Morning Has Broken
When the sun rose over this medium-sized city in southern California one rarely saw it. A thick gray mass pressed down to chimney level. Yet enough light seeped through to wake the birds in the palms, in the peppers and the saccharin-blossomed magnolias and to guide the way of young Asian men throwing from aged Datsuns onto quake-cracked driveways copies of the local daily, wrapped like condoms in transparent plastic. Only faint shadows revealed the approximate location of the planet's lonely irreplaceable star.
Today was not exceptional, in any way. Night lights still pulsed in the damp air of dawn: scarlet aircraft-warning lights on the taller buildings downtown, lighted windows along their ghostly stairwells, fitfully flickering slime-green neon above the city's largest Chevrolet agency, the triangular blue-and-red symbol above the Army-Navy YMCA, the mauve glare of mercury-vapor streetlamps, the glitzy salad bowl of light above the Pacificview Room of the El Balboa Hotel. On the bay, taking advantage of the early hour, a destroyer was blowing out the soot from its boilers, generating a black smudge widening across the morning pall like pencil marks smeared by a wet eraser. White smoke rose virtually erect from two of the six stacks above the Gas & Electric Co. steam plant at the waterfront. The curving freeway that divided downtown from hillside tracts was slowly coming alive with cars and market trucks.
Against the soiled sky, several American flags left negligently overnight atop tall buildings flapped forlornly in a light breeze.
The strained dawn moved up the hills that cupped the civic core, over farther canyon-fingered mesaland to Marvista Estates, a marcelled 3,000 acres of cigar-box houses assortedly gimcracked and placed strategically for maximum density and minimum topographical concern. Its watery light pushed through bedroom window slats and across Walter's stubbled, pillow-scored face. He lay in undershorts on top of the blanket that covered his wife beside him.
He opened one eye to the light, then turned his face back to the cavern of his pillow and the memory of the lithe, auburn-haired girl whose occasional nocturnal visits he treasured. Where was she hiding? He was again in the warm water of the reservoir, the air spicy from the pines that pressed down to its banks, the languorous rhythms of Artie Shaw records floating over the moonlit black water. She had been resting on the white-painted float above him, her wet-pimpled latex cap removed and her hair tossed over one shoulder, exactly as she had been a good ten years ago. In that brief encounter, only three or four sentences each, she told him she was going to Montmartre to paint. She smiled and gathered her hair into her cap with one deft motion and dove into the murk. Again she had vanished into the dark below and the shore rose cold and desolate as he followed, the lake in which he descended a bottomless black funnel gravitizing inward. He flailed forward fiercely with strength greater than he possessed but the tug at his ankles was winning. He was being pulled down and away into greater and greater cosmic density. But, laudations resound forever, his sticky eyes burst open. There was the woman he married. Cheryl, plump Cheryl, lost among the Nibelungs, her heroic chest thrust uncompromisingly against the sagging conjugal mattress, a downcurve of intransigence on her mouth. She worked hard, with few rewards, thanks to an underachieving husband. He kissed her cheek. The curve turned into a soft smile. She hunched her shoulders and settled deeper into the pillow. Ah, a kiss from Siegfried.
"Darling, it's morning," he announced, anxious to see her hazel eyes again.
Cheryl smiled again and turned her head away.
Breathing deeply to dissolve yet another disappointment, he rose on an elbow and looked across the room to the electric alarm clock. Six-twenty-eight. It would ring in two minutes. It was a day he must make a slide-show dog-and-pony to the corporate executive committee. Aw, shit. That meant his best suit and a decent necktie, if he could find one. He returned to the pillow to savor the last dregs of night. There she was! Darting along the shore, her hair trailing like a glistening train behind her, her long legs luminous white and, yes, naked, naked as Hedy Lamarr. The lake, now beneficent, released its grip; he swam with obsession, the water churning dry-ice bitter under his fingers, the grassy, pine-canopied shore rearing up ahead like a mountain. Twice human size he achieved the bank and in giant strides began gaining on the nymph as she neared the summit of an emerald hillock. One hand reached like a beacon for a buttock, sunk into the flesh, and pulled her shimmering body to his massive, masculine self. Cheryl was burbling incoherently in his ears as he forced himself upon her bed-hot corpus. The sun like a skyrocket burst over the lake and sent torrents of fire through his glorified body, giving each digit of his hands and feet a life of its own, drawing from the girl a sweet Elysian essence to alchemize in his furnace with an elemental voltage only he possessed, fusing with and shattering in the jangling blast of the alarm, breaking and sharding into polychrome glass confetti.
"Jesus, that was quick," Cheryl said.
"I'm not even sure what happened."
"You know damn well what happened. How about a little notice next time? Or use your handkerchief."
"I was dreaming. Would you mind getting the alarm, hon'?"
"Get it yourself. I don't have to get up yet."
"Of course you have to. The children have to get ready for school. Mackenzie's class starts at eight now, remember. I could use some breakfast."
"Do I have to, today? I did yesterday. The children can sleep a little longer. There's Grape Nuts in the cupboard."
"I had Frannie's zwieback with moldy cottage cheese yesterday."
"Oy, so it vas day before maybe. You vant I should schlepp a chart?" In her best Lower East Side accent, but sadly without humor.
Enervated, disheartened, befouled, Walter rolled onto a still rubbery elbow and forced his sweat-greasy corporeality to its upright position, the alarm a hateful goad he must destroy, noise so disorienting at this time of day. Standing, he tried to relax his back against the nervous twinge he felt each morning on rising. Two spatulate, watchmaker-sensitive hands, so late clothed in ecstasy, enveloped the pulsating cube and clapped it into silence, as movie commandos burst the eardrums of Nazi sentries. He started back to the bed, its steeped warmth and comfort, now barred in awakening light. But, as suddenly as he had clasped the clock, he turned to the blinds, yanked them clattering to the rod, and threw his senses to the day.
"Ah, God, give me the strength to serve thee in never-ending accord," he said with soft grandiloquence, more feeling than import in the words. He spoke to the God of his childhood, whose impersonal evolvement remained within him. He felt that strength stirring and prayed it would stay until he was free of the house and off to the lab.
He looked down at his dozing wife, affection mingled with dismay. Still a carefree child in so many ways, three children or not. Neither of them had set out to have three children. Maybe two . . . but eventually. Christ, still in their twenties. But, while they'd both drifted from the church, they'd been brought up as Catholics and disdained birth control, AKA Guts Ball. She mostly from inertia, he with inchoate philosophical conviction. Although occasionally accompanied by a numbing sense of duty, sex remained an imperfect means of reaching each other as an appalling sense of inevitability deepened. Children supplied a firm mortar. He headed toward the kitchen, passing through the toy-cluttered living room and the dinette where supper dishes remained on the table. He filled a saucepan with water to heat and took a jar of instant coffee and carefully measured out a rounded teaspoon which went into a mug bearing the brown blotches from yesterday's brewings. Remembering a resolution to reduce, he cut his usual level teaspoon of sugar to a rounded half-teaspoon. He raised the oil-cloth blind behind the stove and let morning flow into the room. Across the street, Corrigan was turning on his sprinklers, holding back his tie as he bent over, his lawn neat as a pool table. His attractive, efficient wife was probably preparing waffles and sausage. Lucky bastard! Walter had always had a raging morning appetite but now rarely had more than a cup of coffee and a piece of toast; it was business lunches where he packed his calories and carbohydrates. No wonder Corrigan was shooting up in the wholesale grocery business. A district manager. Member of the 20-30 Club and the Jaycees. Those hot breakfasts and that kiss at the door must make a big difference. Suddenly aware of his wandering self-indulgence, Walter recoiled and tapped his forehead with the heel of a hand. Sure. They've only got one kid, so well-disciplined he's afraid to open his mouth, unlike his and Cheryl's brood of mustangs. He poured sizzling water into the mug, dissolving the shiny grains into a sepia froth. From the fridge he took a half-gallon waxed carton of milk and lightened the coffee to chamois.
He started toward the bathroom. At the door he met Frannie, his cherubic two-year-old. She wrapped her arms around one of his bare legs.
"Good morning, sweetie. You're up awfully early today." He loved his children, Frannie as much as any, but his first meeting of the day invariably caused a pursing of anxiety. He was seldom equal to their proliferating needs.
"I wet, Dad-dee."
The pursing. "That's 'I am wet.' Frannie is too big a girl to talk like a baby." She still wore diapers to bed. His empathy for a child in soiled diapers was absolute. He walked to the master bedroom, Frannie following bowlegged.
"Honey, Frannie's wet."
"I'll get her. In a minute."
"Oh. In a minute. Forget about it," gritting his teeth in moral indignation. Her 'minutes' rarely fell short of a half-hour.
Frannie was not only wet. Lying on her back in her crib, she lifted her reddened bottom for his ministration, sharing his revulsion.
"Frannie's too big a girl to dirty herself," he scolded gently. "You must get up and go to the bathroom."
Frannie yanked her head to one side and grabbed the saliva-blackened corner of her blanket.
Leaning over the crib wiping her buttocks with the clean ends of the diaper, Walter farted.
"Dad-dee mustn't," she said, smiling. "Naught-tee."
Partners in shame. "Heroes are made, not born," he said to the child, quoting a slogan from a beloved comic panel of his childhood. "Daddy's sorry."
Mackenzie, age seven, holding a life-size stuffed baby-panda, appeared at the door.
"Guhmohnin," she said with a mock-sweet face and in the burlesque babytalk in which she persisted despite the logic, coaxing, admonishments and threats of her parents. Walter suppressed an urge to slap the child, who agonizingly stimulated sadistic urges in the man who adored her.
"Good morning, darling."
"I han't got inny desses to way-uh to sool," she said in meek accusation.
"I'm sure you have dresses, Mackenzie. And will you please stop the babytalk. Mother washed on Monday, didn't she? Wear the dress you wore yesteeday – yesterday."
"A boy at sool spilled gwoo on it – jist to be nastee. And Mommie han't ironed anythin' from Mondee. I han't got innythin' at aw-ul to way-uh." She began to sob tragically.
"Goddam it, Mackenzie," he said, deciding at the same time against washing the rubber pants and dropping them instead onto the floor under the crib, where he was certain to find them that night. Immediately he hated himself for the profanity, but, damn it, couldn't she – ?
"It's not my faw-ult." Sobbing, she sunk to her knees in the hallway.
"What is it?" Cheryl's voice came out of the master bedroom down the hall, peremptory, presuming his connivance in staged discord.
"Don't let it bother you, precious," he called. "A little matter of laundry. Have another bonbon and go back to sleep."
He looked at Mackenzie with what he hoped was a reproachful face. "What are you letting boys spill glue on your good dresses for? The little son of a bitch. What's his name? I'd like to twist his little neck for him. What's his name?"
"I ca-int 'member, Dad-dee," she said with theatrical anxiety, picking up and enjoying his tone of tortured melodrama. "Ree-wee, I ca-int. It was a boy from 'nother cwass. Dunno who he is. Honest, Dad-dee, I doh-int." More sobbing.
"Will you stop this damn babytalk. It gags people after a while. How many times do you have – You're enough to drive a person – " His hand reached for her neck to yank her to her feet. He stopped, tapping a dwindling reservoir of self-control. "Get up, Mackenzie, and just relax for a minute. Go get a cracker or something. In a minute I'll help you out."
Finished powdering Frannie, he adjusted the fresh disposable pullups. "There you are, Sugar," he said to the toddler. "You're ready to face the world."
"Dad-dee, get somethin' down from my closet to play with," Frannie said.
"Not now, Baby. Mommie will be up in a minute and will get something down for you." In a pig's eye, she will, he said to himself. But getting down her toy box and then helping her find what she wanted, find the missing parts, put it back together, et cetera involved more effort than he could muster. And he still hadn't shaved.
Mackenzie, nee Sarah Bernhardt, was sitting on the side of her bed, the soul of sad docility, her weeping silent and steady as spring rain. She would have been a beautiful child if she had not sucked her thumb with such an obsession for five-plus years, cruelly misshaping her mouth and upper row of teeth. "Leave the child alone," her mother had insisted. "It's natural." Walter disagreed strongly but acceded to maternal wisdom.
"Okay, sweetheart, let's find a sweet little dress for school today." Cheery as Captain Kangaroo.
"Dad-dee not dessed," she said, subtly criticizing his attire consisting of undershorts.
"I thought you all were going to get me a bathrobe for Christmas. I can't shave in my suit, sweetheart."
"Mom-mee says you ought to get dessed when you get up."
"And, you know, Mackenzie, she's right. Being a gentleman is important and I will try harder in the future. And let's you and I both cheer up. Do you realize that this Wednesday – that's today – is absolutely unique? It has never existed before."
"But I don' have a dess to way-uh."
He opened the bifold doors of the closet shared by the two sisters. Conservatively, three-dozen dresses hung there. He pulled out a lavender sheath he had bought for Mackenzie's last birthday, ten months ago.
"Here's a beautiful dress, honey. And you haven't worn it in a long – "
"It's too small," she said curtly, suddenly acting her age. "You know that. I'm saving it for Frannie."
He tried to fit it back on the rack. There was barely room for the hook, much less the dress. He succeeded in jamming it part way into the ranks, shaking a poorly hung ruffled petticoat slowly to the floor. He let it lie.
"Daddy, you're messing up our closet," Mackenzie said with authentic indignation. "Mother says she won't buy us any more new clothes unless we keep our closet neat."
He bent responsively to return the petticoat, which now bore dust barnacles from the floor.
He tried a smock, the blouse was unironed, Mackenzie pointed out patiently; a pinafore set, it needed mending; a flowered print, the buckle was off the half-belt; a wool suit with pleated shirt, reserved for parties and church school.
A pearl of tension had formed in his stomach and the inner hemispheres of his eyes seemed to be melting from heat. He strode to the master bedroom and Cheryl, who had risen on one elbow and was finger-combing her shoulder-length straight brown hair.
"Goddam it, woman, when in the name of Jesus are you going to address some responsibilities around here?"
"Is something the matter, Mr. Hampstead? Besides your typically vulgar language and attire." The dark luminous eyes, ever enigmatic and contained, stayed at his feet and she drew the sheet above her breast.
"Something is the matter, my pampered darling. That something is the rank aroma your rotting carcass has generated throughout this household. At least flowers may some day spring from the bed where you decay and young men may pluck them and place them in their lapels when they go courting young ladies and the moral leprosy that has bred them shall so revolt these maidens that they will flee and leave these young gentlemen to a life of lecherous inversion from which they never must face the spiritual, esthetic and physical contagion of a woman like you, as I must, and thus be immeasurably blessed – "
Her head was back on the bed, under a pillow, and she was laughing uproariously, one part amusement and three parts scorn.
He turned and headed for the bathroom once more. He needed that coffee, cold or not. A drop of satisfaction for his childish, counterproductive outburst. Gotta let off steam or it bursts the boiler. But the backlash of her seething contumely stayed with him. Now, he knew, she wouldn't get up until he left for work. And the pearl became a fireball that curved out, swung over the left-field fence, and slammed back into his waiting gut. Push on, keep your head, as Kipling admonished. She shall not prevail.
He stopped at the girls' door. He knew they had heard his half-whimsical tirade. Disdain from two directions, certainly from Mackenzie. For Fran, it was business as usual.
"Darling, I suppose you'll just have to wear the lavender, or one of the others, small or not. I'm sorry."
"But, Dad-dee." And the tears. And the tears, the tears, the tears. The sobbing, the pain, the hurt, the ache, the misery. Father, forgive me, I know not what to do.
"Well, Walter Hampstead," he could hear her saying, with few variations, since Frannie had arrived, "why in Heaven's name did you sire three children if you had no desire to take care of them? Why do you think they are solely my responsibility? And then why do you turn around and try to butt into the way I take care of them? You're the one who gets them all worked up over trivia."
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want . . . "
"Now put on the lavender dress, pretty face. No more fussing. Maybe Dad better take you to Sears tonight to pick up a couple of fresh new things for you, huh? We'll turn you into a little first-grade fashion plate – svelte, stylish and headed for success." "Unlike your mother," he almost added, sending a memo to the Cosmos to record the omission.
Mackenzie made a pouty face.
"Would President Kennedy's little girl act like this?"
"She has a real nanny I read and she gets her dressed and her mom gets her clothes made special just for her," Mackenzie said, with argumentative skills well-honed from listening to Mommy and Daddy. "And they fit her good."
"Daddy!" came a horrified shout from Wally's room at the end of the hall. "Ginger threw up on my bed." Walter hurried to his son's room, picked up the guilt-faced cat and carried it to the back porch. He grabbed a dishtowel on his way back through the kitchen and proceeded to clean the tiny brown and orange pile of fur and guts on the boy's sheets with disgust spinning his fireball. Ginger was Cheryl's cat. He insisted she be kept outside at night and until he was off for the day. Cheryl had all day to enjoy its dander-ridden company while she was doing God knows what else besides watching television. Walter, Mackenzie and Wally were dog people but were not allowed to have a dog by Mother's edict because she didn't want to care for one. Cat allergy also afflicted Walter and probably Mackenzie, who went through her personal Kleenex box at least weekly. But Ginger remained omnipresent.
"I can still smell the cat stink."
"I'll ask Mom to change your sheets, Slugger," Walter said. "Now hurry and get dressed for school and let's have some chow." Where can I place a wager I change the sheets after work today?
"Thanks, Dad," the preschooler said, bless his male heart, the outside world his chief interest.
"I won't wear the lavender. I won't. I won't." Mackenzie had thrown the dress on the hall floor and had her head on her forearm against the wall, sobbing.
As he headed back to reason with her he heard a crash from inside the room, the sound of spilling toys, puzzles, crayons, and Tinkertoys, an overturned chair. Then a wail, a piercing wail that would have frozen a jungle fighter.
He rushed to Frannie, picked up her blonde head, and kissed her tears. He pushed his nose into her matted, food-clogged curls, eased her heaving chest along with his own as their pulsations met. His hand uncovered her nape and his eyes fell upon a crust of dirt. He carried her to her crib and laid her down with another kiss. He turned and walked to his room.
"And aren't we feeling so satisfyingly self-righteous this morning," she said as he entered, the hint of a smile on her sleep-puffy lips. She was sitting up in bed and lighting a cigarette.
"Where did it all go wrong?" he said, still breathing heavily with subsiding anger. "So fucking wrong. Jesus, I can only speak in clichés."
"Your concern over your sorely neglected children is merely a displacement of your hatred for me, don't you realize?"
"Too subtle for me, loved one. Nine, ten hours a day this schmuck works at a goddam tough job, a mind grinder – shit, now you've got me whining. But this is what's called being a grown-up. Sorry, we can't afford servants like your mom. Your work, ex-deb, is to care for this home and these children. In Econ 101 it's called division of labor. Without it we can't keep this thing together. The center cannot hold. We can't keep this grotesque parody of domesticity going."
"We can't? What malarkey are you talking now?" She sounded almost sincere. Even alarmed.
"I'm afraid not."
She took a deep drag. With experienced force of will, she regained her command presence. "Bullshit! Cut the soap opera, Walt. Besides, I think I'm pregnant again."
His eyes pulled wide. Words more devastating every time he heard them. There was a burning like acid reflux in the front of his skull. His guts were churning. Yet. Oh, yet. A newborn in his arms, baby talc and excrement. Itty bitty feetsies. Even more vulnerable than he. So who's not tough enough to handle it, huh? Huh? Okay, cosmos, okay, okay. Karfuckingma. You pitch, I'll hit. Hadn't been any Montmartre for her, either; Mackenzie, natch. He walked to her side of the bed and embraced her. The joy part had come, as it always did, like soft drops of summer rain on his face. Joy, my God, to have a fourth kid coming! Despite himself. What kind of insanity was parenthood? "Heaven save us," he said. "Lemme have a puff on that. Oh, my God, Sweetheart! Forgive me."
The eternally unhappy mongrel next door had been let outside and had begun his daily barking torment. That meant it was already seven – since that was when horrific noise of any sort became legal locally, as their neighbor cannily knew. The city trash truck had already started clanging and tooting at the end of their block, and he hadn't put their barrels out yet. Ravens were yawping acrimoniously and mourning doves moaning with their maddening monotony. On the old vet's flagpole across the street, the colors hung limp and disoriented. The pewter gloom had vanished and the diurnal star was blazing hotly.
"I won't wear the lavender," Mackenzie wailed outside their door.
They were clasping each other. "God loves the witless," Walter said.
"The slow learners," she said, biting down on his earlobe. "With superseding priorities."
Still biting, she emitted a quiet half laugh-half sob. With an aching clarity, Walter for an instant recognized his full life's pattern for the first time. He was actually chuckling too, this madman. In a moment, they were both laughing.
Thomas can smell it when she opens the door. A freshly lit cigarette. She is smoking again, and it is not her first one of the hour. It will not be her last, either. When she opens a pack, she does not quit until the cellophane case lies crumpled in the trash.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” he says to Annie. She drops her heavy purse on the counter.
He knows she is upset. She stares directly at him; takes a long drag on the end of the Marlboro ultra-light – the weakest cigarette she will allow herself to buy. “Miss Perry,” he says. “It’s not an old wives’ tale. It’s on the label. Those things will kill you.”
She is not in the mood. She snaps, “I don’t understand why, every time I get a modeling job, they send me to some pervert that doesn’t want to paint me, he just wants to see tits and ass. Is there such a thing in this world as a real, professional artist?”
He does not want to answer. Girlfriends are tough to live with. He knows. He has lived with several over the years, but none like her. They were never as cute, never so sharp and cruel like a thunderstorm. They never came in chimney smoking and shaking. He knows to stay out of her way. She will not be tamed – insists on holding a part-time job as a nude model for a nickel and dime art agency. When Thomas jokes on the balcony with his friends, he pretends that he forgets the agency’s name. He refers to it as Horny Artists Incorporated. The nudity bothers him. The job pays six dollars an hour, which he feels is not enough. Together, he and Annie are slightly above broke, but the money is not the reason. He thinks the privilege of seeing his girlfriend naked is worth more than six dollars an hour.
“Sorry, babe,” he says. “You should’ve been a stripper. There’s a hell of a lot more money in stripping.”
She swears, probably at him, but he is not listening. He turns back to the television. The reality show he has been watching for the last hour promised a surprising climax that could not be missed. Across the dim screen, commercials play – fast food, car insurance, cleaning products, debt consolidation. Annie’s footsteps squeak on the linoleum, and then she sits on the coffee table, blocking the television. She is wearing baggy sweatpants and his old soccer t-shirt. The oversize clothes dwarf her.
“Don’t you want to hear about my bad experience with the wrinkly old pervert?” she asks.
“No,” he tells her. “After the commercial, this guy is going to pick one of these two girls to marry him on national television. My money says he is going to pick the bitchy one.”
“Thomas,” she says in a way that means he has no choice in the matter.
“Please don’t start,” he says. “It is very hard to watch one of these shows and not see the end. It’s the finale.”
As soon as he stops talking, he can tell what is coming. “It is also very hard to live with a boyfriend who is an insensitive asshole.”
Now, he knows not to respond. There is little chance to avoid the yelling that is seconds in front of them. They have had this fight before – different days, different perverts. Someone told her, once, to spread her legs and put her fingers inside, he wanted to paint that. Another time, a man had asked if she minded him masturbating with his free hand while he sketched. Thomas could not hear these stories; they got inside his head. He pulled her close and told her it would cut him like razors if she went back, but she always did. He wants to put his foot down, hide her keys, go door to door to all the artists she has posed for and bloody their noses.
The cigarette burns between her fingers. She waits for him to speak. “Compromise,” he says. “We watch the rest of the show. Then you can tell me all about it.”
She blows smoke in his face and stomps off to the bedroom, leaving him alone with reality television. He coughs; does not know if he is being a prick.
At the end of the show, the guy picks the bitchy one and she chooses one million dollars instead of his hand in marriage. Thomas laughs.
From the bedroom the stereo blasts – chick indie-rock. Annie always does this when she gets upset. She is probably crying; she hates it when people see or hear her cry. It is too private, she says, crying should be done alone. He looks away from the television, does not know if she is crying because she became an unwilling role player in someone else’s fantasy, or if she really believes her boyfriend does not give a shit. He figures he should let her cry for a while. He should continue to be a prick.
He sips his Diet Pepsi. She is fooling herself, he thinks. There is no sense dragging something out if nothing has happened by the time late twenties hit. If someone has not made it by then, chances are they never will. Not that she is a bad person for trying, but she needs to be more realistic. They had both had their times in college when they thought money could be made from the things they liked to do, he could freelance and she could paint, but the real world crashed down hard after graduation. Student loans, rent, groceries, insurance. Those things did not pay for themselves. There is no room in the real world for starving artists.
Several years ago, they were short on rent, so he went through the apartment complex, knocking on doors for empty pop cans and bottles. At the recycling center, he fed the cans into the aluminum crusher, but the acrid smell of the place overwhelmed him; he covered his mouth and nose with his t-shirt. Homeless men were there, knocking beer cans full of dead cigarettes against the trash bins. One man’s sack ripped while he was walking to the crushers, and the bottles and cans tumbled out and scattered across the floor like freed mice. The next day Thomas put on his suit and begged the local newspaper for a steady job.
Another reality show begins – a show where people get paid to do things that normal people would never do. Messed up shit. The contestants eat as many pig uteruses as they can in five minutes. The winner receives something like 25,000 dollars.
Thomas does not understand, but he can pretend he does. Or he can at least try. He shuts off the pig uterus show and goes to the bedroom, taps softly at the door. “Annie?”
Several seconds pass. She opens the door. Her eyes are red, but her cheeks are dry. “What do you want?” she asks.
“I want you to draw me,” he says, “I want to see what it’s like.”
He begins to unbutton his shirt. He tries to smile.
Tale of an Indian Lesbian
The modern global city pulses with romance of an American style. The business of dating is booming. Single men and women make a beeline to become couples. They compete by creating fantastic profiles on the Internet. “Sleepless in New Delhi, a Preeti Zeinta look alike but with more soul. Single, sexy twenty something Dehlite equally at home in East and West, wanting to meet a like-minded man with drive, sensitivity and a eye for both cash and culture . . .” So go the zestier ads. Charu wants to post an ad on the Internet, but she flounders. She doesn’t know what kind of a woman she is and what kind of man she wants. All she wants is not to be left stranded like single like a pale ghost while the Ferris wheel of life spins furiously.
Wherever she looks, in shopping malls, inside air-conditioned cars, in upscale restaurants, and fashionable clubs, the winsome Charu Guha sees a mad rush of couples. Men and women appear joined frantically at the hip, linked together indissolubly. The woman’s right hand typically passes through the man’s left and, like jaws locked in rigor mortis, her fingers are grasped firmly by his, as though, if let go of, he’s afraid that they might come loose.
The indissoluble bond, that is what Charu wants with that special someone, man or woman.
Then there are the rings branding the bond as precious and permanent. Set in gold and silver bands the rings glow on every finger like glistening pellets.
In a perfect world Charu would have preferred the ring to come from a woman, a beautiful woman, somewhat of an amalgamation of the sedate, thoughtful Shabana and the young vivacious Nandita, the nubile actresses who dared to have sex with each other onscreen in the film Fire. Charu watches it on a bootlegged DVD in solitude, hunching close to the light flickering on the television set in the sooty stillness of her bedroom. The nights of watching raw contraband sex has aroused her immeasurably to the possibility of something similar happening in the real world to her. The fear of being caught red-handed by her parents has been there, but desire for the unmentionable has been heightened by the fear.
Charu’s father and mother, both very modern individuals holding progressive thoughts about the world and the women therein, refuse to see the film. “Women,” they opine in unison with the cities other parents of daughters and daughters-in-law, “should be smart, educated, financially independent, but they certainly should not have sex with one another”.
“In bed, a woman should lie next to a man and a man only”.
While the sex between Shabana and Nandita secretly exhilarates Charu it nauseates the rest of the city.
The denizens of the robust masculine city dub Fire the ‘lesbian flick.’ They burn cinemas where the film runs. They threaten to burn anybody who said they enjoyed the film. Fighting fire with fire was how Charu thought of the carnage. It chilled her heart to see men and women uniting so venomously against what they label the common enemy of moral corruption. They said that like syphilis and godlessness this concept of women sexing women with no shame came from the West. ‘Down with globalization’ shrieks the placards bobbing up and down in the million Hindu protest marches that run from the theatres to the house of Parliament. The effigies of Shabana and Nandita are spat upon and torched and sacred hymns in praise of Hanuman god are chanted with the spraying of vermillion water from gigantic looking bazooka guns.
For days Charu dreams of getting burned by a battalion of fiercely screeching saffron-clad monkeys. They catch her in bed with a bare breasted female. They scoop her out and drag her by the hair through the city shouting obscenities like “American whore virus.” In the market square they burn her and burn her.
Charu wakes up in sweaty trepidation and thinks it is safest to procure a ring from a man.
In her mother’s time there was no ring giving and taking between boy and girl. Just a simple homely ceremony with parents, relatives and neighbors witnessing and blessing and the conch shell blowing hard and loud to announce to the gods the arrival into the pantheon of the newly wed a fresh pair. But now with globalization and all, the youth of India, not wanting to be left behind in anything, are doing exactly what the youth in America are doing. They are announcing betrothals on websites and newspapers. They are bartering rings amidst partying, eating and gyrating to loud foot tapping music.
A sucker from a young age for dreams, visions and ephemeral voices, this most soul-beautiful-to-behold of daughters, on warm sultry nights, alone in bed in her father’s amply endowed house, allows her mind to veer like a wind guided winged fruit to a scenic Isle. There she finds herself surrounded by bevies of the most beautiful and stylish of the city’s women, looking seductively askance at her and beckoning her with their slender, bejewelled fingers to enter their moist cavernous mouths where churns the blood-red of sweet betel juice.
While the single unmarried daughters in the city’s posh enclaves fall into dreams of securing rings from America-branded MBA sons of high status families, Charu lies tossing and turning under satin sheets fantasizing about hibernating in the folds of the supple sari clad bodies of women.
In the morning when clarity of reason makes the diffuseness of dreams look like a formless pre-prandial sliver of a passing shadow, she blushes deep crimson at the previous night’s mental transgression. “What a waste of a weekend evening”, she thinks; gazing into the imaginary crystal ball of an imaginary future and seeing only fingers, ring less, forlorn, withering, terrifyingly alone. She feels a wave of panic rise in her bosom. Stupid of her to be missing night after night of opportunity to sit in upscale restaurants in the company of the cities thick walleted young corporate men, to bask in the glow of their adulating gaze, to bandy slick Americanisms, to engage in sanitized, calculated chit chat about culture, money, personal achievement and the motherland as emerging economic superpower.
Men, Charu rationalized, held the keys to capital in the city. Globalization had made them rich and undiscerning. They had begun to think increasingly with their prepuces, those awful organs that knew naught but to crawl inexorably like bloated covetous worms on a hundred little slimy feet toward female orifices. MBA’s and IT workers were drawing opulent salaries, living inside flamboyant homes with separate servant quarters. They were zipping around in latest model, air-conditioned Marutis, shopping inside glass palace-like showrooms for brand names, wining and dining women in restaurants where maitre des would accost them deferentially after hearing of their fathers’ names. They were getting richer and duller by the hour.
It would be so, so easy to fool them. Die hard lesbians, mannish looking, with no clitoris, hair cut shorter than a man’s, flaunting raucously their lesbionic convictions in shrill unfeminine voices, unabashedly sporting a moustache here and a beard there, warring perpetually against the bastion of patriarchy, have nothing in common with the kind of woman she is: smooth honey dewy-complexioned, smart, kamasutra-beautiful savvy English-accented, with long flowing silken hair washed regularly at the finest salons– in short, possessing a heterosex appeal that jumped out at men like a figure from a Khajuraho temple bas relief.
Charu’s parents keep pressuring her for marriage. Suitable alliance after suitable alliance appear at her door step, but Charu turns all down, sometimes by saying that one is odoriferous and smells too much of hydrogen sulphite, or this one looks like he cleans chamber pots for a living. Flimsy excuses for not marrying. Charu doesn’t experience any chemistry with any of the men. Juices don’t course through her veins when she is with men.
When she sees her svelte co-worker Anjuli things happen. Flames leap up without the stoking, tectonic plates move inside of her whenever she brushes shoulders with the girl in her office.
It’s congenital. Charu tries to draw her mother into the theme of congenitality, but her mother will have nothing of anything that has something to do with the genitalia. She is suspecting already that there is something seriously unnatural with her daughter’s genitals and she will stay a spinster all her life.
At night she weeps helplessly in the solacing arms of Mr. Guha. Charu hears her mother’s sobbing and her father’s crackpot consolation. Mr. Guha, the powerful worldly man who knew his Greek, says sometime that like Penelope his daughter is rejecting suitors because she is waiting for the right man to reveal himself. Other times he is saying that their daughter is a centaur, the horse half coming from him and the woman half from the mother. At his guffawing the sobs from Charu’s mother reaches a higher decibel. She squeaks forth like a quail her tear-inflected chagrin at Charu’s Americanization. Disease, unnatural, unhealthy are words strung together with Lword, satellite TV, dirty. The new girl with whom Charu is seen hanging out these days is condemned as a glorified prostitute.
Next morning at breakfast come the following sanctions from the swollen eye-lidded mother: “No more going shopping and late night bar hopping at the expense of your father’s prestige and wallet with that spoilt brat of a woman. No more to be spending disproportionately long time with women and to spend more time with suitable men, like normal girls do. To never again allow the face of Fire, and Lword to enter into the household. And no more silly prattle about biology and chemistry. Women are not supposed to prance around with women and play dolls house love. Love is not a tinderbox and matchstick affair but a proper enduring social engagement between fair maidens and handsome princes,”
The ending is a terrifying maternal caveat: “Who will look after you when we are gone, a woman? Pshaw! You will be an outcast!”
Her father explains to her how the Sapphic lore is mythical and Western, absurdly out of place in New Delhi. “Besides”, he says, in a well-considered moment of erudite poise, “Sappho was married. She only loved men, both at home and in exile. There is a rumor that she jumped off the Leucadian cliffs for the love of Phaeon, a ferryman, in an effort to assert her heterosexuality.” His face, she notices, has reddened to a beetroot hue as he utters the last word. Charu’s heart melts. Such sincere, sweet attempt on the part of her dear stiff-necked father, a man of few words and many imperatives, to break into a colorful cloudburst of candor over morning coffee. She is moved to a tender tragicomic sensation. With eye shimmering, she reflects on the so-much her parents have given her. Everything she ever asked for, love, money, how they have jump started the very engine of her well-being. And the selfish she is returning their so much giving with blind pursuit of cranky private dreams. The irregular dreams of an ungrateful daughter. Thoughtless she! Charu turns beetroot red with shame remembering her dishonorable reveries. Hallowed by the beetroot spreading redness of the moment, father and mother extract a solemn promise from daughter. Charu will give it a good shot so all that beauty she possesses does not go waste. If she finds not a man to like and wed then she will live in unconditional love for parents. Either unite with a man in matrimonial propriety or remain virgin-daughter in the father’s hearth. But no dilly-dallying with women.
At 27 Charu Guha is basking in the light of Suhail Narangi’s attention. He is rich. He has flair. He is a means to the end. The way his eyes settle on her breasts fills her with unease. Ogled at relentlessly, they squirm under a taut white Gap T-shirt like a pair of projectiles ready to shoot off into ether at the slightest provocation.
Suhail is well-liked by her parents. The fat cat son of a fat cat father. A rising star on the corporate horizon of New Delhi. From day one, upon setting eyes on her at a party he wants her. She and Suhail are engaged to get married.
How ecstatic her mother is upon hearing of the alliance. Powerful guests from all over the city heavily attend a big engagement party. Everybody blesses the couple with happiness and children. Air of New Delhi resonates with the blaring of conch shells.
What a fabulous courtship! He wines and dines her in upscale restaurants. Expensive gifts rain on her. Like a prosperous patron feeding his pet peacock with gems instead of seeds, he showers expensive foreign gifts on her. Charu receives and receives.
She devises plot after fabulous plot to make her avoidance of sex look normal, part of the demureness that all Indian women are expected to display in the company of men. Even a kiss is shied away from as he tries to kiss her here and there, sticking out his tongue salaciously. She is in motion always, swaying, sliding, gliding, ducking, coyly pleading for deferral. When he wants her lips she turns her neck to him, bobbing her head up and down in the manner of a spring chicken on the run. He is always missing the mark and she heaves a sigh of relief when she feels his salivating mouth fall on the back of her neck, her arms, safe non-sexual zones.
When he is not looking, she scrubs the parts touched by him with a perfumed hanky.
Because the whole business is unsavory, her reveries come back like roaring tempests.
She has promised her lips, one in the nether region and one smack above her gorgeously clefted chin, to a woman. A beautiful woman of her dreams– the woman teases her at night when she is in bed unable to seal lid to eye. When the haunting is too much to bear, her fingers twitch and travel inexorably to nooks and crannies. Under the covers, behind a tightly locked door, she squeals in delight, sounding like a freshly lit flame before petering off into deep sleep.
Suhail’s eyes never cease to glint with lust. He is impatient. In the guesthouse by the river, hidden behind lush vegetation, away from the prying eyes of civilization, he takes her to ease her out of the tension he knows she suffers from because she is the virgin bride to be. He understands, he tells her in sotto voce, though nobody would have heard him had he shouted it. He is creating an ambience, or as they say in New Delhi parlance, the perfect Kohinoor moment, in dewy soft focus. The imported wine, the lamb shish kebab.
The wine makes her giddy with delight.
The tension is ebbing fast.
She can handle it. Charu is safe. For the occasion, Charu’s hole is securely plugged with chastity stuffing.
In her grandmother’s time women took counter-invasive measures with homespun articles of clothing. ‘Chastity stuffing’ is what it sounds like when the crinkled-skinned old woman’s pearl of ancient wisdom is translated into English.
In New Delhi there must be at least a countless number of beautiful classy women, who nightly go through the motion of the much abhorred act of sex with men with ingenuously created shock absorbers plugged into their orifices. They aren’t all lesbians. They just don’t like sex with men. What is there to like about the writhing, the wriggling, the bestial grunting, the clumsy spiraling into tumescence and more tumescence, the blank thud of pestle grinding on mortar and then the freakish spilling of the abominable fluid across boundaries?
Makes sex with men a wholly tasteless activity in the eyes of women like Charu. She doesn’t want it and she doesn’t want it.
Charu enjoys the foreplay. The finery of the courtship is ego-boosting. Suhail fits the bill of a good fore player. He is quite a looker. His skin is the smooth, non-hirsute ideal she seeks in the world (but doesn’t find). She dislikes hair sprouting like weed. His skin is like a rich man’s well-manicured lawn. Eminently touchable, it begs stroking. From head to toe he is Hugo Bossed for the encounter-promising evening.
The soothing, wine-induced diffuseness of Charu’s mind lifts.
Shiva, the uber man, lies ashen, the legendary tuber draining off blood, deflating like a punctured balloon, while over his prostrate body, trampling on the soft flesh of his distended belly, her tongue lolling, panting, longish, stands she, reeling slightly under the impact of the deafening roar of expletives she has just released into the cosmos.
“Bastard do you want to eat my face or what?”
She believes that he will veritably lick the skin off her face away and devour bones and muscles if she lets him carry on this way. She envisions him as a monkey, pushing her legs apart, knocking her over, squatting on her breast.
She smells stink. The stink precedes him as he pushes towards her. Covering her face with one arm across her breast she yells fearlessly “Rotten bastard get off me!”
The grapevine of New Delhi gets into Tarzan-like lightening speed mode, teleporting news from creeper to creeper, changing fact to fiction to salacious gossip. Air is rife with speculation on the crestfallenness of the Guha’s. The glee over their impending shame can barely be contained.
Truth to be told Mr. Guha, the chief secretary of the chief’s chief’s chief, had many enemies in the city. They all prayed for his tumbling and hated his impeccable English. But he stood stern like a statue, irremovable. Nothing would have got to him as this one has. Imagine raising a daughter who turns out to be a man-hater! Imagine filling the head of a daughter with Western ideals, teaching her to have a premium focus on speaking aromatic English, treating English as a priceless pearl, and giving her the audacity to look down on the Hindi-inflected broken English speakers of New Delhi! Imagine wanting to name the daughter Miranda when she was just born and having ego fight with his wife before adopting the native name of Charulata!
The city socialites had long ago predicted something to be awry in the daughter so strangely-made. Not a tendon here and a cartilage there misplaced, but something odd about her.
All were waiting for the prediction to come true. All were waiting for Mr. Guha’s vein to break.
When news of the break up of Suhail and Charu’s engagement reach the ears of Mr. And Mrs. Guha, Charu’s mother threatens to overdose on benadryl if Charu doesn’t fix what she has just broken. Where will they find another like Suhail Narangi for her? Getting to be 28, soon to be 30, Charu will not have luxury liners such as him docking at her port for too much longer. Charu takes note of genteel ships and tatterdemalion boats passing her by, leaving her shipwrecked in a lush thicket of mangroves with the ground beneath her feet all soft and downy. The possibility of being surrounded by tribal girls their hips swaying in the wind, humming sweet mother-earth tunes, drawing nectar from flora, electrifies her.
The electricity perambulates in slow motion through her arteries like a snaky river.
“I love you Ma,” is what she tells her mother.
Mr. Guha sinks into a somber mood and scrutinizes the Greek mythology volume for clues. Thoughts run disarrayed through his mind: Can daughters of good Bengali gentlemen with a nose for daffodils, an ear for Schubert and a stomach for Greek, be lesbians or whatever name they gave these women with warped chromosomes? He has never consumed beef or alcohol in his life, the sacred thread of initiation has always adorned his body like a coat of Brahminical arms, he has never cast even the germ of a lascivious glace at a woman, not even at his wife whom to his satisfaction he has treated with so much respect over the years, as one would treat a mother or a sister. Just once, only once, he had profaned the lady in order to have Charu, the sweet fruit of their combined effort. And to such a sinless man is born a lesbian daughter!
A sacrilegious non-sequitor has been appendaged cruelly to his otherwise coherent life at an age, when like Duke Prospero he should be retiring into the sanctuary of good books.
How can lesbian daughters be born to observing Brahminical men? Is it his ill luck, or the curse of an evil aunt, or is he paying the price for not keeping the name of Miranda for his daughter?
Lesbian! The word resonates yet catches on to nothing from anything in the past. A fairy word to his ears, insubstantial, not real. Nobody in his fourteen generations or in the fourteen generations of his familiars ever harbored a lesbian daughter in their nest. The damn word didn’t even have a solid etymological root. Mr. Guha rummages through several Greek and Latin primers to seek out its origins. All he gets is a vague intimation of geography: Lesbians: pertaining to Lesbos, the old Greek island in North East Aegean. Like Athenians are to Athens, Spartans are to Sparta, so Lesbians are to Lesbos, inhabitants simply of 1 lakh sultry-climed islands that float on the sea like swarming honeybees. Men lived there along with women. The women dreamt about fellow women, they wrote poetry about them and painted each other. They make men disappear from their dreams, their art work, and their imagination. But in real life they eat, drink and make merry copulation with men, bearing them children.
The idea of the lesbian he cannot grasp. What is she? Like a child looking into a kaleidoscope and discovering various patterns, some in arabesque, some in cuneiform script, he sees faces of women with Groucho Marx moustaches eating dirt and jellyfish, women burping and farting unrestrainedly, engaging in unfeminine activities, purple gargoyle faces, with clusters of ovaries peeling off of them like old skin. Some are chasing away men with industrial strength rolling pins. He is aghast at the sight of the prancing deviants.
Like the parched desert-weary Bedouin Mr. Guha conjures up the infant cherubic Miranda, her phantom-face shimmering in the distance through the haze of heat and dust. There is light, there is exhilaration; he sees the bright formation of a lakh resplendent glowworms spiral upwards into a fountain. The light bedazzles and darkness falls over his eyes.
At the age of 28 Charu is rendered an orphan. A calamitous event by any standard is this descent into a state of motherlessness and fatherlessness of the one and only beautiful, single, coveted-by-men, daughter of high-status parents.
“His heart was stretched across his chest like a rubber band unto infinity” the young doctor says as he examines the body of Mr. Guha, the chief secretary of the chief’s chief’s big chief, the big man of New Delhi, slumped humbly in his high-backed patent leather armchair, head lolling on chest as though it had come unhinged from his neck. “It is like two fat people had played tug of war with his heart. First time I am seeing this type of dying in New Delhi, where so much pulling in opposite directions has snapped the heart in twain,” he says, consecrating his rapid verbal autopsy with a dollop of Middle English.
On an ordinary day Charu, father-emulating daughter that she was, loving to roam in the labyrinth of literary referents, would have meditated, amused, on the oddities of the word ‘twain’ as it rolled out of the tongue of the Punjabi Doctor. But today she is petrified, turned into stone, standing zombie-like in the midst of the quiet carnage of a father dead of heartbreak and a mother overdosed on benadryl.
Prolonged wailing emanates from the Guhas’ house. The maidservants emote like comic book gorillas, beating their breasts histrionically, lamenting the passing away of a true Indian wife, a husband-devotee, in the tradition of the venerable sati. Two whole bottles of benadryl she had to consume to follow her husband to heaven! Noble she! They shriek.
Toward Charu they cast coal-black eyes of accusation. It is as if her shameful, dirty woman-lovingness had killed her parents.
All that Charu wanted was to be with a beautiful woman. In lieu of a woman, she would be satisfied with a good man, one who would safeguard her chastity with his life, not despoil it. It would be nice to have a gentle man who did not cast lustful glances at her.
The consummate mate in Dora’s eyes: meetings with him over lemonade, dal puri and the latest Bollywood DVD, would be consistently transcendental. They won’t converse much. Turning off the lights, they sit next to each other, as he struggles to follow her instructions to link arm into arm and not let go.
Sometimes he will lie down next to her and go off to sleep like a baby, while her mind will drift into the warm islands of Lesbos.
Not a hackle will he raise inside her while they sleep together like a couple in a fairy tale.
Looking out the window of his room one night she will perchance see a dank sky with an endlessly thickening carpet of clouds. She will be fearful that her life will go out of her for good were she to step out into that grim numbed down world. He will intuit her fear and administer his hospitality in sheepish smiles to help soothe her anxieties. This would be the way to win her heart and make her determined to not leave his room, his house, come what may.
On their wedding night the consummate mate would offer the left side of his bed, because the right side has a hollow into which he fits smugly. Shyly he would confess that he liked sleeping in the hold of the hollow. The two would sleep with serenity, he in his hollow and she in the belly-warmth of security.
The next morning they would wake up, surprised to find themselves aligned next to each other on his bed like Hansel and Gretel.
‘You’re a man!’ he would cry.
‘You’re a woman!’ she would cry back in return..
They would be in ecstasy at this discovery of one another.
On the day of Mr. And Mrs. Guha’s funeral, many come, top brass men and women of New Delhi, socialites mostly. They praise Mrs. Guha sky high; commiserating with Charu’s loss of two big umbrellas, they click their tongues in pity. She knows they pity her mateless condition. In the absence of her parental umbrella, they insinuate, she is meat for the elements. Wolves will come at her, peck at her flesh. She will be baited as a bear.
No man will ever marry her. She will find no woman either.
Skin and Sand
I’m on a sleek strip of tarmac, shining like the wet back of a seal, in the middle of the desert. I’m with someone else, a girl. Tib is her name. I’ve never known a Tib. Strong, grainy wind burns my face, the tiny pellets of rock pricking my cheeks like needles. Tib is speaking to me, but I can’t hear her over the thick purrs of truck and helicopter motors. A wet flush passes across my neck and a mosquito rests on the pulse of my wrist. I wonder how it can stay perched with all the wind. Endless sand. A burning sky.
A dingy motel lobby. A balding man in a burgundy vest sits at a desk smoking Gauloises, transfixed on a Middle Easter sitcom flipping in and out through gray static on the portable television. He adjusts the small fan clamped to the desk and passes some forms through the slot. “Name?” he says.
I don’t say anything. What is my name? I can’t even think whether or not I have one.
“Yes, okay. Fill out forms please.”
Can he hear my thoughts? He gestures to a row of chairs mounted to either wall. They match his vest. Tib takes the forms. “I know this one,” she says. “This’ll be easy.”
I watch her write, but the words don’t look like English. Maybe I have forgotten how to read.
In our room I drape my damp clothes over the chairs and table. My hands are raw and bleeding from scrubbing with the harsh detergent they have here, in this anonymous desert country. It’s coarse and smells like piss and I had trouble getting it to lather. I scrubbed so hard that I have blisters now. I smooth the creases out of my tee shirts and notice white bulbs of fluid collecting under the skin of my fingertips. They are growing and spreading and the tingling is unbearable, so I squeeze hard until they pop. Fluid oozes out and flaccid, broken skin hangs loose. I rub my own serum between my fingers and it stings the baby bald fresh skin beneath. It’s pink and puckered like from staying in the bath too long. I wonder how this could have happened. I dry my fingers along the seam of my underwear. “I think I have a fever,” I hear myself say but the words come out strained, although I thought I had been shouting. “My fingers.”
Tib lounges on her bed in a tee shirt and shorts, legs crossed at the knees, idly smoking a cigarette. It hangs loosely from her fingers, half ash and in perfect form like a left-behind pupae or the skin of a cicada that looks as though it could run away. But it can’t. It’s just skin. Discarded exoskeleton. She lifts her bronzed leg and wags a naked foot. The bottoms of her feet are covered in eczema, cracked open, red and scabbed over.
“Lotion them for me . . . please?” she says, and I find a small bottle of motel lotion with a green plastic dome-shaped cap, the kind that screws on and off. I sit on my knees on the end of her bed, take a small nickel of the cream into my hands and rub it around in between my palms until it’s warm. I massage it into the balls of her feet and she wails
“That stings!” She then points a toe at the television screen airing a nature program.
“Look. They say that the first elephants could fly. Wingspan the length of a basketball court.”
I knew that. I pick at my swollen fingers and ask Tib for band-aids, but she doesn’t seem to hear me. I take more lotion into my hands to work into her other foot, but she sits up picks at her toes instead, rolling the curling, yellowed bits of skin into little balls that she puts in a pile at the edge of her bed.
“My fingers exploded,” I tell her.
Her dead skin, so fresh off her body and tough, still moves as the tiny scales expand from their tightly rolled ball shapes. It looks like it could come alive.
“Want a bite?” she asks, presenting me with her detritus. “I’ll trade you.”
She reaches over and snatches my thumb up to her lips and takes a nibble of the soggy skin.
“Don’t do that,” I say, moving to my bed. I yawn, and as my lungs stretch with air, I get the feeling of someone wringing my organs out. I want to sleep, and curl my body up tight. Now that my skin is turning into pastry, I am so sticky. I ball easily into a croissant. The thought that she might eat me once I start to flake scares me, so I try to stay awake by watching TV.
Prehistoric elephants were graceful, elegant creatures, but of enormous stature, nearly twice as large as the species we know today. To avoid trees, the magnificent elephant would fly high above them, and in the steep mountains of Asia, the altitude was substantial. With air so thin, the great prehistoric elephant had to conserve all the oxygen she could while on land. The lung capacity of the prehistoric elephant was greater than any found in any animal known to date.
I guess I can speak Middle Eastern. My face is hotter now and starting to feel like the pocked skin of an orange. I wonder if citrus smell is coming out of my pores.
I fall asleep and dream of my best friend in first grade, except she’s replaced by an image of Tib. She and a girl named Becky are licking the blood from each other’s paper cuts. They call themselves “The Vampira Sister.”
I wake to the sound of hot blood rushing through my ears, curling through the cartilage and shooting across the wires of my brain like bullet trains, shrieking like teapots. I pull at the skin at the base of my skull, but it won’t budge. I feel for the hinges to lift open the lid of my head, but my hair is rough and dirty and burns my boiled fingers. There are dirty dishes everywhere, stinking of manure, cluttering the whole floor. I don’t know where they came from. I don’t remember eating and I don’t see Tib anywhere; it occurs to me that maybe she went to get ice. But whenever anyone goes to get ice in scary movies, it means that they’re goners. The TV is still on, another documentary-style show.
The effects of Phasmophobia can range from mild physical discomfort to more serious emotional and neurological disorders. Fear of ghosts can result in symptoms such as breathlessness, dizziness, excessive sweating, nausea, dry mouth, feeling sick and shaking, heart palpitations, inability to think clearly, a fear of dying, becoming mad or losing control, a sensation of detachment from reality or a full-blown anxiety attack.
I try to call for Tib, but my throat has caved in from what feels like curry milling in the air like thick, yellow sleeping gas. I run to tear open the thick polyester curtains and pull violently on the wrought-iron safety bars to open the windows for air, but the bars don’t come loose. I move the beds, looking underneath them for Tib, but all I find is a mountain of skin so high that her bed topsides. It looks fresh. She can’t be far.
The mosquito comes back to my wrist like a falcon to a handler and teeters languidly on a vein. It must have caught my fever. “Where is my friend?” I beg.
It sticks its long proboscis into my arm, and sinks itself into me over and over. I swat, but the pricking won’t stop. Outside I hear a fleet of trucks gurgling away from the motel, far from me and all the skin. The mosquito plunges harder into my arm.
I rock. That’s what I do. Like, I have friends all over and they’ll call and they’ll say, “Luke, come to Cali and party,” and I will cause that’s what I do. I haven’t had a job in, like, ever – except PA work that some friends get me here and there, and then basically I get to smoke pot and drive vans and get paid. It’s sweet, I know. I just travel. Like a nomad. Have since I was seventeen and left home for Boulder. When I settled, I mailed my old girlfriend Khaki a sheet of acid to sell so she’d come there. Then she turned psycho on me and burned my Kurt Cobain poster. Mudes. I told her to leave. But she didn’t, and she got a job at the liquor store instead. She was too crazy. All we had in the apartment was liquor, meth and a mattress. I’m gonna get fat when I’m old. Fat in a rocking chair on a porch. Gotta keep fuckin rocking.
Going around traveling, its like I’m famous for a few days, wherever I go, and I get free forties. When I lived in Colorado, and basically anywhere you live live, like pay rent, people end up talking. About how you’re supposed to be, and where you get money, and everything like that and to tell the truth I only like being where I don’t gotta act like a grown up. For example, I got a rep for stealing Reddi Wip cans or whatever from the grocery store, which usually wasn’t my idea in the first place, but I’m the only one who’d go in there and do it. So the rep sticks and then weird people stick around too, like this guy with a glass eye who lurked around the door asking for gravy and pills. I’m just like fuckin mudes about it. Mute. People started showin up at my apartment at four in the morning looking for some drugs some bitch says I hide in the freezer by the coffee – drama, man. That’s when I was like, “I’m not gonna be ‘that guy’”, and I’ve been on the road ever since, like making a difference in the great big world. Plus my cat got run over there. I forgot about that. Moving around like I do, it’s just me in the wind. I go where I please and make a person’s day before I blow away. Hey, that rhymes.
About three years ago I was in the Los Vegas airport. Don’t ask how I got to Las Vegas cause I don’t know. I’m randomly two hours early for my flight. So there I am with my bag and my skateboard at the airport bar for two hours just pounding whiskey cokes. I’m a gangly guy but I can handle alcohol like whatever. My parents used to tell me I was adopted. I love my mom. Total mama’s boy, but I don’t look like any of them. They’re all Aryan looking, and here I am all scarred up and freckled and fuckin fire red hair. They used to tell me I wasn’t theirs. They were totally joking though. But whatever! Ok, so I’m drinking, killing time, and out of nowhere I see this girl like raging through the airport, elbowing people out of the way and stuff, like knocking kids over with her big bag on her shoulder and not looking back. Looks like she came straight out of a Motley Crue video, with tight-ass leopard print jeans like painted onto her. Her hair’s out of control too. Bleach blonde and all mangled and long. From what I can make of it, she looks angry, I mean, she catches my eye at the bar. So I watch her fly by, takin my time, then realize she’s probably pissed cause she’s late for her flight and then I realize that I’m fuckin late for my flight so I down my last drink, grab my stuff, and run through the airport to my gate, and you wouldn’t believe who was there. Yeah, and she’s yelling at the ticket guy like, “mudes,” arguing that she has to go to the ATM machine so she can buy drinks on the plane. The ticket guy is like, “No way”, and looks at me and says, “You two made it just in time,” and then she looks at me, smiles, and I look right back at her and I tell her I’ll buy some drinks for her and she can pay me back.
The plane isn’t totally full, so we sit next to each other and, a girl after my own heart, we both get whiskey cokes. She's like, “Can we have the whole bottle?” to the stewardess, who's like, “We only have little bottles meh-meh-meh meh-neh neh”. Then she's like, “Can we have all the little bottles?” Lady gives us an extra coke. I don’t know if she’s as wasted as I am first, but we both get even more wasted on the plane. Through all that makeup she has on, she looks pretty cute - shitty skin, but whatever. I love it when girls wear their eyeliner like cat’s eyes. This one probably had been doing her eyes in that fat liquid eyeliner since she was 11. Probably stuck to her now, like can’t wash it off. She’s from Cali. She’s in a bike gang – the only girl in The Renegades. At first I don’t believe her, so she busts out this leopard print wallet with receipts sticking out gnarly and one of those accordion picture things like explodes and from the side and unfolds over us both. She shows me about seven pictures of her bike from different angles. We get into some show and tell, our feet all propped up on the plastic trays they have built into the seat in front of us, feeling warm from the whiskey and the free felt blankets all tangled around us. Normally I don’t usually show my poetry, but I did with her cause she’s so out of control. A lot of people don’t get where I come from. Think about this: Lost Unlike Kindness Evolves. That’s Luke. That’s my name. Think about it. I’ve got poems about all the cities I’ve lived, loves I’ve had. The cities, the lovers - all beautiful women, and traveling to them all is sleeping with them all and I don’t know what it’s like to not be able to sleep with someone I want to. “Karma written on bar napkins”: another line I tell her, crumpling up an airplane napkin in our faces and letting it fall from my hands. After I do this, she shows me a picture of this slick guy in a suit that happens to be her boyfriend, and she goes, “Yeah I’m just doing him so he gives me money for my bike. This is who I’m in love with,” and she flips the accordion picture thing over to this ripped Polaroid of a fat chef with a chef hat on and this huge grin on his pink face. He looks like a cartoon character from Popeye, shiny and squeaky in a way. And I ask her why she’s not with him, which I should have never done. Guys: never ask why a girl isn’t with a guy they’re in love with. Mudes. She starts crying. The poor girl, you know? Mascara streaming down her face, she says, “He doesn’t love me! We have to be friends!”
And she keeps going on, crying about how she – this girl who shoves babies out of her way – told the chef she’d drop everything just to chop onions or whatever with him in the back of some bar-b-que place. “The second I saw him on the back porch of Lick Skillet smoking Parliaments to the stub, I knew I had to be with him. Forever. He’s big, you know? He’s charismatic,” she’s getting kinda hysterical and I glance around the plane to make sure people see I haven’t hit her. She looks right at me, like glares, and says, “I’ve seen his other girls. They’re all gorgeous. They’re all like seven foot tall models who still wear high heels even though they don’t need the height.” She took the crumpled napkin and blotted her lipstick, nose, and eyes in that order, and kept looking at it. “God,” she sighs, “I watched him even when everyone outside left.” She grips the Polaroid, traces his face with her tongue and spreads her legs a little. Her face all of a sudden changes to me and I see deep lines around her mouth and eyes. Maybe they were always there. Looks like this old lady at the bus stop I saw once when it was raining in New Orleans. She finishes her drink and signals for another.
“It got time for close and he backed me into the freezer where I pulled down those striped chef pants of his and we made love next to a pig head – and I do mean love because we still talk or whatever and he says that time is stored in his spank bank. Being with a guy so big – he’s got the physique of a barrel – it’s like,” and she holds out her hands like she was clenching something invisible and important at the same time, “I like holding on to all that extra. Having something heavy on top of me makes me feel good about myself.” She looks directly at the stewardess and says, “I wrap around him tight like rings on a raccoon. I wrap my legs around him. I wrap my pussy around him. I wrap my mouth around him,” opening her knees a little more, sniffing up snot. And then looking back into her wallet, “I’d buy bananas and Bisquick and we’d have pancakes and waffles all day if we ever got poor, and I told him that one night after we tried to steal a La-Z-Boy. But unless we’re fucking he doesn’t care about me. I walked up to him once and just said hi and he stared and walked away.” The girl looks up at me with those sad cat eyes and says, “It doesn’t make sense to stay somewhere you aren’t wanted.” I pretend to not know what she means by that because I don’t want to believe that’s why she’s on the same plane as me.
I kind of pry the wallet away to hold her hand instead of asking her anything else. She likes this better than all those pictures, cause she squeezes back. Basically, I have my hand around her and she’s really little. Not skinny, but just little, and she fit under my arm crying like into my armpit.
To tell the truth, I just want her to stop sobbing cause I hate it when girls cry. Always have always will. Girls are supposed to be happy and having pillow fights and eating ice cream for dinner and staying up as late as they want. I think of telling her that letting go gets easier the more you get around, and then you don’t remember why people don’t ask you to stay, and that she’ll learn to call that kind of life boring and routine. Instead, I say some poetry to her. I say, “The address of love changes when I move,” stuff I think she’ll get.
We sink deep into those orange bucket seats and I’m brushing out – pretty much untangling - her hair to calm her down. I swear to god there’s a pen cap knotted into that mane of hers. Then she looks at me naughty rebellious again like she did before we got on the plane and we start making out. The girl is all about it, and before you know, she has her hands down my jeans. I don’t know where the drinks went, cause they weren’t on the trays anymore, and neither were our feet – they’re dangling over the aisle armrest. She’s up against the window and shit, and I’m all snuggled up next to her, basically underneath her big black shirt she’s wearing. Then she whispers in my ear, “I hafta go to the bathroom.” I remember thinking, this is a weird time to wanna go to the bathroom, but I say ok, and make room for her to get by. She’s so wasted she falls into the aisle and grabs my leg, like attacking it. That’s when it clicked, and we’re both up and heading to the bathroom.
The lighting’s so dim that what’s left of her pink nail polish looks orange and orange reminds me of sunsets, my favorite part of the day because you can really tell where you are in relation to the rest of the great big world when you look at it. Our mouths never leave the other’s body the second the accordion door says “occupied”, licking each other’s necks and biting while we’re taking off our own clothes. It’s times like these that I wish my hair wasn’t to my shoulders, cause it gets in my mouth when I’m trying to nibble all over girls. She doesn’t seem to mind, though. I think she said it tickled when I was biting her nipples. There we are, pants-off pinballing in the bathroom, except she won’t let me take off her underwear, these lavender ruffle-y mesh things. Hot, but I keep having to push them to the side every time we switch positions, which we did a lot. She’s on the sink, then bent over the sink, which I like cause of the mirror. You can see her face in it all mascara-smeared and glazy but so hot in a trashy way, and her boobs right above the sink, bouncing up and down. Turbulence. She’s making faces, too, like biting her lip and looking at herself in the reflection and loving it when I grabbed the fat on her hips. My ass is touching the other wall every time I…pump or whatever, so in or out I’m always bumping into something. Then I’m on the sink and she’s between my legs on her tippy toes, her butt bouncing on the opposite wall. Thank God she doesn’t have nails, cause she scratches me all up and down my thighs. She’s like, crucifying me with sex. Basically, we can’t stand too long cause we keep banging into the walls of bathroom, like knocking the water-free liquid soap into the towels until the girl has enough and pins me to the toilet, my legs in the air and her all squiggled onto me, knees to face.
She gets a scowl on her face when I tell her I’m about to come, the same one I saw on her in the airport, and she starts riding me pretty hard, like she’s on a mission, and I let her get out whatever she’s trying to get out because, I’m not gonna lie, she’s kind of scary right now, and I get kinda bummed she’s probably not thinkin of me, but probably of the chef, but if she needs to release this built up tension, then I, my friend, am the way to do it. I know right then that this is the way we’re always gonna remember each other. Always being careful, I ask her if she wants it in her or in her mouth or what, and when she doesn’t answer, I’m like, “yes”.
A weird thing happens to my feet when I get off. My toes curl up. Not that it bothers me, but I can’t help it. With this other girl I used to sleep with, if I got bored during sex, I’d try to keep my feet straight, but whatever, it doesn’t work. So my toes are curled and propped up next to the door and she’s satisfied that I can’t even move. I can tell by the way she looks down at it when she gets off me, and wipes her cheeks off with her hands and her underwear off with the tissue.
So it’s hard to get dressed but we do it. I snap her bra strap and she pushes me out the door where there’s a line of very like, concerned people outside for the bathroom. They have no idea what they’re missing. She grabs my hand and pulls me back to the seat and I feel like a VIP crossing a velvet rope to a party.
Then she pukes, and fuckin that was the coolest part of the whole plane ride for me because I’ve never seen anyone use one of those barf bags before. After that, I didn’t make her pay me for all those drinks because she didn’t even keep ‘em in her. By the time the plane lands, though, which was like half an hour later, fucking mudes about the smell, she's fired up her bike or something she was gonna do that night. I keep asking where she’s staying, what’s goin down, and she’ll have none of it. Keeps blowing off my questions. I check my pocket to make sure she didn’t steal my wallet.
You know when the plane stops and everyone stands up to get their luggage at the same time? Everyone looks at everyone else like, “We made it. No one got busted this time,” like a bond that is so solid for like, two seconds. But it’s gone when we file out of the doors and into the new airport which looks like a carbon copy of the airport I was just in, except this one has flies in it. The two of us like, bound off the plane and go our separate ways because she’s got places she needs to be, and you know, maybe things’ll work out with her and the Chef. Probably not, but maybe. In a way I wanna follow her, see what her bike looks like in real life, eat Pancakes and bananas with her, but I know when I’m wanted and today it looks overcast outside. The plane just made it in before a big storm. She marches down the center of the walkway, head down, arm flailing in the air like waving to me I guess, till she’s gone. I’m all alone in this random place, not that I care. These other people I was with on the plane are rushing around me to meet their misty-eyed families or buying fuckin tourist postcards with parrots on them. I’m standing in the walkway, swatting fuckin flies, trying to read the picture directions for the rent-a-cars. I have a friend in this town that totally knows a good time, and he said I can crash whenever, so I’ll probably call him, go there. He’s a Syrian Prince swear to God, with five brothers. Says he did drugs with the mayor once.