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Blue Skies

Iyashikei (excerpt)


Sebastian Castillo



Sebastian’s note: This past summer I saw my father for the first time in 13 years. He lives in Caracas; I live in Philadelphia. We met in Madrid. We spent two weeks together in Spain, and I wrote a book about the experience, currently titled Iyashikei, after an anime subgenre I recently discovered. Iyashikei has an ambient quality and is supposed to make you feel relaxed—there isn’t much conflict, characters hang about at idyllic locations and have a good time, etc. Think, like, Hayao Miyazaki movies. I will likely re-write this memoir as a novel full cloth. Here it is raw. It is written as a letter to my friend.

Editor's Note: To be clear, the following text is not from Sebastian's highly-anticipated novella, SALMON (Shabby Doll House, 2023). This is from an entirely different manuscript. Sebastian writes many books.


Lucy, I need to be honest: I am losing faith in the concept of this book. The reason is simple. I have been with my father for three days now, and I am already sick of him. He talks a lot. He talks all of the time. He endlessly shares stories, which can sometimes be interesting enough, but other times he will recount at great length the plot of a TV show he watched recently, or a YouTube video he liked, or something else entirely mundane that no one would ever share at great length in polite company with another person. This would be fine, except that when it is your turn to contribute to the conversation, you might say a few words and in under twenty seconds he will interrupt you to talk about some other topic that has just flitted across his mind. He does not listen to other people. He talks and talks and does not listen. This does not feel so very iyashikei. I am neither relaxed nor am I ambient, or if I am, it's in the bad way.


In the morning we went to El Retiro, the city’s large park. I’d been there once before, but why not. It’s a large, pretty park—good. Iyashikei. We passed by a bar called Lacaña—I took a picture and sent it to a friend (“Lacan’s Spanish cousin’s bar,” I said, sorry; I hate Lacan). On our way to the park, my father spoke about government corruption regarding public works projects in Venezuela, a regular topic of conversation for him. On this head, I sympathize with him. He’s lived in Venezuela his entire life, and has seen the immense social and material changes in his (our?) home country first hand. I mentioned an article I had recently read, about retired university professors in Venezuela starving to death because of their next-to-nothing pensions. My father laughed. “My son,” he said (he almost always prefaces statements with this address), “my monthly pension is fifteen dollars. It’s nothing.” He talked about how the Cuidad Universitaria de Caracas—the main university of Caracas—is in danger of having its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation removed, unless the government repairs its crumbling buildings. He visited once, he said, to give a dance lecture. He said the building looked like it had survived a war zone. 


It was hot. We walked around Retiro for ten minutes before we decided to leave. There were a few sunbathers sprawled on the grass. One was a woman, sitting face down, topless and wearing a thong. She was reading a novel. That’s something I’ve noticed in Madrid: people often read books in public. I guess I don’t see it so much in Philadelphia. Everyone, yes, is on their phones. “You’d never see that in Caracas, dressing like that out in the open,” my father said, gesturing to the woman enjoying her book. “I don’t have anything against it,” he said, “I mean, I really don’t.” Comedy. I think my father believes that the Spanish are somewhat spoiled, and he thinks of the left-wing Podemos party, with its socialist, wokey policies (that’s how they say “woke” in Spanish) as leading that charge. If Podemos “takes over,” he says, Spain is over. Down the toilet, Spain, bye bye! This is, in my opinion, a frankly absurd belief, but I don’t say anything in the moment.


We left Retiro with no plan in mind. I’ve noticed my father is extra cautious when crossing the street. I am too, but find it notable when someone else shares my trepidation. The streets of Philadelphia can so often be quite narrow—barely large enough to hold a mid-sized car—and people rush down those streets in their cars as if they were on a racetrack. I’ve almost been hit by a car several times, and I chalk it up to my excessive caution that I haven’t been. My father, I discovered, was not so lucky. Years ago, he said, he was walking down a street in Caracas. As he began crossing the street, he noticed a car about a block away—clearly enough time to cross safely. For whatever reason, the driver sped up. Before he knew it, the car was a few feet away from striking him, and my father instinctually jumped. He smashed into the car’s windshield and flipped in the air. My father said, somehow, he landed on his feet. The driver looked in his rearview window, saw my bewildered father standing upright, and drove away.


“My son,” he said, “it sounds completely made up. I swear to you it happened to me. It’s because I had the instincts of a dancer that I jumped like I did, and landed on my feet. Dance saved my life.”


This, indeed, is the kind of story that absolutely no one could possibly believe. But I believe it. My father does not lie. Yes, he talks too much, yes, he doesn’t pay attention to his surroundings in a way I find irresponsible, yes, he’s a bit of a slob, but he is not a liar! I asked if he got the man’s license plate or if he went to the hospital, and he said no to both. The public hospitals in Caracas are where you go to die, my father said. Well, that’s sort of true of most hospitals, but I understand what he meant. They are severely underfunded, and like the university, in disrepair. If they can, people scrounge up the money from friends and family to go to private hospitals. Thankfully, there was no internal bleeding or organ damage, because he was fine, if a little sore for a week.


As we were walking down Calle de Felipe IV, I saw a poster on the other side of the street advertising an image that looked familiar to me. It was an Alex Katz painting! We were right next to the Thyssen Museum, which I’d never heard of, and they were, at the moment, showing an Alex Katz retrospective. He’s an artist, I am sorry to say, whose status as either living or dead I had forgotten. He’s still alive and very old.


“Do you want to go?” I asked my father, “He’s a great artist! Sort of a favorite of mine. Only sort of. He’s good.”


“I don’t know,” he said, “It’s expensive.”


I insisted I pay for us, because I wanted to see it. The Katz exhibit was on the first floor. We entered and immediately, to our right, there was a portrait of Ted Berrigan, one of my favorite poets. Oh, how right! What serendipity. I asked my father to take a picture of me standing next to it. I gave him my phone and tried my best to pose naturally. I am bad at having my photo taken—I always look clenched and uncomfortable, too self-aware in my body. I’ve often thought about taking acting classes for this very reason—I have no interest in acting, but I’m certain that taking such a class would demand you allow yourself to become loose when performing, in whichever manifestation. Posing for photos, behaving disgracefully at parties, whatever. Actors always move in the world with a sort of knowing confidence. They don’t mind having a body, and maybe even take pride in it. There’s nothing further from how I feel; I blame Catholicism and my scoliosis. Anyway, the photo was bad. The angle was awkward, and I thought I looked ugly, so I deleted it. I didn’t ask him to take another.


At first, my father thought Katz’s work was too similar to cartoons or comic book artists. But getting closer to his paintings, he said, changed how he felt about them. He didn’t elaborate, but I sort of understood what he meant. In reproductions, Katz’s work looks so clean—bright colors, sharp lines. There’s a lack of surface depth, too, which gives the figures of Katz’s paintings a certain pleasant flatness. When you see them up close, they become more painterly; you can see the strokes between tan and slightly less tan. My father is himself an amateur painter, and has been for as long as I’ve been alive. I don’t say amateur to be belittling. I’m more or less an amateur writer, and I’d like to stay that way. I would say my father’s work is reminiscent of many fin-de-siècle European paintings. Figurative, blue/yellow, rough. And anyway, he’s only an amateur painter because he’s been a professional dancer his whole life. They call him maestro in Caracas, he tells me. It’s a shame there’s no longer a culture industry in Venezuela, because by all accounts my father is an elder statesman in the dance world there. But there’s no money for artists, because there’s no money for normal people.


In the next room there was a painting called Sharon and Vivien from 2009 that was used for the cover of Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends, the US edition. It has become for many, I think, “the Sally Rooney painting,” sorry Alex. I posted a picture of it on Instagram with the caption “lol” and the people whom I expected to respond to it with “lol” did. There was another painting of a woman wearing a black hat, from 2010, called Black Hat. I know that the project you are currently working on, Lucy, is called Woman with Hat, named after, I believe, the Matisse painting? I sent you a picture of it, saying that you should use it as the cover image. You responded, “Wow! That woman has a hat.” That’s exactly right. You were thinking what I was thinking! My father and I walked over to the permanent fixtures of the museums—more early 20th century painter fare, with a few contemporary paintings thrown in, including one my father insisted was an Edward Hopper, but which I knew wasn’t. He said, “My son, yes, it’s that painting with the people in the diner,” and I said, “It isn’t. You’re thinking of a different painting.” We walked over to the plaque. I was right. On our way out I stopped by the gift shop—there was Katz stuff for sale, all too expensive, but some culturally adjacent things, too, most notably (for me) Spanish-language translations of New York School books. I bought two. One, a deep favorite—Joe Brainard’s I Remember (Me acuerdo) and John Ashbery’s last book of poems, A Commotion of Birds (El alboroto de los pájaros) in a bilingual edition. Both tired, we left and walked back to our place for a brief rest.


Later, we met with my friend Kevin again. The previous night he mentioned that he’d be working from home all day, but that he usually takes Sancho and Teo out for a walk around six in the evening, through the Parque del Oeste, should we like to join him. We made our way toward Argüelles. Kevin seemed stressed out, and I felt for him: he was walking Sancho, a very wily, high-energy hunting dog, and pushing Teo along in his stroller at the same time, occasionally yelling at Sancho to not run into the street or drink from a dirty puddle of water. Teo himself was very cute. What a sweet little baby. At a certain point, because he was off leash (Kevin says he usually behaves himself in the park), Sancho ran into a roundabout next to the park, as there was a fountain at its center, and Sancho loves fountains. Kevin had to run into the street to grab him, all the while dodging cars driving past him. I held onto Teo’s stroller, and when Kevin returned, I told him I didn’t mind pushing Teo around for a little while. I felt like I was doing something very important. Taking care of young Teo! A wonderful little man and momentarily my charge. I think I did a good job. My father kept asking Teo questions in Spanish, usually in an overly animated baby voice. It sort of annoyed me, and then I felt annoyed at myself for feeling annoyed. You’re supposed to talk to babies like that, though I’ve never done it. I speak to them regular.

Sebastian Castillo wrote 49 Venezuelan Novels, (Bottlecap Press 2017), NOT I (Word West, 2020) and SALMON (Shabby Doll House, 2023)

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