The Paper Cut Out of an Explorer


July 1, 2013 by The Citron Review

by Honor McElroy


Caribbean, the job fair man says, stirring the faint echo of a college professor’s lecture about Columbus’ death rattle. On the screen of her mind Caribbean pastes a tumble of images: flip-flops with barbed wire thongs, thicker than dust sun eddies in a Flamboyant tree, a blown glass ocean of blue and green.

That night, soaking in the hotel bathtub, she remembers how she waited as a child for the warm turquoise flush of the Gulf Stream to sweep up the Eastern Seaboard; how the tiny floating raft of her body drifted as she listened to shells grinding beneath the ocean.

The next day she says, Yes, to the man. All at once her aging parents and her lover (who she considered marrying) float away on the breeze of her affirmation, one per letter. She consoles herself: the parents will have a warm place to visit. Even now, they have each other, retirement, and a tribe of small, useless dogs for comfort. The almost married lover will find a simpler, sweeter woman.

When she arrives, the days are so hot that she sweats through her clothes. It will turn, her boss at the school coaxes, One day we will wake up and think to ourselves: today feels different. But she cannot believe that this heat will ever give up and recede back into a thin ribbon around the equator. This heat makes everything a hybrid of derelict abandonment and lush opulence: blooms in handfuls, blooms that mimic birds, blooms in cracked concrete.

The capital pulses as the blare of motoconchos and Bachata shred the white sheet of tranquility that she visualizes daily. Aguacate comes the rich baritone of the skeletal street vendor, pushing a welded monstrosity of discarded parts. Sometimes, she cannot unravel the wails and screams in the back alleys, Was that a woman? Eyes track her progress down dynamited sidewalks amid the threat of touch: a gun or blade. Here, she is a doll of Paper Mache pesos, dressed in gringa dolares. Here, she walks in the ash of shadow.

On holiday in the countryside, the bones of villagers poke out of their backs; dull eyes take up the whole face; and skin blends cocoa and leche. The aqua paint on shanties cannot assuage the flies. The roosters have nooses for leashes. Her new friends pan the vistas and take photographs, so many that she wonders what they leave for their memory. They laugh at a possible Facebook post, My life is your screen saver. Instead of their tiny view finder moments, she studies her own skin, cannot discern an actual color–maybe a mix of pale dust and gold. She suddenly hates the history of her skin. Her new, some nights lover labels her remorse, white guilt, and laughs at her desire to change the world. He calls it the tenacious grip of missionary stealth in the guise of a first world, eco-chic, bohemian revolution.

This some nights lover also spits the word tourist at her, which disturbs her because all these months after the plane touches down, she still breathes the lush magic of stepping from her own personal history, thirty years of promising starts with little finish, and the extravagance of taking off her own nation–no more than a garment left in the back of a closet–as her body sails out onto blank canvas.

During blackouts, when the generators are exhausted and the fumes make her dizzy, she sometimes imagines the darker life she left: disease of silent lawn, vacant dreams, obese hearts, birth and death in boxes.

When almost married lover emails because he has not found another woman, she cannot tell him about that darker life. She cannot detail the stickiness of the floor when she fell off her bar stool from too much boredom induced whiskey; or the better than sex seduction of beginning again; or that choosing any one thing forever feels like becoming the rooster with the noose for a leash. So she sends a postcard instead, intending to write nothing on the back, but that night she wakes up and scrawls a fact she just taught her students: At one point everyone thought the world was flat!

Gradually, this new world becomes old, worn out by her notions of paradise. When her parents give up waiting for her to return, and finally ask about this life, she calls it fine. One bland word because there could never be enough words to explain what she hopes to find in other worlds, or how the heart breaks as each world fails her by reenacting the same stories. Flicker of love: flicker of hate. At the beach, between the ether of ocean and sky, while trying not to think of the death sentenced coral reefs, she wonders if she will ever stop moving towards some more perfect, secret world that does not exist in the deep belly of a Google search engine. Because in the thousand versions of this sun, murderously hot to honey warm, she worries at the word beyond. She once wrote to the only student who seemed worth anything, Transcendence is beyond the impulse of most of us. Back then, the winter had pared her down to the bone and written the word revision on that ivory surface. Now, the sun burns her in much the same way. Now, she is sure that transcendence in a global world gone viral is a nearly extinct art.

Today, the plane lifts off. She is once again awed by the geography of clouds. The next job fair man offers up a different island, whose name she has never heard. This time her mind envisions the twist of star charts and maps together, the tilt of compass needles and boats in turn.

Yes, she says as the names of explorers scroll behind her eyes in the firm print of an old textbook.

She, too, will seek her answers at the end of the world.


Honor McElroy grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She lives and works in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Her other work has appeared in The OAH Magazine of History


2 thoughts on “The Paper Cut Out of an Explorer

  1. maggie6 says:

    I think this is amazing!

  2. Billie says:

    I would have recognized your voice anywhere. Loved it

Leave a Reply to Billie Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow us and receive notifications of new issues by email.

%d bloggers like this: