Perséfone’s fingers are thin and long, like La Calle Septima, one of the main streets in Bogotá, Colombia, where her family is originally from. She used to play the cello. I saw it one night soon after we began hanging out—body buried in a black bag—tossed in a back ditch of her bedroom, a thin stream of dust coating the shell. That night, I didn't ask about it. If I had, she might have shut down and uploaded herself into the dust of satellites, unreturned texts and trails of indecipherable emojis.
I always thought that a cello looks like a swan: a long slender neck curving into rounded hips. Perséfone, a girl with the gravest of expressions, could be either the cello buried in her bedroom, resplendent but untouched, an instrument with no voice; or the swan sailing across the water, alone and determined.
She goes everywhere with a fancy digital camera slung from her neck. The corpse of the cello rots in her bedroom. When I ask why she no longer plays, she dodges the question just as easily as she swipes her thumb across her iPhone 5 to unlock the screen.
We are at Dozen Street Lounge, a nouveau cowboy chic bar serving $10 cocktails in what was once a historically black neighborhood in East Austin. It is August and almost 2 am.
She aims the camera at me and I scowl.
I have to take a photo of a moment, she says. For class.
I am not a moment.
She crouches low and behaves like my own personal paparazzi anyway; a man addresses her, insisting that she tomar un foto. He pulls his girlfriend close to him. Perséfone obliges.
Just as she finishes a photoshoot with the couple, another younger guy asks: What kind of camera is that? Are you a photographer? Perséfone's tone is polite to strangers. She navigates her physical beauty without flirting. Her face remains completely closed. Her body maintains a discrete geographical distance, like a river avoiding a mountain. I admire the detachment in her voice and the composure to engage with strangers—attributes I do not possess. After five minutes, the man recognizes she really does just want to discuss camera settings and shutter speeds, and leaves. I ask her if she would like to take a photo with me.
An old man sitting nearby overhears and offers to take our photo in front of a mirror of a peacock, pieced together out of colored glass. He probably assumes she and I are together. It is not the first time.
I wear jeans, a faded cut off t-shirt and scuffed cowboy boots—not to mention my neatly shaved head and furrowed brow. It's never a question which gender I prefer.
Perséfone dates men. I knew this from the beginning, but I spent my past summer with her: sipping micheladas on the patios of dying Tejano bars of East Austin. Running through a flooded street late at night, holding hands and getting completely fucking wet. Pouring what's left of my heart into a cheap champagne bottle at her kitchen table right after my ex-girlfriend and I finally stopped speaking to each other. Persèfone listens, observing the world with her eyes always locked in winter. Two large obelisks too sad for even tasting the bare throat of spring, they vibrate like Le Cygne, a song I watched Yo-Yo Ma perform on Youtube late one night after I found out she played the cello
Perséfone's disposition curves toward serious and her expression defaults to a kind of gravity beyond her 23 years. She passionately speaks about the genocide of Palestinians one moment and then switches to explain the cultural significance of Sailor Moon. Sometimes, one would never guess she is a NAFTA baby.
The year I plunged out of nonexistence, Ronald Reagan had been re-elected leader of the free world. Though just a newborn in that year of the Rooster, I would later in life, at various points, ask: what is the free world? I’d never draw any conclusion about the definition.
She entered this world when we sold the word free. She entered mine when I had lost hope that free even mattered.
I never tell her how much I enjoy spending time with her; nor do I ask why she spends time with a taciturn old gallo like me. Even if I am not truly Hades come to drag her underground, if I asked her why she hangs out with me, she would probably shrug and say, '¿Es que yo soy millennial, you know?’
I harbor no naivety about our relationship. I would never offer her pomegranate seeds and she would never eat them. Just as I will never kiss her and she will never explain why she won't play her cello.I invent many theories about why. The ancient Greeks believed the swan was mute all its life, until the waning moments before dying, during which the most beautiful of all songs tremble from its mouth, singing not just blood, or the last breath of life, but all the truth you might ever want to know. Or are able to handle. In those last seconds, we are free.
But we do not live in a free world. Her life and perhaps a broken heart kidnapped her song long ago. It all might be a trigger she never wants to pull, but also never wants to forget—so she keeps the corpse.
She hands the old man the Canon. I rub my hand back and forth over my head and stare at my boots and the concrete floor. Both the old man and the camera will act as witnesses of two children of two distant generations, of two opposite orientations, capturing us with one click.
Perséfone looks stunning in a yellow sundress paired with men's black dress shoes. I slide my hand around her waist. She puts her arm around my shoulder. We stand near each other, posing like it's our prom. She told me once she is uncomfortable with physical contact. I think about this as I hold her close to me and the man snaps a photo of us.
Later, when I look at the picture of us together—the young swan and the old rooster—our silhouettes bleeding into each other and shadows chewing up most of the light, her willowy frame bending inward to me, my head cocked in her direction—no discernible gap between us—you would never know, we are just friends. And that neither of us, is free.