This is a story about Ismael and his great big day out. Currently, he is sitting on an empty bench while the world gets on with it. For whatever reason, he cannot. He has been this way for four weeks now. No, no one died, and he doesn’t have cancer or anything like that. He is just depressed.
Isolation has been his coping method for the past month. It’s a mix of Wikipedia advice, his therapist’s wise words and a few lonely nights with red wine. At some point, during a wallow with a bottle, he reached clarity and said fuck it. Ismael has had it up to here with bullshit. It was as the Malbec touched his lips that all his past pains came to surface. But he was no longer sad, he was fucking fed up. Detachment is his modus operandi until he can come up with a better solution.
Everyone is smiling, and London is happy. All except him. Ismael isn’t happy right now and it is eating at him. This current state doesn’t bring him joy. It’s not what he is used to. He used to be so happy growing up on his family’s ranch en el campo. But now he is an urban cowboy battling the wild, wild metropolis. In London, Ismael is too noticed, too bothered, too assuming. It makes his neck red and hot. He can literally feel his collar tightening around his throat. Small things quickly become too big, and he can’t seem to stop any of it. Everything has the possibility of making him sad, or mad, or angry, or all the above. There is no ocean to run into so that he might cool off when the heat of anger is all too much. Concrete traps him.
He is trying to remain calm by being lonely. Soledad is merely an act of surviving amidst the chaos that is messing with his mind and his heart. It’s what he is sort of doing today, his being alone. It was also his abuela’s name. He wonders why his great-grandparents would name her that? Loneliness…was she lonely? Maybe it is all predestined or genetics or a chemical imbalance or just a side effect of indigestion. It was quite the orchestration to be lonely today. To do it, he skipped work, took the Underground to Leicester Square and walked down to the river, over Embankment bridge and down toward the National Theatre. He is now sitting at his favourite bench. The bench he came to during university, whenever he was stressed, sad or angry. It’s unofficially his bench.
“This bench is in memory of the sanity that was lost by Ismael Escobedo, a millennial who just couldn’t.”
Ismael sits on his bench, isolating himself from dealing with the incongruous thing that is consuming him. He just needs some time to not deal with things. That is an act of dealing in and of itself. At least he tells himself it is.
Today, the Southbank is neither busy, nor calm rather somewhere in the middle. Lukewarm London. There are always people. That part is unavoidable. People will always be walking around London. It’s the way the city works. He tries sitting for a bit. Resting from the chaos of it all, but he is agitated.
Sometimes Ismael’s anxiety comes on like some wave ready to wash over him and pin him to the ground. Letting him slowly drown in painful death. Sometimes he can see the anxiety ebbing closely and sometimes it just appears out of nowhere. He is tired of thinking about what upsets him, so he lays to nap. But he’s not going to nap today. He is just going to avoid letting strangers sit with him and ruin his mood with their pointless dribble to fill silences. Remember, this is his unofficial bench.
The truth is he is just another millennial having a mental breakdown or that’s at least what his abuelo would say. In his broken English it would come out ‘mil y miel’ or a thousand honey. Perhaps, he is. A fragile snowflake that is melting into honey with the heat of his anxieties. He looks up at the clouds and spots animals in their incongruous shape. He hasn’t done this since childhood. He regrets the lost time, just lying recumbent searching for things not there, known only to him. He remembers the freedom he had with his siblings. Sara, Xochitl and him were free to wander far and wide on the family ranch without explanation to his parents. Do kids even play outside anymore? Do they stop to feel the cool grass underneath their feet?
He can see a giraffe, a pelican and himself. If he could fall into the sky to escape with those cumulus friends, he would. Ismael was a very aloof and slightly odd child, always talking outside in the garden with himself and whichever stuffed animal he had in tow. But he was free from this sadness that sometimes envelopes him with adult worries.
The sun heats up his skin as the clouds move out of the way to remind him that not all is terrible. Murmuring of passing people is drowned out by his memories. He wonders where all the best friends in his life have gone. The younger years, the ones that he never found again on social media. His life has always been transient, never stable. People vanish all the time and he has always tried to just get on with it. When he left Mexico he was vanishing, he went to Texas his family was starting over and when he was older, he made the decision to further his immigrant journey by moving to London for his PhD. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The tide is high today and the waves a bit choppy. He wants to jump in the water to feel it against his skin to surround himself in water. He can hear the boats tug on by. There’s no need to open his eyes. His childhood was spent in the water, constantly diving and splashing around the pond near the ranch. His family were driving to Corpus Christi when they lived in Texas. The brown and green water of the Gulf of Mexico, it was both disgusting and beguiling. Things weren’t all bad. There was sea and sunshine at least. Water is so freeing he thinks. This concrete maze is not. It might be killing him. He needs an escape. Someone is clearing their throat. Someone is trying to tell him something. He is forced to open his eyes. He is forced to engage with another person against his will. It’s an old woman. There are literally two open benches in his direct line of vision, but she shuffles closer.
-This here is my seat. Move!
He is taken aback by her abrupt and curt tone. He has always thought of old women as being nicer than this. His abuela was always so sweet like a Mexican Winnie the Pooh. Cleary, this woman does not know that in fact this is his seat, his bench. She clears her throat once more and he sits up right and moves over. The old lady whacks him with her shopping trolley by accident. At least she plays it off that way.
She sits down and starts digging through one of her many bags. His peaceful aura is gone. She finally reaches what she wanted: a can of condensed milk. She opens it and takes a big gulp and some of it trickles down her chin. He is oddly comforted by her lack of concern over how she looks. Ismael wants to be as careless as her.
She lets out a big old burp and then begins searching through one of her smaller bags. She finds an emery board and begins to file down one of her nails. They are long and shellacked, decorated with rhinestones and painted with what he gathers to be palm trees. Her nails are so gaudy that they’re almost an art piece. She lets out another burp, followed by a silent but deadly fart. Ismael tries to not react to her stench, but it is potent. He starts to laugh to himself. He can’t help it and his laughter grows bigger and bigger. He must look like a lunatic. He doesn’t care, he is happy to be laughing.
-Can I ask you a question? he says after finally getting a hold of himself.
-The fuck you talking to me for?
-Because, I am.
-What the fuck does that mean?
-How do you get the world to just do what you want?
She just stares at him, dumbfounded that he is still trying to talk to her.
-There are literally two free benches, yet you got even me to move.
She looks desperate for a way to shut Ismael up.
-Hello. I asked you a question.
-Man, you’re annoying.
-I don’t give two shits what no one thinks. That’s my strategy.
-This is my bench by the way. That’s why you moved.
-It’s mine. But, whatever.
She tuts and starts filing her nails some more. She then looks up at him, deep into his eyes.
-Don’t let any fuckers drag you down. Understand? You too cute baby boy to look that sad.
-You’re welcome baby. Now, shut the fuck up and let me have some peace and quiet!
Ismael does just that. He gathers his things and begins walking. He wants to wave goodbye, but he also wants to play it cool. The old woman finds some sunglasses, puts them on and begins to nap. She is his new favourite person. She is at peace and keeping watch of their bench.
He should be at work, but he is taking a mental health day. At least that’s how he’ll explain it when he turns his phone back on. How many messages will there be? How many missed calls and urgent emails are existing in the ether right now as they await him to press the power button? He has all the power.
Ismael walks toward Tate Modern, such as foreboding building to house such pretty and strange looking things. He enters from the ramp entrance and runs down it just because he can. Bag lady said he can do whatever the fuck he pleases so he does. A group of school children soon follow suit. Mayhem breaks loose as a stampede of six-year olds, screaming at the top of their lungs descends on the ramp with teachers and chaperones struggling to control them. He high fives a few of them before walking away. The children are a kind of a happy he has not felt for decades.
He takes the lift to the top. He decides to treat himself to a glass of wine. The art can wait. What would his immigrant parents think of this decadence? Ismael is evolving into a new self, a self they will never recognise.
-A merlot please.
He takes the plastic cup and the bottle and dumps its contents into his glass. He throws the bottle in the bin and takes a giant gulp of the red wine and it slightly burns his throat. He should have taken a smaller sip, and slowly enjoy it.
A table frees up and Ismael beats two yummy mummies to it. The mums look at him, but he ignores them. He can hear them muttering to each other as they stroll off. Ismael lights a cigarette and takes in the view. Pretty decent he thinks to himself. The dome of St Paul’s looks beautiful even with all those ugly buildings crowding it. If he died today, would he go to heaven and be greeted by St Peter?
He remembers going to St Paul’s for evensong after his abuela passed away. He lit a candle and mumbled some words and a prayer from his childhood. She’d have appreciated the candle and the ‘Hail Mary.’ He closed his eyes and took in the choir music and silently cried that day. His grandmother passed away quite quickly, and he never got to say adios, never got closure. Ismael opens his eyes, wipes them and remembers that he is now across the river years later. Time has passed since she passed.
It’s getting a bit cold outside. He downs his wine and goes on a hunt for a Rothko painting. One from the red series he did for the Four Seasons. It was a painting that moved him as a child. He wants to feel that same feeling. Ismael years for the balance of who he used to be with who he wants to be. Being an adult can fucking suck sometimes.
He always wanted a red room. He had grand plans for a red room, but his parents painted it blue and blue he became. But a red ember nevertheless burnt inside him like a pilot light. He is ready to let the ember burn into a giant flame. He wants the red flames to consume him and out he’ll come a phoenix. New, scorched but free. Ismael finally gets to the fifth floor and remembers the painting he is looking for is on the second floor somewhere. He takes the escalators down three stories, not aiding his search with a map, but rather his deep intuition. This painting is his kindred spirit.
The museum is much busier than he anticipated it to be on a weekday. Far busier than he remembers when entering, before drinking his red wine, before being so broken. He should have sipped his red wine. His head hurts a bit from it. Actually, he should have just ordered a coffee. Live and learn he mutters to himself. He could make this all easier on himself by just asking a gallery attendant for directions. But he doesn’t have the energy to interact with another person. There’s a free bench, so he decides to take a rest for a moment. His headache is getting worse. He closes his eyes and tries to concentrate on his breathing. Just his thoughts and breathing. Everything is black when your eyes are closed. Everything is slightly elevated. He feels close to his nostrils, lungs and his breathing. His therapist told him that mindfulness works that way. He probably looks insane or like he is farting, but he doesn’t care. Ismael continues keeping his eyes held firmly shut.
Anyone in a gallery holds a certain level of anonymity. Ismael enjoys that no one knows he is. Even if they did, he wouldn’t give two shits. That’s not his therapist’s advice, that’s his bench friend’s wisdom. No one is here for him, no one wants to speak to him, except maybe to move out of the way. Everyone is here to observe and take in the mesmerising, confusing and sometimes pretentious art. There is a code of ethics one undertakes when visiting an art gallery. He enjoys the safety of it all, of being left alone.
A small hand nudges his kneecap, forcing him to wake up (again). He opens his eyes and a cute little girl, no more than six, is standing in front of him.
-Yes? Can I help you?
-Sorry. Did you say you’re ‘lost’?
-Yes. I need help.
She looks puffy faced. He can’t believe he did not notice sooner that she has been crying.
-Are you here with your mummy or daddy?
-Who are you with?
-My grandpa. But I don’t know where he is. He went to the bathroom, but I can’t find him.
-Okay, okay. Don’t worry. We’ll find him.
She sniffles some.
-My name is Ismael.
-Feather. My name is Feather.
-It’s nice to meet you Feather. Okay, let’s see if we can go find a nice gallery worker to help us find your grandad.
They head to an exhibition entry to speak to one of the attendants. A young-looking art student type, probably hoping to work here in some official capacity one day, is currently manning the desk.
-Oh, no. We aren’t here to see the exhibition.
-Okay, well this queue is for ticket holders or those who wish to purchase tickets, only.
He really does hate people. Like he did not already know this information.
-Well thanks, but you see my little friend here is lost.
-Lost? But, she’s with you.
-Yes, you see my friend here, Feather, is visiting the gallery with her grandfather and they seemed to have broken away from each other by accident.
-Oh, I see. I am so sorry Feather, but I am sure we can help.
-You’re welcome. Now, what’s your grandad’s name?
-Very good. Now where was the last place you saw Mr. Richardson? I mean your grandad.
-He went to the bathroom and asked me to wait for him outside in the hallway.
-Which floor was that on?
-The top floor.
-Great, Feather. That’s really helpful. I just need to make a few calls to some of my colleagues now who can help us a bit further. I won’t be a moment.
He wonders how often the staff get trained on helping lost people, lost children, find their family members. Might she be able to help his lost soul, too?
-I hope that he isn’t mad.
-You’re grandad? No, he is probably just a bit worried.
-I shouldn’t have wandered off.
-No, but it happens sometimes.
Ismael is unsure what else to say. He has never been good with kids, at least he has never had ample opportunity. None of his siblings have kids. His interaction with children has been minimal up until this point. Feather starts rocking back and forth on the heels of her rain boots. She is humming a lullaby to herself. Her spirits seem a bit brighter. He is grateful.
The attendant is walking back to them now with a very worried face. He knows something must be wrong. Dear God, don’t let anything be wrong.
-Feather, do you mind helping me out for a minute?
-Do you mind watching the desk here with my friend Betty and checking the tickets, while I speak to your new friend.
-Betty this is Feather. Feather, Betty.
-Nice to meet you Feather.
-Nice to meet you Miss Betty.
-Betty, me and this gentleman will only be a minute.
She forcefully grabs Ismael by the hand and drags him about ten feet away from the exhibition entry. He knows something must be wrong by how erratic she is now acting.
-Is everything alright?
She takes in a deep breath. This can’t be good.
-It seems Mr Kwesi has had a heart attack.
-That’s why Feather couldn’t find him. That’s why he never came out of the toilet. She must have been waiting for a long time.
-What do you mean?
-Well, apparently one of my colleagues called emergency services over two hours ago to help a man that had taken ill in the disabled toilet on the sixth floor.
-Oh, my God! And, you’re certain it’s him?
-Yes, we’re confident. Feather’s mother is on her way now.
-This poor girl.
-Feather’s parents were notified that Mr Kwesi was taken to St Thomas’ and it was only when they showed up that they realised their daughter was missing. My colleagues were trying to locate her around the same time she found you.
-Is he going to be fine?
-I don’t have any information. Just that her mother is on her way.
He stops paying attention to her and looks to Feather who seems to be having the time of her life working the ticket counter. Feather and Betty are like two peas in a pod. Betty handles the ticket purchases and Feather scans the visitors in. The scanning machine looks comically huge in her childish hands.
-What are we going to tell Feather?
-Simply that her mum is on the way to get her and that her grandad was feeling a bit unwell, but that her parents will take her to see him as soon as they can.
-Okay, I don’t know if I will be of any more use.
-You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.
-I just don’t know want to worsen the situation.
-You’ve been awesome.
-Thanks. I mean it was her. She found me. I didn’t do anything special.
Ismael says goodbye to her: Angelica. That’s what her nametag reads. He doesn’t want to agitate Feather and so he just disappears into the crowd.
He feels a bit strange but still needs to see that painting. He continues deep into the galleries of the second floor. It is nearby, he can feel it. It was during his fifth-grade art class when he first saw it. He was quite a few years older than Feather. He must have been around ten years old. He remembers how awesome it looked on the projector screen. It was as if some giant red wave was going to wash over his class at any moment. He got close, dangerously close. His teacher thought Ismael was just being disruptive, but he wasn’t, honestly. He just wanted to see as much red as possible.
The crowds move like a wave. They pull in and out and school children giggle in groups while older kids take pictures on their phones: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. All these photos being uploaded for likes and shares and comments. They’re like a school of fish swimming from one side of the room to the other, depending on who has the funniest photos. But, eventually they part like the red sea as their teacher corrals them into the next room. Finally, some room to breathe. He has had enough children for today. The whole experience today might have put him off from ever having kids. Not that Ismael didn’t like Feather, but he understands the weight of responsibility it is to be in charge of another’s wellbeing.
The search must go on. He sees so many other artists: Hockney, Rauschenberg, he can tell his Manet from his Monet, but his Rothko eludes him. The melting clocks of Dali and the buxom women of Picasso, but Ismael wants his red and not the blues of Picasso or Matisse. There are sculptures and installations which are all impressive, but they are not what he wants. They are not the things that could bring him the joy, the feeling, the medicine his soul needs.
This gallery is too huge, too overwhelming and too schizophrenic. Maybe the painting has moved. A piece of art as transient as his youth, always moving, always occupying new and unfamiliar spaces. On loan, gifted, purchased…always by the generous donation, endowment, inheritance, betrothal of some dead aristocracy. But, what about the common man who cannot gift anything? What can he leave behind?
Ismael is just trotting along now. The day has been long, a waste even. He turns his phone on finally. He should have been at work. He shouldn’t have chugged the wine. Fifteen missed calls, twenty emails, eleven text messages:
Where are you? Getting kind of late! The boss is freaking out and I don’t know what to say? Are you dead? Excited for our date night! Hey, we still on for tonight? ¡Feliz cumpleaños mijo! Dad and I hope you can Facetime soon. Hey, I thought we were meeting a half hour ago? Where you at… did I do something wrong?
No, it was him. It was he that did the wrong thing. Ismael is sorry for being a bad friend, selfish son, forgetful colleague and silent lover. He puts the phone back in his pocket. He wants to leave. He needs to find the exit. He wants to disappear. The exit sign finally is there in front of him. Illuminating. Green. Just a sign. Not an art piece. Nothing ironic here. Just a sign to tell him where to go, what to do, how to escape.
Close eyes, open eyes, breathe, don’t let a panic attack happen. Not here, not now. Open eyes, there it is. Close eyes, but there is the painting. It’s standing right in front of him. Well, not standing. It’s hanging. That’s what paintings do.
-Hello old friend. It’s me. I’ve missed you.
Ismael falls into a seat once last time. One last moment just for himself. The dark red washes over him, cleansing his soul and enveloping him like warm blood.
There will not be tears, there will not be panic attacks, there will not be much going on in this moment. The room is empty. So, for the first time in a long time, Ismael closes his eyes and lets himself enjoy a happy moment. And, as he does, he remembers what is to not be sad all the time.
This story was originally published in The Colour of Madness (Stirling Publishing, 2018).