“Where are we going exactly?”
“The gypsy night market.”
“Right.” I had no idea what that was. I hadn’t heard of there being a night market here like there is back home. “Why?” I wanted it to be somewhere public. Busy. Safe.
“We still need a pot.”
“Why do you keep saying ‘we’? I don’t need a pot. I don’t even cook.” I sighed, and after a good twenty music-less minutes on the road it was clear he was a lot more comfortable with silence than me. “What did you need it for?”
“No. You know, your proposal. From before.”
He turned to look straight at me when he said this. “The surrealists define sex as a sumptuous ceremony in a tunnel.”
“Okay . . .” Aaaaand it was instantly weird again.
He said he was going to restart the Cirque, this time with the Eros Gastronomique. The event would “penetrate a wet cave,” an ocean grotto exposed by the tides. He said they had a location already picked and there was a stunning view of the sunset over the South China Sea. The tide pools left from the retreating water would be lit deep red. There would be candles and lights strung overhead, and the courses would be served with an increasing urgency as the tide returned over the duration of the meal, thrusting in and out. He said the whole experience would sway in tension between the desire to savor and the desire to hurry and finish before the waters returned and drowned them all. He said the diners would feel the rhythm and rocking of the waves as they ate dessert: a light salt-custard with chocolat avec de l’essence de la femme, chocolate with essence of woman.
He wanted me to be the woman.
I actually felt really honored. And totally silly for not even letting him explain it before. It sounded wonderful. But mostly I was thinking how it would get me a ticket home. I could see everyone. I was going to tell him that, but that’s when I noticed the boarded windows and graffiti and homeless people immobile under blankets of rubbish.
“Um. Where are we?”
“Which is where exactly?”
There weren’t even street lights. Always a bad sign. I don’t drive, as you know, but even if you were here and we had been given a car and written instructions, I’m certain we never could have found this place. It was like a hole in the city. It was hard even to tell where we were relative to downtown because of the two intersecting overpasses that arced overhead. We pulled through a wilting chain link fence and parked underneath. Giant concrete pillars kept the overpasses aloft, but they were so large as to seem otherworldly. It seemed like the old Chinese gods had lifted the city like a carpet and exposed the secret filth underneath. The whole place was a void, a non-place, like the inaccessible nooks left around the complex passageways of airports and hospitals or the slivers of never-to-be-developed land left between unrelated housing additions. Places only children and animals dare explore. Places the homeless hide. Or the insane.
But it was empty. And dusky, lit only from the second-hand glow of the street lamps on the overpass high above. There was only a stack of broken pallets and some colorful graffiti around the base of several of the pillars.
The chef turned off the engine.
I looked at him. He sat back and waited.
“Why is it called the gypsy market?” I asked.
“Because it moves. Continually. To avoid what chases it.”
“I need to make several acquisitions before they depart.” He opened the car door.
I could hear the noise from the traffic above, like the wash of waves over sand. “There’s nothing here.”
“Stay here. Don’t get out.” He shut the door and locked the car. Then he waved his hands over it, like a priest before an altar.
“So weird,” I breathed.
I heard noises then. Engines, first. But then voices. Some cheerful yelling. And music. Vehicles started pouring in from three different sides, including the break in the fence we had driven through. Rumbling motorcycles, RVs, jalopies with shimmying wheels piled high with junk, trucks hauling silver-sided campers, and more paraded past the chef’s car like the temptations of St. Anthony. The three motorized streams met in the middle of the space under the freeway and the vehicles turned past each other like a flock of birds. They parked, one next to the other, forming a labyrinth of walkways in moments. The drivers had clearly done it all before. Many times.
Then they all began to unpack.
I looked at the chef standing there in his amazing coat. He just watched, expressionless, as strings of holiday lights, already attached to posts, were unrolled and stretched across the walkways. They flickered to life as trunks were emptied and wares were displayed on blankets or folding tables or car seats or simply on the ground. And then, as if signaled by an unseen director, he stepped into the growing menagerie.
“Wait a minute,” I said out loud to myself. I opened the door.
He turned. “What are you doing?”
I locked my purse in the car and shut the door behind me. “Dude. I’m not a kid. I’m not gonna wait in the car.”
He scowled at me. I thought he was going to object. I kinda felt like I wasn’t even supposed to be there. But he didn’t. All he said was, “I cannot guarantee your safety.”
I looked around at the growing circus. I nodded.
I had to see.
The two of us stepped forward into the throng. We walked on cracked and uneven concrete that poked through a thin layer of dirt and gravel. Rubbish was strewn about, but not from the inhabitants—from the rest of us, blown in from the city. There was too much to see! A huge, sweaty woman in a flower-print muumuu had insect of every kind, both dried and alive, swarming in containers: beetles, lightning bugs, and dragonflies. A pair of gap-toothed twins, in their sixties I guessed, with long scraggly hair and 1970s clothes, sold seeds, nuts, and bulbs of unusual and rare variety, including a few that I’m sure were illegal, like coca leaves and poppy flowers, and some I wasn’t sure were even real, like mandrake and moneytree. There were vials and twisty-sealed baggies with labels I couldn’t pronounce. There were toys, games, empty bottles, books, bags, globes, shells, crystals, coins, plumage of every color—some still attached—pottery, prints, plastic figurines, fish, and feces—the excrement of every thing that makes it, dried and powered and sealed with wax. And there were bones. So many bones. Antlered monstrosities and toothy, grinning predators. Even the bones of people, pilfered from their final rest.
And there were the smells. Jasmine and cloves and urine and anise. Pepper and filth and flowers and mange. Smoke and meat and sweat and incense. And above it all, the music. Three or four separate tunes whose volume rose or fell depending on which way I turned my head. It was all so chaotic and free. My eyes went everywhere as I strolled under the holiday lights that zigzagged over my head. Some of the bulbs were bare, but many were covered in all different plastic shapes: a cactus, a birthday cake, Santa Claus, a donkey pinata, a candy cane, a heart, a star, and more.
Étranger led me to the end of the main row where a lanky man sat on a stool wrapped in a blue tarp, like it was his security blanket. Hanging from the sides of his RV was the most interesting collection of odds and ends I think I’ve ever seen. I saw a jewel-encrusted Mexican wrestler’s mask and an anatomically-correct colorful plush monster and looked like it was from 1960s Japan. There was a combination VCR-toaster and a book full of maps of places that never or no longer existed. There was a real Indian headdress and a painted Aboriginal boomerang. There was even an antique gilded porcelain toilet that apparently belonged to Napoleon and which he made his men carry around everywhere. And on and on.
The horn of a semi echoed down from the freeway above as we approached, and it totally obscured whatever the proprietor said to the chef, whom he didn’t seem to care for.
I looked up. It really seemed then like were underneath civilization, under the floorboards of the world, and that life—normal life—was passing by above us completely unaware of the magical scene just a few hundred feet below.
“Wait here.” The chef walked to the man in the tarp, who I understand is a finder of impossible things, and the two of them had words while I perused the collection with a few other patrons.
cover image: Temptation of St. Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck