Nicholas Coursel


Nicholas Coursel is an awardwinning French-Canadian writer. Originally from Chicago, he’s lived and written from ten countries to date. His work aims to celebrate the forgotten and shed light on his workingclass roots. You can find him on Twitter/X @nicholascoursel or on his YouTube channel, The Literary Nomad.

La Romita


by: Nicholas Coursel

Borges was God and my colonia was suddenly full of men who looked like him. Fifteen years old in the beautiful smog of Mexico City with nothing but a tattered copy of Ficciones to get me through the slow times at my parents’ cafe on the corner of Monterrey and Chihuahua while they went through the same old routine about the bar across the street and how busy it was.

Some gringo writer moved down from the States with his wife and drank them dry every night. Apparently he was a real nightmare for the owners, getting drunk and fighting and doing all sorts of things he couldn’t get away with back home, but the dollar was strong at the time and he always paid in full, so their door remained open and the drinks kept pouring strong.

Mom complained every time his revolving door of hippie buddies stumbled past our cafe. Dad just wanted them to stop and buy something, but they hardly ever did. Nobody did during those times. If we were lucky, we would get a few live ones stumbling in around five or six in the morning, still half-drunk looking to take the edge off before they did whatever it was they were going to do that day.

It wasn’t until much later in my life that I understood the subdued apprehension my parents had toward them, treating them nice to their faces and doing the dance, but cornering me as soon as they left and warning me to stay far, far away because of the way they lived, well, it was just plain wrong. Don’t get any ideas, Raul. That life’s not real. It’s not for us. Things are different for Americans. They always have. They always will be.

I remained unconvinced. Their smiles were always bigger than ours and they roared with laughter that shook the tables, scribbling feverishly in their notebooks for hours no matter where they were or what they’d drank that night. Coffee, booze, whatever. It was irrelevant. They were always crazy. Crazy for life. And they were always drunk when I saw them—coming down or rising up—and they were always writing something or reading something, but most importantly they were always moving.

Whenever they’d come into the cafe, I would move to the closest possible table and act like I was reading to hopefully catch a word or two of their conversation. That’s how I learned my first few years of English, and why I curse much more than most PhDs. Fuck it, pour another. Did you see that girl? I’m still feeling it from last night. Those were the words in my textbook.

My favorite character of their ragtag group was the funny-talking one who always tried speaking to us in Spanish but hardly ever found much success. His friends laughed at him for saying hola to Mom when he walked in the door and adios when he left. She laughed too and waved him away back to his table, but I noticed his coffee was always a little fuller than the others, and when he ordered food it came out a few seconds earlier.

Sometimes, when he was especially drunk and his friends were laughing harder than usual, he’d look to the ground and curse in another language. Putain. At the time, I thought he was Portuguese or maybe even Italian. Once I got to university, I finally understood. Putain truly was the best way to describe their time in La Roma.

One day, however, the funny-talking man and his band of writer poet buddies came into the cafe just before closing. He said hola like he always did but something was different. There was something off about all of them. Their movements were jagged. Their voices were sharp, almost accusatory. I still moved closer but left an empty chair between.

“Esperanza—” he said, but I couldn’t understand the rest. He was talking too fast and his accent was too strong.

“Fuck her,” said the other man, jittering as they approached Dad. That was my favorite English word, and the only one I knew before they arrived in the colonia. So diverse, so many different ways to use it. “——! ——.”

They threw a wad of pesos on the table and Dad returned with a bottle of whiskey. Mom grabbed his arm near the door and tried pulling him back, but he shook her off and told her to stay back and stop getting in the way of man’s business.

This continued. Round after round until the bottle was empty. Then they’d furiously wave Dad over and throw more pesos on the table at him and demand another bottle and demand it be delivered quickly. I could tell from his face that he resented every second of it, but it’d been a slow month and rent was always behind, so that next bottle always came and it always came quickly like they asked.

Two, three, four. I still don’t understand how they put it all away. They were only four men, after all, and none of them overly large.

Mom stepped in on the fifth. “No more,” she said as they ordered Dad to go fetch them another bottle.

Three of the four drinking men, all but the funny-talking one, roared with laughter. The one with the money reached deep in his pocket and pulled out another wad of pesos. He threw them on the floor at her feet, laughing and shaking in his seat as he did.

“One more,” he said through gritted teeth. His grip on the empty glass was so tight I worried it might break. “Uno mas—now!”

Dad stepped forward but Mom put her arm out and stopped him. Her eyes fell and she looked to the funny-talking man but he just slouched down in his chair and looked away. His face was bright red, but he didn’t say a word as Mom got on her hands and knees and began picking up the bills. All he did was sigh and shake his head and run his hands through his hair before pulling out his notebook and scribbling away.

“Get him what he wants!” Dad barked. “¡Dale lo que quiere! Don’t just sit there! Put that goddamn book away and do something for once!”

He jumped forward, snatched the book out of my hand, and threw it out the open door. The gringos roared with laughter and pointing. “——! ——!” their laughter swelled and the pointing continued.

“——! ——!”

Mom caressed my knee later that night and told me he didn’t mean it. “Those gringos drive him crazy,” she said, but I already knew. Still, knowing didn’t make me feel any better. I hated him for it, making us all look like such fools, and wished I was at the table so he couldn’t tell me what to do any more. “He can’t stand not being able to turn them away.”

I held the tears in and told her I understood. It didn’t matter. I knew he had a lot of stress running the cafe and keeping our bellies full. La Roma was home but it wasn’t ours.

* * *

Darkness floats through La Ciudad and anything is possible in the world between the lines. The fountains bubble, the taquerias long closed. Even the young footballers have disappeared from the streets, fast asleep, dreaming of Madrid. All that remains are the freaks and misfits and the bandits out hunting. They’re all looking for a quick score. It’s why they came South. Junk has always been cheap in the darkest back alleys. But you don’t notice these things, not here. The rules are different between the lines. You simply drift through the endless black until the tamale lady shouts you back to consciousness.

Drifting, drifting, drifting. You’re weightless and invincible. Nobody can tell you no, not here. Anything can happen, yet for some reason nothing ever does. I’m one with the gringo men, drifting. The picture is blurry, but I can understand! Finally, I can understand! We’re all together somewhere but I don’t know where it is. It’s far too blurry and it’s only getting worse. But we’re together, that much I know. We’re together and when they laugh I laugh too.

We walk together and end up in the cafe like they always do but this time I’m with them and four is five. I don’t have to sit at my usual table five or six feet away, looking and straining and wanting but never being able to stand up and listen and join in.

Mom is laughing and smiling and Dad’s pouring the drinks full for all of us and his usual grimace is nowhere to be found. We all continue roaring around the table with journey’s from nights before—I think, at least, but truly have no idea—as down another and call it fuel for our next adventure.

The newfound quintet roams through the winding streets and alleys of La Roma and howl wild into the endless possibility night provides. They, no we, tell stories of New York City and London and the funny-talking man tells me about his former life in Milan or Lisbon—whenever he says the city’s name I can’t hear clearly for some reason and there’s always something unseen in the way—and how he left because Mexico is the greatest adventure left in North America.

“This is everything America promises to be,” the funny-talking man exclaims over a freshly empty bottle of whiskey. “Never leave. This, this!— this is where it’s at! There’s no place better than Mexico City!”

I speak English and they speak English too. So does everyone else around us. A white light flashes then it’s gone again and everything returns to black, deeper black, encapsulating black and I’m all alone once more.

* * *

When loud bangs in the night are fireworks you learn a lot about who you are and where you live. You learn even more when they’re not. They came in a short burst of three—BANG, BANG, BANG!—and sent me upright in my bed. My forehead was doused with cold, clammy sweat as I got up and went over to the window to survey the streets beneath.

The street was calm beneath my window. A couple of old men sat out on their porch a few blocks down drinking and playing cards, but that was all. The laughter coming from their direction was soft, as was the Spanish.

“—FUUUUUCK—” cut suddenly from the opposite direction. There was more being said, all in English, but I couldn’t understand. The reverberation of the curse rang through my ears. It was obvious who it was, but why? What was happening? What adventures were they having that I was missing out on?

I opened the window and stuck my head out, but the English had dissipated. The two old men drinking looked up at me and shouted to go inside and stop being so noisy. I was too young to be awake, and they were too drunk to care about my age.

All I had to do was make it past my parents’ bedrooms and into the cafe undetected and I’d be in the clear. Once I was outside, it didn’t matter. Any noise they’d chalk up to raccoons in the trash or drunks stumbling home to the bar. Nothing worth waking up for. They wouldn’t even check the window.

The air was much colder than when I’d gone to bed. Wind lashed my exposed neck and ankles. It felt how I imagined Dostoevsky’s Siberia. I pulled my socks up as far as they would go and continued forward. Years had passed since my last set of new pajamas, many many inches ago. After making it half a block I doubled back and started the other way to avoid the old men drinking and playing cards. They were too loud and didn’t look familiar and frankly the hassle just wasn’t worth it. I could afford a few more blocks.

Just as I began to lose hope of finding the voice who’d shouted FUCK into the black of night at maximum volume, the English started again. This time it was much closer and easier to understand. They were talking—two of them if not more—but I couldn’t figure out where their voices were coming from. But it was close, very close. I slowed to a stop and ducked into the alleyway. I couldn’t risk being seen.

“Wh—wh—what —— I do?” trembled the stern, aggressive voice from the cafe. “——. Today. I —— the police. No ——!”

“Nothing,” responded another. I couldn’t believe my ears. It was the funny-talking man. Something was off. His accent was thicker than ever. “You can’t do nothing at all.” “I can’t —— nothing!” the other man exclaimed. “——. I loved her.”

“That means nothing now!”

Anger pulsated through his voice and it was almost tangible. I leaned forward to steal a glance around the corner and get a better look at them and what they were doing and hopefully figure out whatever it all was.

On the other side of the street, three and a half blocks down, the two of them huddled on the stoop in front of one of the old mansions of La Roma. The funny-talking man had something loosely wrapped in a brown paper bag in one hand and a bottle of whiskey or rum in the other. I squinted but couldn’t make out what it was. It was far too dark.

I crept forward another block, still away from their line of sight. “——. It was an accident. I —— her to get hurt.”

The funny-talking man reached both arms out and shook his friend by the shoulders. His neck rolled drunk circles. “Stop!” he shouted. “—— out of it! Esperanza has —— her house. We —— go ——!”

It wasn’t until many years later, standing outside Kirkland House in my first year living in Cambridge, that I learned the word heroin and finally did the math in reverse.

* * *

The metro had always been hot and it had always been crowded, and it still was, but the smiles were lighter now and so was everything else. I looked up and down the moving car toward the people. Some were old, yes, but most weren’t. Most were new. It was exactly how I remembered Los Angeles to be when I gave my guest lecture at UCLA, only the opposite. Everything in a constant state of change, always moving. And so were we. Such is life in the big city.

I could hear pockets of English being spoken through the falling tide of our Chilango mother tongue, and, finally, I could understand what was being said. Younger me at the cafe would’ve never believed it. Instagram. Tacos. Roma—Norte, not Sur—that point they made abundantly clear. I smiled while a seat opened up and it grew melancholic as they stood aside and motioned for me to have a seat. That was a first. How things had changed. Kids were kids and Cambridge was all around me.

My life and career had been spent molding the greatest minds of their generation and when I looked right and left I saw them all smiling and laughing but doing it hollowly. Smile, click, snap—back to zero. It was programmatic. They knew no better. This was the life they’d been raised for. We all were the pigs, we just never knew it.

One of the guest speakers at a conference in Barcelona taught me that. The boiling frog theory applies to everyone and everything all the time. If you heat up the pot slowly enough they won’t even realize they’re burning alive. They’ll be soup and glad for it! There’s no avoiding it, only embracing. When he told me I laughed and shook my head and dismissed him, but I never got that thought out of my mind. It didn’t come up often, but when it did it hit hard. The world moves in cycles and we’ve got no say in what happens. Our lives are determined at birth if not before, as were our parents and their parents, too.

My students never liked that outlook, said it was far too nihilistic but I couldn’t help but feel certain it was true. And what could truly be nihilistic about the truth? Evidence sometimes points opposite to where we want it to. Clean lines are almost impossible to find. Life remains beautiful either way. So what’s the problem? It’s just the way things are. Good or bad, we refuse to change, humans. I was always going to Cambridge. I was always coming back.

I wiped the sweat from my forehead and watched the city race past through the polluted heat of the montañas all around. What was I doing, getting so caught up in thought? Those days were over for me. Too many years had passed. All the new thoughts I would ever think, any chance I ever had at originality, was long gone. That dream had died and buried and grass grew over the plot. Back in Cambridge, I might have hoped, but probably Paris if I was honest with myself. I still thought I might’ve been on to something in those days. My final satori, but oh well. What’s done is done. I closed my eyes and relaxed comfortably into the sweltering blanket of seventy-one years lived.

The train rolled to a stop at Insurgentes and I was awoken by the feeling of movement all around. Getting up, sitting down, jostling left, pushing right, coming, going—it didn’t matter the direction, they were all moving. They were all going someplace other than where they were, and I was too. I pushed myself off my seat and squeezed through the gap in the living organism that was the crowd and only just made it out before the whistle blew and the doors slid shut.

Insurgentes station was the same as I’d left it, yet nothing was the same. Time had passed and the world had changed. Such is inevitable. They always say it’s a bad thing but maybe it’s simply an inevitable thing, yet another uncomfortable aspect of the human experience. Adapt or move on. It’s simple evolution. I walked slowly down the familiar streets, grateful our city grid hadn’t altered. The route was the route it had always been. But of course none of the businesses remained.

The streets, practically speaking, were untouched. Left remained left, right was right, and all the parks and trees remained. Yet the essence had changed. Corporate art covered all the walls of the restaurants and the bricks were no better. They were beautiful, of course—that much was undeniable—but it was all too orderly, too planned, too concentrated. Gringas and fresas lined up just the same. Maybe it made me old and jaded, shaking my head as I passed, but I couldn’t help it. I cared and Ididn’t like it. All I wanted was to roll back the time, but if afforded the chance I don’t think I would have. In sentiment, maybe, but not much else.

Our cafe made it all the way until 2002 the landlord said enough was enough and shut us down. The last ten years had been a struggle. My parents didn’t say much whenever I called home, but it was obvious when I visited. Still, they remained adamant that my money was my money throughout it all and insisted that Cambridge might not last forever, so save it for when my luck ran out. “Save it, Raul. Save every penny of it. You never know how things will change, only that they surely will.”

We did what we did so you could do what you’re doing. Our job is helping you, yours is to help yourself and whoever comes next. Unfortunately, I never got around to much of that. And even more unfortunately, their stubbornness couldn’t pay the bills. Their song played long and beautiful but in the end of course the tune ran out and accounts went to zero or at least got close and then, only then, was I allowed to help. Streets or extend your hand a bit, so reluctantly they picked up the phone and that was that. I was fifteen years into tenure at the time.

I was glad to take over the mortgage but we talked less and less after I did and we all knew why. Dad couldn’t stomach the failure of seeing his son’s name on the checks he sent out. The first of the month killed him every time. Mom tried her best to keep our family’s candle burning and alive but there was only so much she could do. That’d always been the problem.

So when Dad finally died and the university said I was free to go whenever I pleased I realized enough was enough and it was time to go home and try and make things right. Mexico City didn’t really feel like La Ciudad anymore but it was still my home and a hell of a lot better than Boston or Cambridge, and Mom was only a few blocks away. Dad’s funeral was the first time I’d seen her in years. We called every Sunday after church when he was busy watching the football, but that was the extent of our relationship. I kept walking forward and even walked faster knowing she was just around the corner, three streets deeper in La Roma. It all would be fixed soon, I hoped. Everything would be okay.

There was a new cafe on the corner of Monterrey and Chihuahua and it looked warm and inviting. A young, pale-skinned Mexican man covered in tattoos worked the espresso machine tirelessly and I couldn’t help but smile. That was me, or at least how I imagined myself growing up. I glanced around and ducked inside. Mom wasn’t expecting me for another hour or so and a coffee sounded nice after the flight. Anything to turn back to how it was.

I ducked into the cafe that used to be my home and ordered the first thing on the menu, a horchata latte. That sounded interesting. My eyes lingered on the stairs leading up to where my bedroom used to be. The young man asked for seventy pesos—seventy pesos!—and my eyes widened as I asked him to say it one more time.

“Seventy pesos, porfa,” the barista said, and I dug into my pockets with a wayward grin wondering what had happened to the colonia. Her face may not have changed much but her insides surely had. The university gave me a good retirement, more than enough, but still, I could hardly believe it. Mom and Dad would have been grateful to get three or four. If they had, our lives would’ve turned out much different. I handed over the money and went to my seat and waited for my drink to come as mi Romita continued moving on without me.

God had died but there was a young man sitting across the street who looked remarkably like him. I leaned forward and grabbed my horchata latte from the tattooed man and took a deep drink from it—why hadn’t my parents thought of this?—and tried to make out the title of the book in his hand, but couldn’t. Something in English. That’s all I could make out. I leaned back again and swallowed. At least it tasted good. 


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