Diamonds & Guatemala

mark_brazaitis
Making diamonds is a fairly simple process involving pressure (like that found at a depth of 100 miles), the elixir of time (about two billion years) and a little heat (1,400 degrees Celsius). Most writers spend their lives making diamonds from dead plants. As Billy Collins is fond of saying: “I just want to make three or four good ones. Maybe six or seven.”

Mark Brazaitis has gone the other way, writing those dead plants back to life, making stories  whose truths can only be told with a fingered alphabet and a pack of lies. The only diamond that mattered to him was sanity. He’d heard about it, but it was always something for other people.

The more depressed you are, the farther you have to drive to find some beauty. The Morgantown, West Virginia author made the 3,969 mile trip to Guatemala City (we MapQuested it) where he spent three years in the Peace Corps. His journalism background—six articles a week—taught him good habits. “You learn to write no matter what you ate last night or what impenetrable sadness you woke beside in bed.”

In Guatemala, Mark stopped obsessing over himself long enough to help other people. His characters became different people with their own issues rather than his same old suffering succotash. It became fun to be inventive, and to take risks with the math inside a character’s heart. It was an easy thing to do in a place where the Atlantic wasn’t so far from the Pacific. Coming back to America, Mark’s sickness came back too.

And still he wrote. His five books include two novels, two story collections, and a book of poems. About his 2012 collection The Incurables, Kay Jamison said, “The stories are wry, compassionate, and provide a deep understanding of the strengths and frailties of human nature and the ways in which individuals play out the hard cards they are dealt.”

We are very happy to have him in our little raft, paddling along beside us.

Cindy’s Father

Behind the man with the salt-and-pepper beard are ceiling-
high shelves of ice skates, each pair a girl’s dream. “What
exactly will my daughter learn?” My question comes too
late: The man already has my check. Ten weeks of skating
lessons, two nights a week, no more than four skaters in a
group. Two-hundred-and-fifty dollars. “Talk to the director,”
says the man, nodding toward a dark-haired woman sitting
on a wooden bench in the rink’s common area. She looks
up as she unlaces her snow-white skates. Small pink lips. Big
brown eyes. There is a girlish coloring in her cheeks. But she’s
a woman—twenty-seven, I’m guessing—and she gives me a
woman’s smile.

I’m dressed in a new pinstriped suit. My hair, wet from

my morning shower, is slicked back like a basketball coach’s.
I’m thirty-four years old, as slim and tall as a flagpole, and
I have, after a dreadful year, retired my wedding ring. I am
what used to be called a “good catch.” But although I’m excellent
at professional calculation—I’m a lawyer, after all—I
am less adept at taking the measure of a woman. When I ask
her the question I asked the bearded man, I do not listen to
her answer. I stare at her petal-soft lips, wondering what they
would be like to kiss.

“Is this skating jargon loop-jumping over your head?”

she finishes, smiling. “Why don’t I show you.”

As if she had more than two hands, she laces up her
skates in a whirlwind and motions for me to follow her. Soon
we are at the gate to the ice rink. She must have stepped onto
ice a thousand times, always with the ease of someone strolling
onto a beach’s golden sand. But as if to steady herself as
she moves from solid ground to slick surface, she wraps her
fingers around my forearm. They linger, and I feel like I have
been given the first forkful of a feast I might, if I am lucky,
one day enjoy the entirety of. Are these the desperate desires
of a premature widower whose mourning has been blessed
with sincere sympathetic well-wishers but is so far absent
the fierce embraces, much less the death-defying sex, I have
guiltily craved? Loneliness and hunger—isn’t this every man’s
excuse for inaugurating his own ruin?

“Watch,” she says. “This is what your daughter will learn.”

In her red, short-sleeved blouse, white skirt, and white
tights, she skates forward and backward, gliding like a bird,
like an angel. Her body is lithe, muscular, and supple. She
sails on one skate. So easy. “But she probably won’t learn this,”
she says. After skating to the center of the rink, she twists
herself into a tornado. The simultaneous grace and fury of
her spinning leave me craving both tenderness and power,
someone to heal my wounds and reintroduce me to the life
force. When at last she comes to a stop, she extends her arms,
as if to catch flowers thrown from the stands. I applaud.

“You’re too kind,” she says.


When she leaves the ice, she again places her hand on my

forearm, where it remains a moment longer than before. I
risk a deeper intimacy by covering her hand with mine. Our
eyes meet; the moment extends. We have, it seems, an understanding.
She slides her hand free, and I follow her to her original
bench. Although I am now late to meet a client, I know better
than to preempt the moment, And so I have set the pattern of
our relationship: She leads, I follow.

We sit side by side, our thighs touching. There is a poster

on the wall opposite the bench advertising an on-ice performance
of Cinderella. I ask her if she is involved in the show.

“I am the show,” she says. “I’ve cast it. I’ve choreographed it.
I’ve chosen the music.”

“Who plays Cinderella?”

“I’ll give you one guess, and if you’re right, you get to take
her to dinner tonight.”

Over linguine at Tosca’s, she talks about her skating, the
clothes she owns, the places she would like to travel, and I sit
mesmerized by the way her mouth moves. (By evening’s end,
I will have tasted, if only in swift, greedy consumption, her
lips.) She never asks about my daughter, and in retrospect, I
will consider this telling. But by then it will be too late. I will
have married her. She and her twin daughters from her ninemonth
marriage to her high-school sweetheart will move into
my house, taking up so much real and psychic space, I will
find myself breathing like an asthmatic. My daughter, meanwhile,
will retreat into corners of her bedroom, and when
these prove not private enough, she will hide in her closet,
listening to her iPod under her ragged dresses in the dark.
I will pay more frequent after-work visits to Don’s Underground,
and one night, three beers past sobriety, I will crash
my car into a lamppost at sixty-three miles per hour. I will
have forgotten to fasten my seatbelt, and my last thoughts
before I fly out of the window and into eternity won’t be
about my daughter and the dreary life I will have left her or
the dreams of rescue with which she will delude herself, but
about my wife and how she will turn from my grave—swiftly,
gracefully, easily.

Read more:
Interview on The Diane Rehms show
Interview on Guernica
Interview: How Mark Brazaitis Became a Writer

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