free time we began listening to the jazz records. I mean, really trying to hear them. By then Susana had learned quite a bit about the various musicians and styles. She was very inquisitive. It came naturally to her. She loved puzzles and paperback mystery novels.

“Of these, which is your favorite?” Susana asked me.

I felt silly, but she seemed so determined. I tried my best to answer honestly.

“This one’s familiar, but who is it?” I asked, flipping the record sleeve over on the carpet. “Tony Fruscella!” I exclaimed. “He’s good. Reminds me a bit of the other one, but not as sad.”

“Chet Baker,” Susana said with a dreamy grin. “He’s my favorite. That voice. So romantic.”

“But Tony Fruscella can be more frantic, complex,” I said, reaching for another record and my cold glass of Carta Blanca. “A little bit more like Charlie Parker. Yes, Bird. More like Bird.”

“Can you tell me the difference between their styles?”

“Bird is bebop and Baker is more like cool jazz. Like Miles Davis.”

“Like early Miles Davis,” Susana corrected.

Birth of the Cool,” I said, smiling proudly. “But do you think any of this is actually working? For all I know my somnambulist will be upset. I’ve looked online, some of these records are collector items. Perhaps they weren’t meant to be played.”

“We’re tapping into something important here,” Susana said, moving closer to me and laying her head in my lap. “You’re in a conversation with yourself. Listening to these records is like receiving a coded message from some inaccessible, secret part of your own mind. It’s reaching out to you. I’m not sure you understand how meaningful that is. If I could somehow do that with my own condition, I’d make the most of it. You’re trying to tell yourself something. It has to be important. Now that you’re really listening, have you noticed anything?”

“What should I have noticed?”

“It’s been five days since you’ve received any new packages,” Susana said.

To celebrate our first three months living together (how quickly we’d become one of those couples, the type of people who not long ago would have made me gag with disgust) I decided to take Susana to the Zinco Jazz Club. It’s not that I suddenly liked jazz, but she’d helped me develop an appreciation for the music and we’d bonded over it. I understood that in its own way, jazz could be as aesthetically and intellectually stimulating as a great book, requiring the same careful and attentive consideration of each element.

One doesn’t simply read Borges or a book like Ulysses as passive entertainment. Just as one doesn’t listen to Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman to whistle along to a catchy tune. It’s supposed to be a challenge, meant to stimulate the intellect. But there’s more to it than that. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something born in the soul, for lack of a better term.

The Zinco Jazz club sits inside the vault of an old bank on Calle de Motolinia, downtown Mexico City, just a few blocks away from Bellas Artes and the Palacio Nacional. We parked in a garage near the Casa de los Azulejos, a famous Sanborns restaurant known for its blue-tiled facade and walked a few blocks over to Calle Motolinia. I held my phone in hand, following the direction of its digital map. It was a cool night, still damp from the afternoon rain. I noticed a slightly sour smell in the air, a bit like milk gone bad, combined with car exhaust and the cooking smells from street vendors selling raspados and elotes. That mix of smells evoked something in me: A feeling that was part nostalgia, part disgust.

At first, I thought we’d come to the wrong place. The exterior of the club looked like any block downtown: a slab of dark sidewalk below a rose-colored colonial facade, wrought-iron bars over windows framed in blue-and-yellow tiles with floral patterns. A small neon sign set in black glass indicated the entrance to the club. Without it I couldn’t have been sure, though I half expected to recognize something.

It wasn’t until I’d almost made it inside that I began to have a deja-vu feeling. We entered the club and the feeling grew stronger, palpable. Especially when the hostess greeted me by name. I couldn’t help noticing how gorgeous she was. I felt a sudden surge of panic. Not knowing what to do, I introduced her to Susana in the hopes of catching her name during their exchange and playing the whole thing off casually.

Mucho gusto,” Susana said, kissing the hostess on the cheek.

Encantada,” the hostess replied, introducing herself as Arabella Padilla, but not before flashing me a brief, disapproving look.

“Let me show you to your usual table, Diego,” Arabella said, all smiles now and graceful as a doe, though the familiar use of my first name made me wince. It surprised me to hear it from a stranger.

I’d assumed the somnambulist would have used a different name. Why not his own? Surely he had one. Wasn’t he, after all, autonomous? Didn’t he make his own decisions, have his own tastes? Why should he use my name?

Susana and I exchanged glances, but she hadn’t seemed to notice Arabella’s attitude toward me. I felt suddenly guilty and thought I’d made a very grave error by bringing her to the club. Anxiety pulsed in my chest, spreading up my neck and flushing my face. Cold sweat beaded my forehead.

I decided I’d fake a stomachache after the band played a couple of numbers. But I couldn’t bear to drag Susana home early. She looked so lovely and I knew she’d been looking forward to this night. Perhaps we’d have one drink, maybe two, and some appetizer--then we’d get the hell out of there.

If I timed it right the evening could still be a success. After all, my somnambulist was merely a lover of music. He’d shown no destructive urge. He didn’t seem out to ruin me.

I pictured Jonas Fuchs waking up drenched in blood, wandering the streets of Coyoacán like some bewildered werewolf. I decided right then to be a little more grateful. There were those who had it far worse than I did.

After we ordered our drinks, some molletes as an appetizer, and two club sandwiches, I excused myself to the bathroom. I pulled a half dozen paper towels out of the dispenser, dabbed away the sweat on my face, even pulling up my shirt and reaching under with paper towels, mopping up streams of ice-cold perspiration that poured from my every pore. I spent a few minutes splashing water from the faucet onto my face and taking deep breaths. Once I’d sufficiently calmed down, I left the bathroom and returned to my seat.

Outside the men’s room I found Arabella leaning against the wall next to the ladies room. She held a cigarette in her mouth. Tendrils of smoke seemed to emanate towards me, beckoning me like curled fingers. The hallway was gloomy. I could barely make out her silhouette and occasionally, when she took a drag, the glowing orange ember seemed to illuminate her face in a way that made her seem almost frightening. I smiled at her cordially and began to walk past her back to my seat.

“You’ve got some nerve bringing her here,” she said to me.

“I’m sorry, I-I don’t know,” I began to say.

I wanted to tell her that I had no idea what she was talking about, but I couldn’t. I had a flash of a memory, something akin to the deja-vu I’d experienced earlier. I thought, this is what it must feel like for someone coming out of a coma or a period of amnesia. I saw myself in bed with her. I knew the smell of her body and the taste of her mouth. And more than that, far more intimate things that will remain my secret, if you don’t mind.

“I don’t suppose I’ve ever told you about my affliction?” I asked her.

“Oh, please,” Arabella rolled her eyes. “You’re not going to start with that bullshit again, are you?”

“I’m afraid it’s not bullshit. As far as I can remember, this is my first time ever being here.”

“You come here almost every night, Diego. For the past six months we’ve been sleeping together. I’m not stupid, I figured you were married. You never spend the whole night with me, always in a rush to make it home before dawn. You could have had the decency to tell me or at least not bring her here. Fucking musicians,” Arabella said, her eyes shone in the gloom like jewelry. She dropped her cigarette and extinguished it under her high heel. She walked away from me, the click of her footsteps echoing down the hallway outside the restrooms. I suddenly recalled that I’d bought those shoes for her. Or to be accurate, he had purchased them for her.

The bastard was out to ruin me.

I returned to my seat with Susana even more anxious than I’d left it. I gave her a weak smile and put my hand over hers.

Mi amor,” she said. “Are you all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Things are coming back to me,” I told her in a wavering voice. “Bits and pieces. Perhaps this wasn’t a good idea. Maybe it’s too soon for me to be here.”

“This is exactly where you need to be,” she insisted. “I think you’re so brave.”

I squeezed her hand and sat back in my seat. I drained my drink in one pull.

I’m completely fucked, is what I was thinking at that moment. There’s no getting out of this one. Would Susana understand, if Arabella told her everything? Could she forgive me? She had to see that it wasn’t my intention, that I had no control over it, that until that night I’d no idea who Arabella Padilla was! I’d sound like a cad either way. But Susana would have to believe me. She’d have to understand.

“Damas y caballeros,” a voice over the PA spoke, wrenching me from my thoughts. “Welcome to the Zinco Jazz Club. It’s my distinct pleasure tonight to invite a very special guest onto the stage. The best jazz drummer in all of Mexico City: Mr. Diego Monterola!”

A spotlight suddenly illuminated our table, blinding me. I raised a hand over my face to block the light. The room erupted in applause. I turned to Susana, hoping for some answer from her, but her mouth hung open and her eyes were wild with confusion. Arabella had called me a musician, which I found odd, but I assumed this was something my somnambulist self had said to her. It couldn’t possibly be true.

Without knowing quite what I was doing, I stood up from the table and made my way to the stage. My legs moved as if on their own accord and I felt blurry, almost drunk, though I’d only had a few timid sips of my drink.

Backstage I greeted the band, all of whom seemed to know me. I moved to speak in the hopes of somehow clearing up the situation. Couldn’t they see that this was all a terrible misunderstanding? I wasn’t well. A sick man. I shouldn’t have been there to begin with. I wanted to explain everything. Tell them that I’d never played an instrument in my life. But this is not what happened.

I suddenly knew every detail, like that Ornette Coleman was from somewhere called Fort Worth in Texas and that he’d grown up poor, but eventually grew so famous that he was given the keys to the city. I even knew the keys had been flown to space by an astronaut before Ornette received them. Little things, meaningless things. I knew them all. Things like notes unfurling, signifiers in a coded language in which I’d instantly become fluent. Everything, all of life is an improvisation. This thought stood at the core of me, radiating something into my blood and brain that was at once familiar and chillingly unreal.

Then came the visions. I’m not sure if that’s the right term. More like movies playing in my head or information being transferred into me as if pulled from a hidden storage device.

I saw Charlie Parker getting a blowjob from a woman in the back of a limo as he ate a greasy chicken wing and a young, somewhat horrified Miles Davis sitting across from him trying to avert his eyes. I saw it as if it were happening right in front of me. I felt the whole mythology downloaded directly into my brain. I knew that Chet Baker had his embouchure ruined when he was beaten over some owed drug money. He’d been hooked on dope, like so many of them. I knew all about his amazing comeback, his tragic relapse, and his eventual death in Amsterdam, plummeting from the balcony of his hotel, an intricate web of cracks radiating from the point of impact on the grey sidewalk. Tony Fruscella also died. He was young, hopelessly strung-out on heroin. He only managed to put out one album. Bill Evans, broken by cocaine and the death of his brother. Dexter Gordon was imprisoned and addicted, though he was lucky and managed to quit eventually. And of course, Charlie Parker, the greatest of them all. Tragedy after tragedy. Genius after genius.

Most importantly, I understood the music. I knew I could play because somehow, inexplicably, I’d been playing all my life.

I took the joint that Paco, the pianist, handed me. I lifted it to my lips with a relaxed ease, puffed deeply several times, filling my lungs, though as far as I knew it was the first time I’d smoked the stuff in two decades, not since my first or second year of college.

Even my panic at this fact felt muffled. All I could feel was his calm, his cool headedness as we passed the joint on to Sombra, the guitarist, then Jacobo, the band’s tenor saxophonist. The band started talking about the set. Something frenetic, they said. You’ve got two ladies in the house watching your every move, carnal, they told me. You gotta do something fuckin’ fantastic. Algo chingonsisimo. I took the joint back, or we did, the jazz somnambulist and me.

Yes, in fact, we did do it together. In that moment I stopped being an observer stuck in his--our--head. Suddenly we experienced perfect unison, shared everything, all our thoughts. Two distinct parts of the same human being melding, becoming one. We’d somehow been divided from each other, somewhere along the line, for reasons perhaps neither of us will ever understand. But none of that mattered then.

Yes, we thought, this is how it was always meant to be.

“Salt Peanuts,” I told the guys. “Let’s go classic and bombastic.”

As I began to play, a feeling I can only describe as the rustling of hornets filled my brain. I could feel each insect individually, wings beating, mandibles gnashing, and I could sense their totality, as a hive. I call them hornets only because this was the image that sprang to mind--not in the moment itself, but later, looking back.

How much of life is constructed in this way, through reflection on experience? Memories mirrored infinitely, though not identically. An assemblage of components mistakenly perceived as a single, identifiable whole. All I am left with are approximations.

What little I remember of the set itself is a blur of light and color, the smoky smell of sweat pouring warm down my back, my drenched dress shirt stuck to my skin. I was a living metronome. I was a machine. I never missed a beat. The rhythm poured up and out of me like a life-giving spring. I’m making it all sound exceptionally beautiful, but I’m leaving out the most important part. I was terrified. This feeling of absolute loss of control--it scared the shit out of me. All I could do was hang on for dear life and pray that the roller coaster would grind to a halt. That control would be restored.

The next morning, I awoke in my bed with no recollection as to how I’d gotten home from the club. The sky was orange and purple, a truly uncanny combination of colors that made the city hazy and red. It looked to my eyes as if all of Mexico City had somehow been transported to Mars. The sunrise in the city is always spectacular. After all, this is one of the most polluted cities in the world. It comforts me to think that even contamination has managed to contribute some beauty to the world.

To my great surprise, Arabella and Susana slept on either side of me, snoring gently and beautifully.

I got out of bed and got dressed, careful not to wake either of them, and made my way to the kitchen. I boiled water and added a large scoop of Nescafé to my favorite mug. Then I sat and looked at the front page of my Reforma newspaper. I felt a great many things at once: guilt, confusion, and frustration--I would have at least liked to remember what the three of us had done the night before. I knew that a conversation would be awaiting me when they woke up, but I didn’t want to think about that. I had no idea what I’d say.

Control, it seemed, had been restored to me. I turned the pages of the newspaper of my own accord. For a moment I scanned the blocks of text without really thinking about what I read. I felt nervous, uncomfortable in my own skin. I’m not much of a morning person and I’m completely useless until I’ve had a cup of coffee and a cigarette, so it’s not unusual for me to feel unlike myself in the mornings. Add to this the fact that I suffered from one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever had in my life and you can understand why it took me a moment before I came across the story.

My eyes suddenly fell upon an article detailing a grisly double murder in Coyoacán. Two girls. Very young. Sliced to pieces and dumped behind the old church. Police had no leads as of yet, which meant they likely wouldn’t have any later. The Mexican police are a bunch of corrupt, lazy cowards. Totally useless to anyone. Little more than a gang of criminals in uniform.

I suddenly understood that the killer had been Jonas Fuchs. I imagined him drenched in blood again, lost, filled with vague fear in the tomb-like shadows of Coyoacán at night. Did he make it home in time to shower the blood away again and wait? wait for an answer? A knock at the door? Or would he turn himself in, had the guilt and uncertainty become too much for him to bear this time?

These facts, I’m sure, will be forever kept from me. The outcome of his life will remain a mystery I actively seek to never solve. Why? Because I prefer to keep my sympathy for him intact. That poor, tortured, unlucky boy.

I sipped from my steaming Nescafé and folded the paper against my knees. The smell of coffee and cigarette combined, a perfect scent, better than any perfume. I watched as the sun rose over Mexico City. The clouds glittered, now pink. I struggled to remember the last time I’d seen the sun rise. I took a deep breath and began to meditate, just like the jazz somnambulist had taught me (he’s a Buddhist, you see, this I remembered from our “encounter” the night before). And he was there with me. Both of us. Not exactly separate. Not exactly whole, but reconciled.

Somewhere in the distance I heard music coming from an apartment’s open window. A recording of Chavela Vargas singing “Si No te Vas,” a song my mother loved and often played in our home growing up.

I felt something dissolve in that moment and became aware of every itch, every strained muscle, the whole chorus of consciousness tuning up in my body and mind, making me ready like an instrument tuning up for its final gig. There was a struggle then, between us, my shadow self and me. Again, I’m forced to use an inexact language, for the experience I’m describing took place entirely inside of myself. I felt him grab at something, like a hand wresting control from a clutched steering wheel. I pushed (if it can be called pushing) back at him. I pushed and pushed, until something sort of popped and settled horrifically back into place.

Since then our identities have been at constant war. My mind has suffered a series of occupations, invasions, defeats, and swathes of surrendered territory, but there have been victories as well. I have stayed with Susana, who has since forgiven me, or rather him, for Arabella. As for Arabella, she remains a close friend and sometimes visits us for dinner. When I am lucky enough to be myself, to be completely present in my life, it is a very warm and full life that I find myself living. When I am gone from it, in that submerged and sleeplike space, when he is in control, I yearn for it.

Arabella has moved to a new building in Coyoacán and I worry for her. Before she’d fully decided on moving, I found ways of bringing up the murders during our dinners together in hopes of dissuading her. She just called me morbid. Susana laughed at that. Apparently she agrees, though I’ve never in my life thought of myself as being morbid. I told neither of them about Jonas. I’m not sure why I did not. Perhaps I told myself I was protecting them, but thinking back on it now, I was actually protecting him. If indeed Jonas was the killer. As time passes, I feel less and less certain. Mexico is a country full of killers. The more I think about it, it could have been anyone.

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