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Bring the Children, Three-by-Three and Nine-by-Nine by Jenny Irizary

Although I was vice president of Kristen’s five-person “Metaphysics Club” in high school, I was neither a “crystal” nor an “indigo child of the millennium.” According to her, I just had a “puke green aura” and good penmanship, which earned me the job of recording the number of demons she saw each week. This was hard to keep track of, as they vanished and reappeared with “shifting faces.” Kristen despised quiet and cerebral “crystal children,” almost as much as she hated Latinos, not realizing that her best friend and second-in-command was the latter. She was an indigo child, who derived ESP from her “passionate nature,” as confirmed by a werewolf named Lucian that she dated. Just a few years before founding the Metaphysics Club, which upheld the Necronomicon as only slightly less authoritative than the New Testament, Kristen had been praying for the souls of Wiccan friends. By our sophomore year of high school, she was inviting warlocks to guest lecture on harnessing the energies of invisible dragons.

Meanwhile in San Francisco’s goth performance art scene, my brother Nathan exposed the performative flamboyance of Gregorian chanting, speaking in tongues, and call-response, indulging in their ritual functions to subvert what threatened me about their religious origins: that if our grandparents were still alive, they’d probably disown us as occult-indulgent queer sellouts to their missionary-colonized sugarcane plantation latinidad. Priced out of the Mission in the ‘60s, my father’s family moved anywhere they could pass for Anglo, intent on being the last generation to speak Spanish. Consequently, my brother and I ended up living in a small Northern California town, twenty-five years apart. Rednecks beat him for having a lesbian mother, wearing makeup, and being not-quite-all white. Nonetheless, he kept invoking that space between the hand-sewn in-seam of his skinny jeans and the skin underneath, breaking its signifying potential from biological essentialism and the gender binary. Our grandmother’s evangelism nourished what it excluded, closing the gap between reciting verse and quoting queer theory.

By the time my brother invited me to his last performance art show in an East Oakland warehouse before moving to Montana for more affordable housing, I had already tried to follow our father’s stories back to the Bay Area of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The only friend willing to accompany me to the show had gone to a Catholic high school in large part because she had envisioned a campus full of butch nuns playing basketball. And because her family had attended Catholic schools for generations, even the curandera who was buried alive as a bruja by the community that had sought her services for decades. For a time, Renee plotted to join a commune in rural West Virginia, but she soon discovered that the advertised “woman-centered goddess worship” was led by the male head priest of the otherwise mostly female congregation-coven. Disillusioned with the parochial school and pagan communes, she went to a predominately women’s college, where we became friends. Although our Anglo classmates reserved the right to dress in drag as nuns and practice feminist atheism, they were confused that Renee and I weren’t the “genuine article.” They had expected us Latinas to be exuberantly pious closeted nuns on the verge of awakening into womanizing tango dancers at their white savior touch. Latino classmates whispered (or yelled) that our Gomez and Morticia Adams costumes were just another form of self-whitewashing.

    With a year of college under our belts, Renee and I tried to pick out the English from the Latin in the gothic performance art collective’s website. “Follow the longest road along the darkened tracks,” might mean that we should look for warehouses along International Boulevard., MacArthur Boulevard, or countless other “long roads” near train tracks. So we drove alongside the aforementioned tracks until we found a warehouse with a broken and therefore enterable chain link fence. The only visible light leaked out of a half-open garage door, so I assumed that that was the most welcoming entrance. Inside were the shells of every car model that people could have lost over the last sixty years. A few still had tires, but most were missing everything from tires to mirror dice.

We heard voices through a doorway in the wall. Walking up the stairs inside, we only paused to shout greetings into the next landing. Although there was no response, a light flickered on. “Squatters,” Renee muttered. But the stairwell’s exposed beam-ribs made me think that whoever had turned on a lone lamp inside that doorway might have fingernails calcium-enriched enough to wrench our insides to the surface, so I turned and ran back down toward the stripped cars, followed by Renee. Just as we both reached for the door handles, a brand new red truck pulled up, the interior intact. A pale woman exited the car weightless, her blue eyes looking through us, two existential lap dogs trailing behind her. I inquired if she knew where a gothic performance art show might be located on the premises, struggling to pronounce the Latin in the collective’s name. “Room 303, on the third floor.” I wasn’t pleased, since I hate odd numbers. At least three is symmetrical, I reminded myself; two equal lines surround one if you squint at it. My unconscious squinting further unsettled Renee, who was struggling to trust that I would not invite a friend to become the inspiration for a true crime documentary.

The truck driver looked down at her dogs, touching one’s collar. “I left the hospital visitor tags. My partner is dying of cancer, so I come here to walk my dogs and meditate. It’s safer than walking outside.” Renee and I followed her, straining to hear her soundless footsteps on the concrete. When she pushed a button in the wall, doors opened to reveal enough industrial elevator space for three gurneys. Getting in after us, she pushed the dread button “Three.” When the elevator stopped, she pointed into a six-columned hallway as the door closed in front of her. Rather than having “neatly cracked concrete veins,” the floors resembled dirt-stuffed sores left to fester in the hallway’s organ flesh.

Of nine doors, the only one out of sequence was Room 303. A cheek-swollen and sobbing artist answered our knocks. “The show is cancelled, you fools!” Behind her, photography lamps made bright circles on a stained bed sheet. “Why didn’t your brother say the show was cancelled?” Obviously, the grown-up cool kids had directed me into a series of booby traps specifically designed to target my numerical neuroses. Everyone we’d encountered could be in on the prank; they even could be related. They wore the same put-upon expression, the artist’s lips quivering just as thinly over the same frown lines as the hospital visitor’s, even if the latter’s face was shock-detached by her partner’s mortality. But what made a middle-aged queer woman with a brand new truck feel safer walking her dogs inside a warehouse full of stripped cars than out on the sidewalk? The artist in Room 303 didn’t seem to be crying over her white privilege instead of changing her behavior. She wasn’t predictably editing a documentary about local community organizing against violence. It was then that I realized that snuff films might be in-progress behind any of the nine doors. Renee dragged me into the elevator and back into her car.

Just as I imagined our dripping organs clutched in the hands of hipster artists, Renee demanded that I get out of her car. “Push the green button.” Next to the garage door, the button read in capital letters, “Open.” The jaw unhinged with rusted creaks, and I jumped back into the passenger side. Two fire trucks blared past in the opposite direction, and as I attempted to convince Renee that “at least we aren’t trapped in a flaming inferno,” my brother called to ask why I was late to his show, which was still on. He had never heard of Room 303.

Against Renee’s better judgment, I insisted that we follow Nathan’s cryptic directions again, this time with his translation of the Latin. Going around the left side of the garage door that had temporarily trapped us, we drove along a narrow concrete strip to a parking lot. Smiling people dressed retro Victorian with black lipstick ushered into a well-lit flat. A teapot shaped man with a stringy comb-over greeted us, “Hey, are you that chick from last month who dressed like Alice in Wonderland?” For a moment I considered stepping into her role. He eyed me through saucer lenses. “No, I think she had straighter hair.” He tapped a lighter-burnt guest book with a Bic pen that appeared to be wearing a miniature leg warmer topped with a crow feather. “I’ve never been here before; I’m Nathan’s sister.” He rubbed his chalky belly and leered as we signed in blood red ink, reminding me of the 17th Century belief that witches signed the Devil’s book (or the Devil signed their bodies with his claws or a tongue-lick). Someone resting against an infant-sized coffin shushed with an off-burgundy fingernail and then pointed past the absinthe bar towards a stage.

My brother emerged on all fours from behind the turn-of-the-century footlights, his back arching upwards and his head bobbing below his shoulders, moving like he had experienced a feline femme epiphany. Lifting an incense holder, he chanted, “Bring the children, three by three and nine by nine,” as a woman vocalized like wind over an open Coca-Cola bottle. But it didn’t sound like God in harmony with the supernatural, my grandmother’s benedictions sung through Lilith’s bared teeth. My brother crawled toward Renee, and whispered into her palm through a kiss, “You’re beautiful,” then repeated the ritual with every woman present but his wife and me. Even as Latin and English merged in his chanting-rolling-crawling, I couldn’t help but think that the white people around him credited his model of rebellion as their own. Being here, I had gone beyond passing to get by in my high school’s Metaphysics Club with racist neo-Celtic werewolves and neo-Boadicea witches. I had joined him as a parasite feeding on my family’s silences in other families’ neighborhoods. My brother moved through the room, kneeling before stiffly posed Victorian corpses, animated daguerreotypes of one of many empires on which the sun never completely set. 

Jenny Irizary grew up in a cabin in the woods, the only Swede-Rican for miles. She holds a B.A. in Ethnic Studies and an M.A. in literature from Mills College.