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short story    
 
photo of Mark Jude Poirier


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  Mark Jude Poirier: Cul-de-Sacs


Taking everyone to the Pima Air Museum was a mean idea, I admit. The only other people I remember seeing there that afternoon were four German tourists in fluorescent, synthetic sweatsuits and a few gossiping senior-citizen volunteers hiding from the white sun under a fiberglass ramada. The museum sits in a corner of the Boneyard, a vast dumping ground for spent military aircraft: miles of expired planes, helicopters, and jets, baking and disintegrating in the sun. The actual museum, an echoey old air force hangar filled with the thick smell of corn dogs and popcorn from the snack bar, is home to hundreds of boring seventies exhibits like Blacks in Uniform and Historic Propellers. But I didn't want to sit around the house all day while Ann and Clarissa went to the mall like they had every Saturday so far that summer; that's why I insisted we all get in the car and drive out to the dead planes.

We spent most of our time on the rock-lined walkways that wound through a group of fifty or so rotting, fading aircraft in the dirt outside the hangar. We had prepared for the sun with hats and UV-blocking sunglasses, and we were smeared with waxy SPF 45 sunscreen. We smelled tropical. Out there in the aircraft graveyard, our antisun measures didn't seem to help, though. I could feel the rays pressing down, sizzling through it all. We stopped at each plane and sat in the shade of one of its wings--if it still had its wings. I'd examine the rivets, peek into the cockpit if possible, and exaggerate my interest in the aerodynamics. Under one, I read aloud from the brochure: "The Convair B-58 Hustler was the first supersonic bomber in history capable of delivering nuclear bombs...." Ann pretended to listen to what I was reading. Clarissa sighed loudly and lifted her hair off the back of her neck. My son, Martin, didn't do anything because at that point he was asleep in his stroller, hiding under his ball cap.

Some of the jets were amazingly massive, bigger than strip malls, with windows and engines still intact. Most looked too big to fly, like it was wrong that things that big ever flew. The wheels on the landing gear of some were taller than me with Martin on my shoulders.

"It scares me to think that maybe only one guy was controlling this thing as it hurtled through the sky," I said, gazing up into the greasy shocks and axles of a carrier, one of the last we looked at.

"Can we leave?" Clarissa said. "I'm thirsty."

"This is torture," Ann finally said, pinching her temples like the heat had given her a migraine.

I was keeping Ann and Clarissa in the blasting sun, draining energy from them, making them too tired and grumpy to go off together later on.

"Uncle Ed, that place sucked," Clarissa told me on the way home. "And aim one of those vents over here." She was in the backseat, out of the air conditioner's range. Sweat trailed down her neck and dragged some of her makeup with it. I adjusted the vent on the right, directing it toward her, knowing that the cooled air would never reach her.

"I'll think of something better for next time," I told her. That following weekend, I tried to come up with somewhere as hot and as boring to visit, but not too obviously so. I couldn't. They went off to the mall.

Clarissa had come to stay with us for the summer. She's my older brother's daughter, and that spring she hadn't been able to get along with him. She was eighteen then, headed to Carleton College in Minnesota that fall. Smart, lazy as hell, and with her honey-colored hair and showgirl legs, attractive in an obvious way. It was her job to take care of Martin and clean the house while Ann and I worked, but all she did was stick Martin in his playpen, lounge around, and watch talk shows. When I'd get home from work, she'd be draped on the couch, asleep, her hair spilled all over the cushions--the TV blaring and snack-food wrappers and crumbs scattered on the floor in front of her. Martin would also be asleep because he'd stayed up late, making Ann and me tired. The thing that really got me was that Ann didn't care that Clarissa was a slacker milking us for five dollars an hour plus free room and board. She liked Clarissa--probably because she didn't get along with any of her coworkers at the bank: "They huddle around Days of Our Lives in the lounge from twelve to one every day, and then when they come back out front, all they ever want to talk about is that damn show. And they all wear too much perfume."

Toward the end of June, I'd sneak up to sleeping Clarissa if I returned home before Ann and slam my briefcase down on the coffee table, or I'd pant primitively in her ear. She'd wake up and cuss at me and complain to Ann about it when Ann got home.

Once, when Clarissa left a half-eaten hot dog on the arm of the couch, I plucked it from its ketchupy bun and slipped it into her hand. I watched as she squeezed the meaty insides out of the casing and onto herself. Then I woke her up by grunting loudly.

"What the hell?" she moaned.

"Interesting dream you were having," I told her.

"What?" she said, sitting up, looking at the mess in her hand. She was confused only for a second.

"You had quite a grip on that wiener."

"You're vile," she said, throwing the hot dog at me.

Then Ann got home, and the two of them went out as usual, leaving me with Martin, who had almost mastered escaping from his playpen. Despite what the pediatrician said about his slower-than-normal, eleventh-percentile verbal development--which shot up to the fifty-second percentile the fall after Clarissa left--Martin was a great two-year-old. Not fussy, not gassy, not wild, and ninety percent toilet-trained. I think he hated Clarissa, too--at least I fantasized that he hated her. We bonded in this hate.

Each night after Ann and Clarissa left and I calmed down, Martin and I went about our routines. I'd slip on my running shoes and strap Martin in his stroller, and off we'd go. I got to know our neighbors that summer. I learned every body's business. There were only three houses in our cul-de-sac--including ours.

We all lived in model houses for a development that had flopped, gone bankrupt. These homes were priced to move, and because Ann and I thought back then that we'd like to have a few more kids, we couldn't refuse. Four bedrooms and a two-car garage. The homes were big, and all three looked exactly alike: sand-colored stucco, red Mexican-tile roofs, natural desert xeriscaping in the front, and backyards with peanut-shaped pools enclosed by black wrought-iron fences. I could've walked into the neighbors' house across the street and known right where to find their bathrooms and linen closets.

I wouldn't have done that. The man across the street was a dentist who looked exactly like Rex Morgan, M.D., from the comics page: stiff, ink-black hair and pronounced, handsome-guy cheekbones. His wife wore baggy, loose clothes and big ceramic beads and spoke with what I always thought was a bogus British accent. She claimed she had worked with Jane Goodall and had a Ph.D. in primate zoology, but I doubted it. They had a pet chimp that she couldn't control. "He's not a pet," she'd say each time she came over to our place to fetch him. "He's been socialized with humans and thinks he's our child. We treat him as such."

Every month when Ann got her period, the chimp would be pounding on our back door, scratching his nails on the screen, showing his yellow fangs, and twisting his pink crayon dick--and screaming and shrieking. He was big, bigger than you'd think a chimp was, with thick linebacker shoulders and feet he could fist-up and punch with. When he was all sexed up, he was not the least bit cute. I'd go upstairs, lean out the bathroom window, and dump pans of cold water on him, refilling from the bathtub faucet. But he wouldn't retreat until his owners came over and calmed him down with a green liquid they'd spray from a perfume atomizer.

They were allowed to keep him because our neighborhood was outside the Tucson city limits. I only knew their last name: Rombough. I called them Chimp People. Their chimp I called Romboner.

To the west of us was a hardy Mormon family of nine giant girls and their giant parents. All the girls had blond, braided hair and wore frilly dresses and knee-high socks. Swiss Misses of the Sonora Desert. You couldn't tell them apart from one another. Martin called them all Nan because Nan was the one who first baby-sat him--plus Nan was the only thing he could say anyway. His bottle he called Nan, me he called Nan, Ann he called Nan. The Mormon girls had all been good baby-sitters: they held Martin and always cleaned the house before we got home. I still don't know why we kept Clarissa on. I should have sent her home to my brother after the first week and had the Swiss Misses babysit all summer.

The Swiss Misses never fought, and when they swam, they wore those old-lady-type, skirted swimsuits and rubber, flower-covered bathing caps. They'd wave to Martin and me from their pool through the twists of wrought iron. We'd wave back and stroll on.

The Chimp People were a little more interesting. Each night the woman, clad in rudely colored spandex, would do step aerobics or Jazzercise in the living room, and Romboner would Sit in the window and clap his long, wrinkled hands. When the dentist got home, he'd kiss the chimp first, then his sweaty wife. Martin and I frequently witnessed this through their ten-by-fourteen picture window. We had that same window at home.

Because the housing development never developed, desolate paved streets with low hills sprawled for miles into the desert. Some teenagers from town would cruise them and leave their crunched beer cans and condom wrappers, but otherwise no one ever went out there. The city planners didn't bother naming any of the streets, not even ours. According to the U.S. Postal Service, we lived on Route 67G, but there were no street signs. That made it difficult to give people directions to our house. If anyone got lost out on those streets, it might've been hours before they got back to civilization. It was a labyrinth of identically barren cul-de-sacs and confusing, curving roads. The development was going to be called Blue Canyons. There were no blue canyons out there. No canyons of any color.

I never got lost pushing Martin in his stroller. We stuck to the same four streets--a three-mile loop with two turnoffs. We'd see mangy coyotes loping through the scrub, nervous jackrabbits, and once in a while, a gila monster. Snakes, even rattlers, would lie in the streets in the early evening, warming their bellies on the asphalt. Along the way, I'd pull the orange-vinyl surveyor flags from bushes and stakes and tie them to the stroller. The supply of flags was endless because the developers had planned on building hundreds of homes out there. The surveyors must've spent months placing those flags. Some nights we'd have so many tied to the stroller, we'd look like a big Chinese dragon, flapping down the street.

I'd push Martin up one big hill, and we'd gaze at the sunset behind the city. Some nights, pinks and oranges smudged and flared all over the sky, but other nights the sky was clogged with the filthy grays and browns that the L.A. transplants had dragged to our desert.

Ann was the first person I met when I moved to Tucson from Manhattan, and she didn't really let me meet anyone else. She certainly didn't have a vast circle of friends. She happened to be the associate at the bank who set up my checking and savings accounts the second day I was in town, and she called me that night, saying, "I know you're new here, and I thought you could use a home-cooked meal." She gave me the whole business, and the more I learned about her--she hated her job, couldn't afford to go back to college, mother died when she was ten, apartment complex smelled like pesticide, car in a constant state of disrepair--the more I got sucked in.

It wasn't just pity. She was different then, enthusiastically showing me Tucson, like she had been waiting her whole life for someone new to show it to. "Just wait until August when the monsoons come and lightning lights the sky.... They whitewash the big A every year for U of A's homecoming.... The Pima County Fair ... blah, blah, blah ..."

We hiked in the Santa Catalinas, drove down to Nogales and bought blankets and got drunk on tequila, looked through the telescopes at the planetarium, went to all the museums, ate at all the little Mexican places on South Sixth Avenue. She was still showing me the city when we got married, still planning weekend outings after Martin was born. I think we finally exhausted the city a few weeks after we moved into the model home.

I stayed up and waited for Ann and Clarissa each time they went out. Wednesday nights nothing was on TV, especially out there, where we couldn't get cable, so I'd do the housework that Clarissa had neglected all week and try to forget the envy and hostility churning in my stomach.

One of those Wednesday nights, I was folding laundry when the two of them returned home. I had it neatly stacked up on the couch to make them feel guilty. They were ruddy from laughing as they walked in.

"Where'd you guys go tonight?" I asked them. I refolded a pair of black panties that had been on the top of the stack. Clarissa and Ann stopped laughing.

"We're not guys," Clarissa said, and she snatched the panties out of my hands like I had been sniffing them or something.

"Is Martin asleep?" Ann asked.

"Yes," I said.

That's how most nights were. I pictured them out on the town, stuffing dollar bills in the G-string of some greasedup, rippled male stripper, or line-dancing with cubicle cowboys at the Cactus Moon Cantina.

Another night, before the two of them went out, Ann and I were sitting on the couch in front of the TV, only the TV wasn't on. I had my arm around her, was kissing her ear, hiding under her hair, making her smile. We had talked about her job, how she was beginning to like it better since her boss got transferred. It was the best ten minutes I had spent alone with her that entire summer. Then Clarissa popped in from the kitchen and ruined it.

"Do you want to go back to BHT tonight?" she asked Ann--loudly, rudely.

"I don't know if I can handle two nights in a row," Ann said. She stood up and conspiratorially ushered Clarissa back toward the kitchen.

"You-know-who might be there," Clarissa said. "And those boots!"

They laughed and disappeared into the kitchen, leaving me in front of the blank TV, wondering.

The benches were breaking that summer. We made them where I worked. I went to four years of college and two years of architecture school to draw cement benches. The design offices were attached to the plant, so everything in my work area stank of cement dust. At the end of each day, my teeth were gritty and my hair was like a powdered wig.

In the center of each bench, there was a stress point that hadn't been accounted for by Quality Control. We'd get calls from customers whose benches had broken, and Lou, the manager, would hook his dimpled fingers over the top of my cubicle, peer at me, and say, "Another one of your benches broke, guy," like it was all my fault. It wasn't. If they had used the cement mix I had suggested when I originally designed the benches, instead of the cheapo aerated mix, there wouldn't have been any problems.

For all of June, I had pretended to be hard at work designing a cement trash can. I could have done it in three days if I had really tried, but it was difficult to get enthusiastic about a trash can--especially a cement one--so I wrote fake memos to the material scientists, flipped through OSHA manuals, played Tetris on my computer.

The only person I liked in the whole company was Lou's secretary, Franny, a trendy woman who behaved like an eighth grader. Every other weekend she drove seven hours to the outlet stores near Palm Springs. It was an Armani summer for her, a summer of muted linen pants and clunky, industrial-looking black boots.

"These shoes would have cost me three hundred dollars in L.A., and I got them for ninety," she said, pointing her toe, rolling her leg from side to side.

"Good deal," I said. "Just don't kick me."

She'd cut me through and let me listen when Lou made his calls for male escorts on Friday afternoons. Lou's first question to the call boy was always "Do you do fats?" Then it was "What do you look like? Buff?" And we'd hear the poor guy list his stats, trying to sell himself to blubber-ass Lou.

On the week of the Fourth of July, Lou was gone for an extra three days, which meant Franny could snoop around in his office.

"Ed, I found something juicy," she told me that Wednesday after lunch. "Right there in the bottom drawer, under a bunch of old inventory folders, behind the first-aid kit." Her hands were trembling, she was dancing.

She had discovered a leather-bound scrapbook filled with clippings of Scott Baio. They were mostly from old Tiger Beat or Teen Dream magazines, back when Scott was on TV all the time as Chachi in Happy Days or Charles in Charles in Charge. Toward the end of the book was a meticulously handwritten log of all the different episodes, plus the other times Lou had seen Scott Baio, like on Circus of the Stars or as Johnny Carson's guest. There were a few TV Guide ads for the more recent shows Scott had been doing, but these were just paper-clipped in a clump to the last page, like Lou hadn't had time to start a second volume. The book was alive: Orderly Obsession, Absolute Devotion, True Love! I imagined faithful Lou combing the magazines in Safeway, watching videotaped episodes of Happy Days, writing letters to Scott. Maybe it was somewhat reciprocal, maybe Scott's publicist had sent him form letters and glossy photos showing Scott in a different pose each year. Whatever the case, Lou had it bad: he had the Love Drive.

"I'm leaving," I told Franny. I closed the book and wiped my hands on my pants. It was only two in the afternoon, but I was anxious, taken aback by this discovery. Plus, I just wanted to leave, and Lou wasn't there to tell me I couldn't.

"You can't," she said. She grabbed my wrist and stroked the hair on my arm with her thumb. "I might find something better."

"You might, but I really gotta go."

"Party pooper," she said, defeated. She picked up the scrapbook, shoved it back in the bottom drawer, and kicked the drawer shut with her meaty boot.

I started on my way home, past the airport expressway and past the dusty fairgrounds, before I decided to turn around and away. Clarissa would have just been slouched on the couch watching Oprah anyway. I would have walked in and asked her if she had done anything all day, and she would have told me to get a life of my own--and she would have been sort of right.

The Bay Horse Tavern was where I first stopped. Maybe it was the bold orange sign with the stupid-looking, googly-eyed cartoon stallion that snagged me. Maybe it was because the Bay Horse was right next to Dime Vid, a place where you could play outdated video games for a dime. Ann never let me play video games at home. She never let me drink beer, either. "You want to get fat?" she'd say. "Beer makes men fat. Fat men have breasts."

I ordered a dollar bottle of Bud and looked at the Polaroids of the regulars pinned up behind the bar. In each of the pictures, the people pressed their faces together cheek-to-cheek, smiled, and held up whatever they were drinking. When I saw the one of Ann and Clarissa, I gulped my beer and changed stools so I could get a better look. Both of their faces were flashed white, their eyes red as devils, but it was definitely them. A third woman, whose face was also somewhat washed away, was squished between them, and a mustachioed man in a satin Wildcats jacket looked as if he had popped himself in the camera's view at the last second. All smiles, all holding beers.

"See that picture there," I said to the bartender, pointing with my beer bottle.

She was bending over at the other end of the bar, wiping down the inside of a refrigerator. She sighed and trudged across the rubber mats behind the bar, her soiled tennis shoes making squeaking, rubber-on-rubber noises. "Which?" she said.

"That one," I said, standing, pointing with my bottle.

"Ann, Jenny, Clarissa, and that guy from the dart tournament," she said matter-of-factly, like I had challenged her to name them all. She flipped her feathered red hair over her shoulder.

"Clarissa's only eighteen," I said. "Shouldn't be allowed in here. Can I have another?" I held up my bottle.

She popped open another beer for me and said, "How do you know?"

"She's my niece, and Ann's my wife."

The bartender's lip curled up on one side, and she spit out a laugh. "You're Ed," she said. "I've heard about you."

"Oh?"

"Yes." She resumed her cleaning of the fridge.

I ordered three more beers and pounded them, still looking at the photos of the regulars. "Tell Ann and Clarissa I said hello when they come in tonight," I said to the bartender as I was leaving, pushing the door into the white burst of sun.

"They only come on Tuesdays and Thursdays," she said.

I was buzzed and bloated as I waddled over to Dime Vid in the blazing afternoon heat.

The woman working at Dime Vid smiled broadly at me when I walked in. I was the only one in there besides her. She was old, maybe seventy, but she wore bright, plastic little-girl barrettes in her long gray hair. "You've just been drinking next door," she said.

"Yes," I said. I handed her a buck. "Dimes, please."

She counted me the dimes from her change belt and disappeared. I put three in Asteroids.

I didn't do very well at Asteroids. In my first game, I lost all three ships before she returned with two beers. My score was around 2,000. You need 10,000 for a free ship.

She handed me an icy Coors, already popped open. If I had known the Dime Vid lady was giving out free beers, I would have gone there first and skipped the Bay Horse. "Thanks," I said.

"You're playing all wrong," she said. "Save one asteroid on the screen, and wait for the flying saucers to come out."

She swigged her beer and shifted her dentures with a clicking sound. Her electric-pink gums and her white teeth were too perfect. They looked wrong in the middle of her weathered, roasted face. "Let me guess," she said. "You're a doctor and you came to relieve some stress."

"I design cement benches," I said. "Now I design cement trash cans." I ran my fingers through my hair to show her the cement dust. She didn't notice.

"Out early for the holiday weekend?"

"A book of Scott Baio pictures scared me." I took my last swig of beer. It was still cold enough to hurt my teeth. I lost my second ship then. It exploded with a dry poof at around 8,000.

"Chachi?"

I tried to explain Lou's Love Drive, how it frightened me a little, and I forgot about the strategy that she had suggested. I blithely blasted away at all the floating asteroids on the screen. Only one saucer came out. I missed it.

"You know," she said, "you can love all different people and things, but when you dig through it all--save that last asteroid--when you dig through it all, the love is the same."

"Only sometimes it's illegal," I said.


It was a little tough behind the wheel for me. I made it to the Taco Bell drive-through window all right, ate three burritos in the parking lot with the engine running and the air-conditioning on full blast. From there I drove a few blocks to the liquor store to buy a six-pack. As I pulled into the parking lot, I scraped the side of my car on a bus-stop sign. The noise it made, that high-pitched grinding squeal, was funny at the time. I lost my side mirror. I was going to get beer, and bring it home, and drink it there, and maybe get fat and grow big-ass tits--all in front of Ann.

I decided that I was bound for jail if I got pulled over, so I cracked open a beer in the car and held it between my thighs.

Ann had probably been home from work for a few hours, I imagined, and she and Clarissa would have to keep sitting around, waiting for me, before they could go out.

I drove east, away from the eye-level sun, to the dead planes near the Air Museum. I skidded into the dirt next to a tall chain-link fence topped with evil twists of prison-quality barbed wire. Every fifty feet or so along the fence, there was a red sign: ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING. GUARD DOGS ON DUTY. PROPERTY OF THE U.S. ARMED FORCES. Bullshit, I thought, looking at all the junked planes. Where would the dogs be? They'd die in the heat. I wanted in the Boneyard. I wanted to climb around on a Convair B-58--not that I remembered exactly what one looked like. I wanted to sit in the cockpit and drink my five and a half beers.

I didn't do it.

That sharp, flesh-ripping barbed wire scared me--so did the nonexistent dogs--and I chickened out. Still, I had my beer, and I cracked another as I headed home.

They were all primped and ready to leave when I walked in. Ann was wearing way too much makeup, and her hair was sprayed tall in the front like a bug shield. Clarissa had the same hair going. Proudly, I held the four remaining beers in front of me.

"You're late," Ann said. "And drunk?"

"These are my beers," I said. "And I'm your fat, beer-drinking husband."

"Ed, you're not fat," Ann said. Her eyebrows looked thin. Plucked away.

"I wanna be," I said.

"No beer," she said. "What's with you?"

I walked up to them, and Clarissa retreated to the kitchen. I looked at Ann's eyes: lined in black. They told me she wasn't happy to see me. She hadn't been nervously waiting for me to get home, calling the office, checking up on me. She wasn't relieved that I hadn't died in a car wreck.

I realized then that I wouldn't have kept a scrapbook of Ann pictures. I wouldn't have logged all of her appearances if she had been on TV. I wouldn't have spent that much time thinking about her, and I never would. I staggered to the bathroom.

I was thinking, as I stood there in front of the toilet, that I should be back in the Convair B-58 Hustler, casually finishing my beer, fiddling with the busted controls, staring up at the swarm of stars beginning to shine in the sky. But I was a wuss, so instead I was back at home, taking a piss, watching the bowl bubble up.

"Where's Martin?" I asked when I returned to the family room.

"Asleep," Ann said. "Clarissa and I are going out now. Are you okay here?" She gathered her purse and keys from the couch, not waiting for me to answer. "Get rid of that beer."

"Have fun," I said. Then I pushed open the kitchen door and also told Clarissa to have fun. She responded by telling me that a girl in her high school was killed by a drunk driver, and then she sneered at me more dramatically than she ever had, lifting her lip and arching her painted-on brows.

"Your hair looks really pretty," I told her.


Martin didn't wake up when I strapped him in his stroller. I brought a beer on our walk. I had put the other three in the refrigerator, shoving Ann's yogurt way in the back, next to the gallon jug of generic barbecue sauce we never used. It was dark outside, and I knew that this would have to be a short walk.

I pushed Martin around our cul-de-sac. The Mormons didn't have any lights on. I imagined they were probably asleep, the girls in beds lined up like in a hospital ward, wearing long, flannel nightgowns and sleeping caps pulled down over their scrubbed foreheads.

The Romboughs' home was lit up. Through the big window, I could see them sitting around the dining-room table, wearing party hats. There was a cake, and shiny Mylar balloons were everywhere. One of the balloons had a purple 8 on it. It was Romboner's birthday. Romboner was clapping and smiling and shrieking. They were fussing over him good: adjusting his bib, kissing him on his crinkly monkey lips, singing to him. I bet they had a great scrapbook of Romboner. From the start, they must have taken lots of photos of him.

Martin stirred in his stroller and yawned. He sleepily pointed to the Romboughs and said, "Nan."

"No," I said. "Those are the Romboughs." I pushed the stroller up their driveway with one hand while I drank the last bit of beer. I tossed the can into an oleander and held Martin up so he could press their glowing doorbell.

Lady Rombough opened the door. The dentist and the chimp were looking on from their places at the birthday table. "May I help you, Ed?"

"No," I said, and I put Martin back in his stroller. The chimp showed me his big teeth--not in the threatening I-want-to-monkey-fuck-your-wife way, but in a playful way.

"What do you need?" she asked.

I looked back at the dentist and Romboner. "Honestly," I said, "I'm not too sure."


 
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    From Naked Pueblo by Mark Jude Poirier. Copyright © 1999 by Mark Jude Poirier. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photo credit © Diana Ossana