Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dirge


I dreamed that I adopted a little boy.
He was my son,
and we were bonded to each other.
I dropped him off at a day-care place,
and before I left
I rushed up to him asking for a hug
at the same time
he rushed up to me asking for a hug
and we laughed because
we had both asked for that
at the same time.
Someone said, “Is that your son?”
I said, “He’s my everything.”
I woke up and he was gone
and had never been anything.


This morning I searched through my purse
for my phone, thinking I had left it at home.
I thought about how it’s my watch,
and my newspaper,
and my camera,
and my communicator,
and my record player,
and my calculator,
and my dictionary,
and my notebook.
I mumbled, “How could I forget it?
It’s my everything.”

When you’re childless and long to have a child,
you have pictures of other people’s children
all over your house:
a co-worker’s daughter holding a “Thank You” sign
for buying Girl Scout cookies,
yearbook photos of nieces and nephews
in frames,
Christmas cards.
The artwork of other people's children
hangs on your fridge.

I had a life inside me once.
Its story is more impressive than your child’s.
It was conceived in the Himalayas, and was with me
walking alone through the Doha airport at 4 a.m.,
a layover on the way home,
while my sick husband tried to sleep
in a fancy lounge.
It was with me when I was Dolly Parton for Halloween,
before I knew it was there.
It knew life and it knew death.
It knew more than your kid who’s on the Honor Roll
and on your asinine bumper sticker.

The Internet says my would-have-been-a-baby
at five weeks was the size of a sesame seed.
One night at a diner I opened a menu
and saw an entrée covered in black sesame seeds.
I thought: how tiny you were.
I thought: I could have seen you.
I could have held you in my hand.

When did I lose you?
At which point, in all that blood, were you there?
Precisely which toilet flush
was your funeral dirge?

After you were gone I tried to replace you
with trinkets.
A necklace. An ornament for the tree.
Everything angels, or angel wings.
Heaven kitsch.
But I don’t believe in heaven, or angels.
“I was pregnant and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”
Wish You Were Here.
I am a mother of tchotchkes.

I woke up and you were gone.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Dead books


















We are all strangers
walking down the artificial hallway,
this boxy tube from plane to airport
that they'll collapse when they're done.
Other people roll their suitcases on wheels,
but not me;
I carry my baggage — it's my preference.
We go up the carpeted ramp
to whatever is out there,
and I know better than to expect to see you
waiting for me
— you have a life without me now,
a life, a wife, a dog,
private jokes, matching Fitbits —
but when you're not there
it is still a shock
and the book we conceived
is for the moment
stillborn.




Monday, September 29, 2014

San Diego gestalt


The girl was a boat waitress but only for one night. The boat rocked on the sunset waves. They all looked out toward Tijuana. The captain was narrating. She had been told to wear black pants and a white shirt as a “uniform.” The rich people had enough wine in their wine glasses, so she sat on the deck with them and looked out over the water.

“Let’s go get a drink” said the text from Jaliv.
“Sorry, I can’t – I’m at work” she replied.
“Yeah right” he said back, as if her having a job were a joke or a lie.

Some hotshot guy told her boss at the day job that the facts in the press release were wrong. She knew they were not. Her boss took the hotshot’s side.
The girl asked the hotshot to tell her what facts were wrong. He could not. She wasn’t long for that job, one way or another.

The guy she’d met in the shadows was a ghost writer. He wrote stories for Reader’s Digest, stories your grandma reads on the toilet. They ran into a jazz pianist whom the ghost writer admired. The jazz pianist had fallen onto concrete and broken many bones in his body; he was in a wheelchair now. The ghost writer came up for a hearty handshake, squeezing the bones in the jazz pianist’s hand. The jazz pianist winced but was a good sport about it.

“Guess where I’m from” said the guy standing by the napkins and straws in Starbucks, glowering under the brim of a fisherman’s hat.
She had an idea but didn’t want to risk insulting him; she might guess someplace close by, and neighbors are often enemies.
He said “I’ll give you a hint: It’s the biggest country in the world.”
“Oh, Russia” she said like an A-plus geography pupil.
He spent the next three hours belittling the city where she’d come to live.

At the bar Columbo said “I sell something, and it ain’t marijuana. You don’t hate me, do you?” He knew she wasn’t the type to buy any. He really did want to know if she hated him for it. His eyes were old and milky with cataracts. She could never hate a person like that.

Dan was trying to get to second base during “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” so she suggested they go out dancing and they went to a gay club where she was safe.

Men from many places gave her rides for free. The Serbian pedicab driver asked if she would like a ride; she was walking for exercise but said OK because she liked the pedicab’s blinking lights. They went to breakfast the next day. He kept his face down like a closed lid as he put eggs on his fork. He never called again. “Taps” the Zimbabwean cab driver wanted to keep in touch on Facebook. She was the last customer of the night, and he felt like sitting in the cab in front of her building and talking. He was a neuroscience major and a football player, but when she thought of him she mostly thought: “Zim-bab-we-an, Zim-bab-we-an.” She had never met anyone from there.

The barista who had just come here from Poland wore a palm-tree charm on a chain around her neck.

The crazy homeless guy beside her on the bench pointed at a bayside restaurant and said he had spent part of one evening crawling around inside it.
“Why did you do that?” she asked, feeling like the person in a knock-knock joke who says “Who’s there?”
He looked at her sideways, meaningfully. “Because I was tempting death.”
All around them strolled normal people.
She said “Well, that was a brave thing to do.”

At the private lunchtime radio concert she was attending for the day job, her boss introduced the new girl, Jessica, a sociable and well-dressed blonde, around to all of the important people. “Jessica, I’d like you to meet…” over and over, only Jessica. It was like cheerleaders and nerds all over again.

Dan and George eyed the female options at the open-air Pacific Beach nightclub and talked about what kind of girls they liked. It was as if they had forgotten she was there; she didn’t know whether to feel honored or offended. They spilled their souls: Dan was a butt man, and George was a boobs-and-face man.

Jaliv invited her to come “party” at a hotel with a hot tub in it. Jaliv invited her to go house-hunting with him in Tijuana. She never said yes but she was happy to have him in her life.

After five weeks of not getting paid and more than two months of no checks from the deadbeat renters she had sub-let her apartment to back home, the girl told her boss off in an e-mail and quit. The boss stammered and backpedaled, caught off-guard. Nerds weren’t supposed to do that.

Roan, the young homeless guy who looked like Keanu Reeves playing a homeless guy, wanted to take her to a nude beach. He said she would be a “prize” for any guy to be seen with. He spoke in a dialect of alternative-rock song lyrics and conspiracy theory. His dad was disappointed in him. She tried to imagine a baby Roan, so full of promise, and wondered where it had all gone wrong.

She knew what time the shipment of 79-cent donuts came in at the 7-Eleven on her street because that’s what she could afford to eat.

In the condo where she rented a guest room, she watched Obama get elected on her roommate’s TV. They had both voted for him. For only the second time in their lives, they could feel history happening.

Robert made a show of talking in the proper Arabic dialect to the Iraqi water at the kabob place. Robert said this one word, and the Iraqi waiter got spooked. Robert explained to her that the word meant a kind of evil spirit. The word had no meaning for her so it didn’t scare her.

One night she met a drugged-up kid who followed her around. He seemed harmless so she let him. He saw her check her reflection in a storefront. He said “I don’t like to look at myself.” She asked why not. He said “I don’t like to see the sourness.” He looked into her eyes as if to show her, and she saw it. She saw what he didn’t like to see.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How to Write a Short Story Based on Your Exotic Travels [A Template]

[You have to start with some “local color.” Paint the scene for the readers. Make them feel as if they’re there. Make them wish they were there. Make them rue the choices they’ve made in their lives, or the unlucky star under which they were born, or both, that render them shackled to their dreary office or retail or blue-collar jobs or domestic responsibilities with precious little (if any) paid vacation time, let alone “disposable income,” to embark on such envy-inducing journeys.

Make their small lives pale in comparison. They will emit a wistful sigh, and snuggle deeper into the armchair or bus seat, or fluff up the bed pillows, and they will read on, lulled by the illusory sensation of escape.

(Mention spices, and smells – folks love to read about smells. Bonus points for any reference to non-Western spirituality.)]

[Next, you must introduce the contrast between Western life back home and wherever this exotic place is. Have your protagonist get a hankering for Starbucks, say. Or perhaps he or she is listening to indie music on an iPod while looking out the dirty windowpanes of a backpacker hostel as some saffron-robed monks go through the village begging for alms. The feeling you need to convey is: “Wowwee! Goll-ee! This is different from what I’m used to! What a horizon-expanding experience!”]

[OK, now it’s time to get personal. In all likelihood your story is in the “thinly veiled autobiography” vein, and based on your own recent travels. You took a big trip, and it got the ol’ synapses firing. In addition to acquiring a taste for yak’s milk or didgeridoo music, you came home aflame with the notion that you would write a story set in this awesome (literally awe-inspiring) place. You figured it didn’t even really matter what the story was about; you could hook folks into reading your words with the aforementioned colorful intro.

Now's the time to get going on the plot, which is probably mostly incidental to this story, because let’s face it – the location is the real star here.

This personal story of yours – a long-simmering tension between two travelers who are in a relationship; existential angst ‘n’ ennui that the traveler had hoped to mitigate by taking this very trip; some family trouble back home, maybe a perpetually disapproving dad who has just gotten terminally ill – will necessarily be heightened due to the protagonist’s change of scenery, his or her temporary exodus from white-bread land.

There might be a phone call (“Your father isn’t getting any better – the doctor says he only has a couple of weeks to live, so you two had better reconcile!”), or a postcard – something to connect the traveler with the world of “back home.” Have the protagonist reflect on all that back-home drama while, say, strolling among bamboo forests and rhododendron on a trek in Nepal, while completing an arduous and breath-sucking jaunt up Kilimanjaro.

This contrast between back-home troubles and exotic-locale novelty will accomplish the following: a) it will make the protagonist’s life and troubles infinitely more interesting and palatable to the reader; b) if it doesn’t do that, then oh well, at least the reader has some pretty scenery, perhaps interspersed with historical tidbits to bust out at a cocktail party.]

[Throughout the story, make sure to impart the sense that the protagonist has journeyed to a virtual minefield of real dangers as well as humorous faux pas – a malarial swamp inhabited by a people who have evolved an immunity to the disease; Malaysian gang members who don’t take too kindly to Americans cheating at betting on horse races; confusion wrought by locals who shake their head side-to-side for “Yes” and up-and-down for “No,” etc.

Again, you want to trick the reader into liking your story, whether it’s actually a good story or not – sprinkling in a bunch of these nuggets is one way to keep ‘em reading when the plot is about as riveting as porridge.]

[The protagonist must experience at least one significant-seeming brush with non-Western spirituality, and this should effect a perspective shift that, within the limited purview and concern of the short story, will seem more permanent, paradigm-smashing, and personally cataclysmic than it really is.

You have a couple of choices:

a) You could go ahead and let this experience (a moment of karmic connection with a wise or innocent local, exposure to some bit of local and/or ancient philosophy, communion with Nature-with-a-capital-“N”) feel permanent; end the story with the protagonist all, “Wowwee, goll-ee, that sure was life-changing!”; or

b) You could bleakly admit that this moment of transcendent clarity, like most things, was fleeting, ephemeral as a cherry blossom or a life, and that it will be lost to the traveler once he or she is back home in his or her real life.

Choose carefully, because your decision determines which “camp” of writer you’ll be placed in, and what kind of image would run alongside your story in a magazine:

a) the feel-good, life-affirming, motivational, Oprah’s-Book-Club kind of writer (corresponding photo: a color image of a sunrise over the Himalayas/Andes/African savanna/etc.; a smiling native of whatever exotic place you just went to; a village or street scene throbbing with the hustle and bustle of local commerce); or

b) the deadly serious kind of writer, the kind who grimly radiates gravitas, the “spare-me-the-b.s.” kind of writer who tells it like it is, man (corresponding photo: a black-and-white portrait of some downtrodden alley complete with child beggars; McDonald’s litter in a foreign gutter (imperialist pigs have taken over the world, etc.); a close-up of a tourist visa to emphasize man’s essential foreignness to most places and people in this world, his not belonging to the place he has just gone to, if in fact he belongs anywhere).]

[The trick, throughout, is to make your story’s location seem incidental, when the truth is that it’s anything but. The last thing you want is for your story to imply: “I took a trip to a foreign country and now I am setting a random story there.”

The reader should trust you – should think that you spent some real time in the country (not just a week’s worth of paid vacation time off from work, bookended by two solid days of airplane travel plus a couple jet-lagged days catching up on sleep and crying for Starbucks); maybe you lived there while in the Peace Corps. Or else the reader should think, at the very least, that you have done your homework – completed months of bona-fide research (maybe even at a library!) about the chosen locale of your tale.

Never let on that your story is really an extension of your photo album – the thoughtfully captioned one you posted online and shared via all your social-media outlets – or, to be more precise, that it’s more like a postcard, the kind that says “Wish You Were Here” when what it means is simply: “I Was Here.”]

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The ocean


The ocean is where you stop going West.

It doesn't matter who you are —

John Wayne.

A thousand hardy pioneers who've lived through punishing heat and spirit-numbing winters; exhaustion and starvation; typhoid, dysentery, and cholera; day after day after day of tedium and back-breaking work; fear of Indians; rattlesnakes; babies' deaths.

Thelma & Louise.

— When you hit the water, the West stops. The water stops it.

Game over, whether you were ready for it to be over or not.

Suddenly before you is something else completely.

The tools you used to get here are invalid, of no use to you now.

You stand — because you can go no further; you can only stand — and look, and you think that maybe it was the ocean that was pulling you out here all along, like moon on tide. Maybe all that feeling you felt when the land opened up was only a symptom of getting closer to the sea, and knowing it, feeling it in your body that is mostly water.

All you can do is stand, and look in awe, and eventually turn back.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A place we weren't born in


The crack in the window is shaped like a starburst, and the windowsills are lined with the wings of moths.
The apartment is on the second story, so we'd have a balcony that faces the ocean.
From this building, it's four steps to the sand. The ceilings are nubby and constellated with silver sparkles.
The vending machine by the elevator at the end of the open-air corridor is stocked with cans of VeryFine fruit-flavored drinks. There's a Latin American grocery store down the block that sells candy made of pure sugar in pastel colors. If you don't have a car, there's a bus that can get you to Los Angeles in an hour and 45 minutes.
This life can be ours for $420 a month.
Neither of us has a job here, but I think that somehow we can swing it.

***

It was my idea to try out for the next play our community theater was doing back home in Bellingham, but it was Jess who was chosen to become a star. We auditioned a year, almost to the day, after my sister, Christina, passed away. She had leukemia. She was 7.

***

In the months before the audition, I had come up with this romantic idea of what it would be like to be an actress--not a starring one, but one of the background ones. I wanted to disappear into the role, whatever it was for each production--Pioneer Woman #4 in "Oklahoma!", a masked attendee of a Shakespearean ball, a shadowy creature in fishnets in "Cabaret." I would have no lines, but I would think up the character's backstory. I would smolder and seethe; I would do things you can do in silence.
The theater website said you had to read lines in front of the director even if you only wanted to be in the background. He had to be able to gauge your charisma. Jess came along, on a lark. She drove us in her mom's car. She saw me clutching my printed-out sample scene in fright on the drive there, and she said, "Hey, I'll try out, too!" At the theater, she asked to go first. With beguiling insouciance, she read the lines from my print-out that I'd lent to her. It was the first time she'd seen them, and she stumbled over the archaic words. She was laughing as she walked to me, in the wings. Her long brown hair was streaming behind her made-for-jeans lanky figure. "I didn't understand a word I was saying." She'd gone first to make me look good, thinking she'd bomb.
What happened instead was I got stage fright. "Delia Rodriguez?" the director called, his voice filling every corner of the auditorium. A pause. "Am I saying that right? Delia Rodriguez?"

***

I was the one who explained to Christina where your last name comes from. "It comes from your father," I told her.
"So Mommy and Daddy have the same father?"
"No, no. When you get married, you change your name to your husband's father's last name."
"What will my husband's last name be?"

***

I felt Jess's hand on my shoulder. I solemnly walked into the spotlight. I'd memorized the lines of the monologue I'd printed out, the one Jess had read directly from the pages. I'd chosen a scene from Romeo and Juliet--Act III, Scene 2--because of this part:

Take him and cut him out in little stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world shall be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.

When we read Romeo and Juliet in eleventh grade, I'd read it aloud to Christina, doing a different voice for each character, all in what I'd thought was a passable British accent. She was too little to understand any of it, but she loved it when I read to her--I could have read the phone book to her.
Onstage, I stood awkwardly and mumbled my lines without the accent I'd put on for her. My voice was tremulous, strangled, barely coming out. The director and his casting assistants squirmed. I looked at Jess, next to the curtain. Jess has big blue eyes, and they get bigger when she's concerned about me. The theater was silent. Jess rushed to join me onstage.
"Can I just say something?" She had her arm around me.
The director lowered his glasses and looked at her with interest over the rectangular lenses.
"Her sister died last year. She only wants a background part."
As soon as she mentioned Christina, I was storming off the stage. Jess was trying to help, but I don't discuss Christina with strangers.
I hadn't left through the auditorium door under the glowing Exit sign before I heard the director say to Jess, "...but you--you I'm interested in."

***

Jess got a good role in the play. But the bigger news was that the director had a friend who knew a casting agent in L.A. The casting agent needed professional photos of Jess for a portfolio that he could show to people who might pick her for roles. The casting agent's e-mail said: "Head shot, full-body shots--make sure we can see your figure in some of the pictures. You're encouraged to pose nude if you're comfortable, but flesh-tone underwear and pasties are acceptable."
Jess said to me, "Pasties? What's that?"
"It's those little things you put on your nipples. They can have little sequins and tassels on them. Remember that part in 'The Graduate,' when Dustin Hoffman takes Katharine Ross to the strip club and that stripper's swinging those tassels with her boobies? Those are pasties."
"Oh my god."
"But they make plain ones that you just use as nipple hiders, in case you're wearing a dress that your nipples might poke through but you don't want to wear a bra. I've seen them at CVS--they look like those round Band-Aid things you put on corns and bunions. I guess he thinks you'll feel less 'nude' if you wear them."
Jess laughed. "This guy is such a perv."
Jess's mom had briefly been a Las Vegas showgirl when she was younger, years before Jess was born; you'd think Jess would know about pasties.

Jess and I grew up in the same neighborhood. Most of the families on our street, including mine, are Mexican-American. We were in third grade when she moved in with her mom. Jess was the only kid on our block who didn't understand when we talked in Spanish, the only white kid, and at school she was taken out of class for an hour each day for sessions with an "LD" teacher--we all knew that stood for "learning disability." I was the only one who was nice to her.
We graduated from Sehome High School two years ago. I was on what they call the "gifted" track, and helped Jess with her Remedial English assignments (we never joked or even spoke about the irony of this, a Mexican-American girl helping a white girl with her English). My grades and SATs were good. The social worker who showed my parents how to get help with Christina's medical bills also offered to help me get a scholarship. I didn't consider going away to college; Christina was still here.

More than our parents and our brother, I took care of my sister. I asked the doctors informed questions that surprised and even impressed them. There was a tube that fed medications into a vein in her upper arm, a "venous access device" that was so much a part of our lives that we shortened it to VAD; we said "VAD" as often as we said "milk" and "homework" and "laundry." I was the one who took her to her chemo appointments; I was the one who could take it. I was there when the first long, glossy black strands fell onto the bedsheets.
"Do you know what this means?" I said to her, trying to pretend to be excited. She was five years old at the time. "This means it's time for you to get new hair--and this time you can pick it out yourself! Any style you want, any color of the rainbow."
I was desperate. I was so desperate.
I ran around the room, picking up storybooks and a JCPenney catalog. I pointed to Cinderella's hair, a luxuriant honey-colored elegant updo with jewels in it. And Ariel from "The Little Mermaid," whose red hair flowed behind her as she swam in the sea. I flipped to the toys section of the catalog, to the dolls, and pointed to Barbie's spun-gold mane.
"Any hair, you can pick any kind of hair you want. You just tell me what you want, and it's yours."

One night, I walked away from my life.
It was only for a couple of hours.
Christina was still here.
I walked, away from my house, away from my street, away from my neighborhood, down roads with other houses on them. I was walking fast. I walked until the sidewalk ended, then I walked along the shoulder of a busy road. The muscles in my legs grew hard. I walked away from her, felt her calling me back, and turned around.

***

It was my need for a new role, a new center of gravity, that led to the auditions, to Jess and me here in this beach town in California where a professional photographer could take her pictures this afternoon. We had hours until the appointment at his house; we had left our hometown before dawn. In the vestibule of a Burger King where we had egg 'n' cheese biscuits and orange juice, we'd found free glossy booklets of local apartment listings. The listing for this place, the place four steps from the sand, caught our eye--it's called "Sand Castle Apartments." It was easy to find. A bored-seeming man sitting in the front office with a fan blowing full-force on him and "Sergio" embroidered on his chest pocket got up and showed us the available second-floor apartment. Jess and I both still lived with our parents, and it'd felt so great to say to the man, "We'll think about it and maybe we'll be back."

Piled in the back of Jess's mom's car were outfits for the photos, to show all the different people Jess could be: jeans and a white sweater for a role as a girl-next-door in a sitcom, a disco-era purple evening gown of her mom's for a soap-opera drama-queen role, her miniskirt and my favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers tank top for a role as the dream girl in a rock music video. And in a tote bag were the "flesh-tone underwear and pasties" for the role that we fear Jess is most likely to be offered, in an "adult" movie shown late at night on Cinemax. (Jess swears she'll turn these roles down, but says she'd do nudity if a cool role required it.) Jess and I can share clothes because we're both tall and slim, although her body is more toned, from softball, and mine is mushier through the tummy and curvy like all the women in my family. Jess has a face like a doll's, and mine is round like a full moon, with a generous mouth. I started rimming my eyes with thick black eye pencil and wearing goth chokers around the time Christina got sick, which was also around the time I grew too angry to go to church with my family. My hair is long and black and glossy like hers would have been.

At ten till two, we pulled into the driveway of Nicholas Lutz, the photographer. The casting agent who'd sent the creepy e-mail had also sent a list of photographers who could do the portfolio shots; Nicholas lived the farthest from L.A. and was the cheapest. Nicholas had long hair, looked vaguely Native American, and was sweet and shy. He told us he does these portfolio photos for extra money, but that his main job is creating book covers for a small publishing company. Throughout his small house were dream-catchers. He showed me where I could sit on his comfy, nubby couch and select a book from his shelf of sci-fi and fantasy novels while they took the photos. He had designed many of these covers. I picked up one and opened to a scene in which a space warrior was taking an alien girl's virginity. I stifled a laugh and couldn't wait to tell Jess about it. Jess changed in the bathroom and, from the other side of the camera, Nicholas gave her gentle guidance in his soft voice.

The agent arrived half an hour late, a cell phone at the side of his face. He was complaining about the long drive from L.A. He was short for a man, and his name was Ken, like Barbie's boyfriend. Flaxen, gelled hair.
Nicholas had already photographed Jess in some of the outfits, and the agent scrutinized the digital shots on the computer. "You're photogenic, but you've obviously never stood in front of a camera before."
Jess laughed her goofball laugh and said, "Uh, sure I have. I've been doing that since I was a baby. I have proof at home."
Ken's thin lizard lips remained in a straight line. "You know what I mean. Professionally. You're green."
The agent hunched over the computer, his back to us. Jess and I rolled our eyes, and Nicholas grinned with us.
"So have you done the nudes yet?" the agent asked in a don't-waste-my-time tone.
Jess's eyes grew big. "Not yet. But I brought the 'flesh-tone panties and pasties,'" she said, glancing my way with a smirk.
The agent turned to face us and snapped his sunglasses flat. "Look, there are a ton of girls who'd love to be in your place right now. So why don't you stop fucking around and get undressed?"
Jess had no reply. Nicholas looked down and fiddled with his camera unnecessarily.

***

Once, after we first found out that Christina was sick, an insurance-company representative had my mom in tears, holding the phone receiver to her ear with a trembling hand. My mom didn't understand why she had to pay for something the company had told her it would cover. I had just come home from school. I slammed my backpack down and took the receiver. "You fucking told us you would pay for this," I said. My mom didn't reprimand me for my language; her English isn't good, but she knows that word when she hears it. I was 15. The representative eventually apologized, and the company paid the amount it'd said it would.

***

I slammed the kinky-alien book closed. I stood up. I approached the agent as I told him off, making liberal use of the word "fuck." I told him that maybe Jess would do the semi-nude shots or maybe she wouldn't. I told him that he would not be permitted to watch Nicholas if Jess decided she did want to take those kinds of photos. The agent backed down easily. He told Nicholas to just e-mail him the shots when they were done, then he drove away in his silver convertible. 

Jess and I had dinner at a pizza place in town, then we weren't ready to make the drive north. We felt like celebrating. It wasn't that anything momentous had happened; we felt like celebrating being there, in this beach town that felt like ours, a place we weren't born in but that we'd discovered together. We went into a beachfront bar and boldly ordered gaudy fruit-flavored drinks, and the bartender didn't ask for ID even though we were two years short. "Put extra paper umbrellas in mine," Jess requested. We trooped around downtown with our arms around each other, the salty air making our hair fuzzy, a purple paper umbrella sticking artfully out of Jess's hair. Our bodies shimmered with perspiration, and I felt sultry, like a grown woman, like someone new.

To commemorate this feeling like someone new, I stopped in front of a tattoo parlor to examine the designs. "That's the one I want," I said to Jess, tapping my fingernail against the glass over an image of a pair of small angel wings.

We entered the tattoo parlor through a beaded curtain. I was emboldened, not by the little alcohol there'd been in my drink but by my enlargened sense of myself. The goateed young guy with a silver ring through his nose like a bull, the tattoo artist, was the first stranger I told about Christina.

He led me to a reclining chair like you'd find in a dentist's office. Because he needed at the back of my left shoulder blade, where I wanted the tattoo, I sat up, arms clasped around my knees. Jess sat in a chair by the door. The tattoo artist primed me, tenderly dabbing a cloth soaked with alcohol onto the patch of my skin where the tattoo would go. The light in the rest of the room seemed dim, but a strong spotlight shone down on where he worked on me. I looked around the room at panels of images: flaming hearts, voluptuous girls with devil horns and pointed red tails, swirling dragons, baroque crosses, "Mom."

As the needles of his handheld tattoo machine dotted my flesh and the ink trickled in, I closed my eyes and saw her. The hair she'd chosen was long, fluffy, and light-brown, like Belle's from "Beauty and the Beast." She had just lost her two front teeth and grown new ones that gave her a buck-toothed grin. She'd really liked the concept of the tooth fairy, and had left drawings of what she thought the tooth fairy might look like along with the teeth under her pillow. Tears slipped down my face and plinked onto my lap. I didn't let myself wince at the stabs of the needles.

When he finished, the artist handed me a small round mirror to hold at an angle from my shoulder, to examine his handiwork. He'd made her wings beautiful, more ethereal and less cartoonish than the ones in his sample image. He'd made a special effort under the circumstances. I wanted to throw my arms around him.

Jess, who had watched in silence from her chair, jumped up and said, "I want a tattoo, too." She turned and lifted the back of her tank top, exposing her lower back. The tattoo artist instructed her to lie on the reclining chair front-down, and she took my place under his care. I watched his hands on her smooth tawny skin, at the painfully erotic dip at the small of her back just above the twin dimples of her tailbone. I stood to the side. Christina's presence, so strong in the tiny tattoo parlor earlier, felt diminished and cheapened. Jess was flirting with the tattoo artist, her head to the side, peeking up at him provocatively through her sideswept bangs as he ministered to the curve at the base of her spine.

I left.

It's in my nature to protect, and I've done it for her many times, with predatory men and with less harmful jerks, not just with the casting agent. But I'm a woman, too.

It had hurt more than I'd let on that it was she the director had wanted and not me. As I'd stood onstage, trembling and speaking the lines I'd read to my sister, I'd thought that someone should recognize my beauty. Someone, a director, a casting agent, someone who assigns people to absorb the emotions of other characters--someone like that should recognize my capacity to feel. But no. What it came down to was are you charismatic or not, are you telegenic or not. It wasn't Jess's fault. Back home, we were both half-heartedly taking a few community college courses and working at the mall--she was a hostess at Slade's restaurant, and I was a clerk at Bed Bath & Beyond. Of course she'd want more.

I was training to become an assistant manager; it's a tiny raise, a tiny bump up in prestige--within the store, at least. It's something. Jess had tried to get one of the positions at Slade's that get you good tips--she went through training to be a waitress but couldn't keep the orders straight because of her learning disability, then she said she'd try tending the bar after she turned 21, but she has trouble remembering all the drinks. One night a man wearing chunky gold rings gave her his business card and a coupon for free entry to his establishment. He wanted her to come work for him. It was a strip club. After he left, Jess's co-workers examined the card and talked about how much money she could make. A few days later, I rode over there with her so we could check the place out. In the parked car, Jess stared up at the giant red lips next to the signs that said "Juicy's Exotic Cabaret" and "Live! Girls Girls Girls." We sat there for a long time. We never got out of the car.
Of course she'd want more.

At Nicholas Lutz's house, after the asshole casting agent was gone, Jess had decided to do the semi-nude shots. She emerged from Nicholas's bathroom in the beige panties, with the Band-Aid-colored pasties over her nipples. "These things are so stupid. Who am I kidding? I might as well be topless." She might as well have been naked. Nicholas photographed her in hushed reverence. He might as well have been making love to her.

Nicholas and the tattoo artist were guys I'd be interested in, if we lived here.

I could only walk so far away from her.

Jess found me sitting on a curb, not a block from the tattoo parlor.
"What's wrong?"
I stood. "Why do you always have to fucking upstage me?"
"What?"
"A lower-back tattoo? Really? I thought we made fun of girls with 'tramp stamps.'"
I had never yelled at Jess, ever. She had tears in her eyes. She swallowed. "What?"
I said, "Look, getting that tattoo was very meaningful for me. So, it kind of sucked just a little bit that afterward you'd--"
"What?"
Her arms were spread and her hands were splayed open in an I-didn't-do-anything-wrong gesture.

I was afraid she was going to start really crying. I looked at her thin shoulders and thought she looked fragile, and as soon as I thought this, I only wanted to hug her.

I said, in a softer tone, "What tattoo did you get?"
With the back of her hand, Jess swiped at a tear on her cheek. She laughed. "You're gonna feel so bad when I show you."
She turned and lifted the bottom of her shirt. It was small, barely noticeable, probably didn't take as long for the artist to do as mine had or cost half as much. " D.R., J.M." At the small of her back were my initials, with hers, inked onto her forever.
She laughed. "Now don't you feel like a bitch."
"Now I feel like a bitch. I'm sorry."

We decided to drive back over to the Sand Castle Apartments to see what the beach there was like at night. We were thrilled to see that the residents had come out to play. An Indian family played volleyball on the sand, illuminated by a floodlight shining from the roof of the apartment building. The ladies' jewel-toned saris fluttered in the breeze. Jess and I sat on the soft sand and watched them.
I said, "I know what I want to do. I want to become a pediatrician. It's so obvious, and it just hit me."
Jess said, "Let's just sleep here and wait for Sergio to come so we can tell him we'll take it."

***

Our new apartment has a crack in the window shaped like a starburst, and when the sun shines through it, fairies dance on the ceiling.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Killing Kokopelli on the Road to Vegas

The girl sat alone at a restaurant inside a casino in Las Vegas, feeling like a girl in a story.

Actually, she wasn’t a girl. She was turning 36 soon. But somehow “woman” had never felt like an accurate descriptor for herself. “Woman” sounded older, fleshier. Or like a mom.

“Girl” struck the right note, with its insinuations of vulnerability and naïveté, long hair and flat shoes and a shoulder-slung bag like a college student would wear. Not a classy lady in high heels, not a soccer mom with a sensible haircut – a chick. Just some chick.

She was here because the place had meaning for her. It occupied a slot in her self-mythology. Or to put it a less flaky way: She was here because a guy she’d loved had hurt her feelings here.

He hadn’t meant to. But he had.

Who cared. Nobody cared. Nobody cared but her. Not even her most of the time, six years after it happened.

Tonight she had walked all the way here from her hotel at the other end of Las Vegas Boulevard – in what she’d dubbed “the Clown District,” a private joke with herself (she was traveling alone) because she was near the Circus-Circus – and now she sat at a table for one with her bachelorette food (tomato soup with grilled-cheese wedges to dip into it; four jumbo shrimp poked into a bowl of crushed ice; she would have the crème brûlée for dessert, bless her bourgeois little heart) and a pear martini with owl-face slivers of pear slotted onto the rim.

Do the details even matter?

She felt her sense of story breaking down.

It had started to break down the day before, after she’d stopped at that Navajo jewelry shack – one of dozens on the way to the Grand Canyon and on westward to Vegas – where she drummed up some bad mojo by taking a photo of the shack. Total tourist move; she was disappointed in herself. The young guy who’d been explaining the symbolism behind the jewelry to a customer (“…this is a bear that’s been shot with an arrow; it represents strength…”) came over to her and said, “I’m sorry, Miss, but there’s no taking pictures of the jewelry.”

“Oh! I was just taking shots of the view.” And she gestured at the expansive mountain-and-canyon backdrop behind him. It was true; she hadn’t given a crap about the jewelry.

But because of the (mutually polite) confrontation and low number of customers, she felt it’d be rude to just pull away without buying something. A sign by the door proclaimed: “We take all major American credit cards,” which was good because she habitually spent all her cash on generous cab tips. She had avoided buying any of the Native American jewelry, on this trip and on the one she’d taken six years before; somehow buying the roadside jewelry had seemed… vulgar. Blatant tourism, taking a whole entire venerable culture and making it all “cutesy.” She kept thinking of that part in the modern-day “Addams Family” movie when Wednesday, playing a Native American in the camp play, says:

“Years from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations; your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the roadsides; you will play golf and enjoy hot hors d'oeuvres.”

(In fact she had a cardigan in her duffel bag in the rental car at that moment, and would eat hors d’oeuvres and drink a cocktail in Vegas the following night.)

The almost-36-year-old girl took her time at the jewelry shack, having nowhere to be, no deadline, no curfew. She listened to the guy talk to another customer about symbols. She read the little placards that explained the mythology. She took it seriously. Hey, this road trip was all about mythology – hers, mostly.

She was a girl; she was not a mom. But she wanted badly to be a mom. She and her husband had been trying for almost a year. He was at home back East; he didn’t like road trips, plus this trip only had special meaning for her. It was cool, though; she called him about twice a day to check in, to see how his day was going, to tell him good night.

An index-card-sized placard, in magic marker: “Kokopelli – Childbirth & Agriculture (new beginnings). A prankster.”

Well, duh – childbirth. New beginnings. Of course she should buy something with a Kokopelli on it. She found a necklace – a silver chain with a silver Kokopelli charm. He looked like a character in some comic strip that 11-year-old boys would have liked in the ‘80s when they had less pop culture to choose from, a proto Bart Simpson – his body was bent forward in an insouciant curve, his hair was spiky, he was playing some sort of flute. No, wait – he looked like a hippie icon, like something you’d see on the bumper of a Jeep or New Beetle, next to Grateful Dead and Peace Frog stickers, or one of those ones that said “Coexist” with all the religious icons for the letters.  

In other words, not really her style.

But hey, childbirth.

So she took the necklace, and also this rainbow bracelet that she just plain thought was pretty, up to the cash register. She held them delicately, as if they were sacred things.

A tourist woman was trying to haggle with the Native American store woman over the price of a giant dream-catcher.
The Native American store woman said: “It’s 95 dollars… These take a lot of work…”
To which the tourist woman said, insultingly: “How about 60?”
They went back and forth for a while – with the store woman saying, “The woman who made it’s not here; I can’t negotiate on the price,” and the tourist woman (used to getting her way, surely praised throughout her life for “driving a hard bargain” or some junk like that) said, “Can you call her?” (meaning, call the woman who made the giant dream-catcher) – before the store woman made a final low offer of 75, and the tourist jerk said, “I think 70 is good." Bitch.
A man in the tourist woman’s group finally had enough and said, “75 – we’ll pay 75.” He just wanted to get out of there.

This whole time the girl (who was really more of a woman, age-wise, if we’re being accurate about demographics here) had been biting her tongue to avoid saying, “Excuse me, but you’re being disrespectful – she just said these take a lot of work to make.” The girl thought of saying something like: “If you don’t stop being such a creep, you might screw up the mojo of this thing and it might let your nightmares through,” but the girl never would’ve had the nerve to say something like that, even on her worst day.  

So there the girl stood, feeling all superior and culturally sensitive and appropriately reverent.

Then the young guy who’d been talking about arrow-riddled bears was summoned to ring the girl up (because the tourist woman was still haggling), and the girl said (just to double-check), “You guys can take Visa, right?” and the guy said, “Sorry; only for certain items. For these we can only take cash.”

Which she didn’t have, because of the cabs, because she always felt she had to tip extra when the drivers were chatty and they had some heart-to-heart in the cab, which seemed to happen a lot. So, embarrassed, the girl just left the Navajo jewelry shack like a jerk without even putting her items back.

She pulled out of the lot and drove down the road and started to cry. So she pulled over, and cried harder.

It was because of the stupid Kokopelli that she was crying. She would never have bought a hippie-looking piece of jewelry like that, except that something in her, something that was still sentimental, had thought that maybe – what? It would help her get pregnant?

Why – because some Native American dude or chick a long time ago made up this guy, this Kokopelli character, and dubbed him the deity of having babies? It made about as much sense as constellations, and astrology, all of which she regarded as made-up bunk, too.
“I could dub this blade of grass the almighty God of Pickles! I could tell you a squirrel that’s been shot with a bb gun is a symbol of rage and vengeance!”
Why is a thing considered sacred just because it’s old? Just because it’s been told for centuries by people in an oppressed and mystical community?

And wasn’t it deeply effed up, this white chick thinking mean things about Native American culture? What was wrong with her? Somebody hand her a cardigan and a highball!

(Or maybe Native Americans would like that she thought these things -- maybe they would think: "Finally a honky who doesn't go all faux-reverent over our goddamn dream-catchers and Kokopelli kitsch.")

Bitterly she drove on: “…And he’s a prankster, too – he probably would have given me a miscarriage just for kicks.”

It was just some dumb story.

Now she sat at this table in Vegas, trying to have this moment she felt she should have, some moment a girl in a story would have -- epiphanic, empowering, life-changing. She sipped her pear martini slowly, thoughtfully. She reminded herself why she was here at the Monte Carlo, where she’d stayed with that guy who’d hurt her feelings six years ago: 

They had been romantically, sexually – and secretly – involved for almost a year. The surface reason it was secret was because they had once been co-workers; he still worked for her old company and it might look unseemly for him to be dating someone who once had also worked there. But she knew the real reason he didn’t come out and say, publicly, on Facebook or to any of their mutual (her former) co-workers, to any of his friends or his mom: “This is my girlfriend.” It was because they both knew she wasn’t in his league.

He was a “hot” guy, a popular guy, an alpha male, a golden boy at his job, successful and self-made rich (the highest American virtue), a funny and mostly decent guy. And she was just some chick.

Yet.

There was no denying they had common ground, like one of those Venn diagrams. They came together in some place where rapturous music and dramatic Western landscapes were sacred, some place where the point of life was to remind yourself, as often as you can, that you have a soul. Not a soul in the religious sense, one that can be sent to heaven or hell. But something inside you that was more than your body or even your mind. Something higher.

This common place they shared had never made up for the fact that she wasn’t photogenic or at ease in most social situations. In some weird modern twist on a Jane Austen tale, the girl wasn’t seen as a fitting match for him – on some bone-deep, DNA-deep level. Not by him, not by her, not by anyone.

So when they stayed here at the Monte Carlo that one time (she was passing through town on a road trip, a long story that would feel out of proportion to tell parenthetically here; he was in town for his friend’s wedding), and someone with the wedding party came up to them in the casino and asked if she (the chick) and the guy (the out-of-her-league one) were married – she had laughed it off, and he had looked mortified.

The whole time they were in town he introduced her like this: “This is my friend… This is my friend…”

As if she were his buddy ol’ pal. As if they grabbed brewskis and watched the Big Game together, belching openly in front of each other, high-fiving a lot.

It had hurt her feelings.

Now she looked around at the sea of slot machines, the blinking lights and plink-plonking coins and the beeping of winning and losing, and said what she needed to say: “I deserved better.”

It was true. She had.

But in six years a lot of anger can dissipate. They were both happily married to other people now – now they truly were friends. There was no need for the squirrel god of vengeance. So she paid her bill and went out into the night to take the poky little city bus to Fremont Street, in the old downtown, to see the neon cowgirl, to have a new adventure, like a girl in a story.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mantras

The women had held up OK, but the men were starting to look like grandfathers.
This was the Class of '72, so they'd be, what, 52, 53? Kari didn't used to have to do the math. She used to always just know how old he was, without having to add 28 years to her age.

She had reapplied her lipstick four times in the restroom outside the hotel ballroom. On easels in the corridor, there were enlarged black-and-white photos of his classmates: the football team, students in labs and at pep rallies.

She hadn't seen him yet.


She was thin now. Back when she'd first met him, no boys at her middle school had liked her. In those days, when he used to come over from next door to watch a Redskins game with her mom, brother, and whoever their mom's current boyfriend was, she'd felt his eyes on her when she walked into the TV room to steal a fistful of barbecue chips from the giant bowl. She always took the chips back into the kitchen to eat them with gobs of creamy French onion dip so the others wouldn't sit there thinking, "There's the fat girl, getting fatter."

In the following years, every breathless lap she ran around their neighborhood, every abdominal crunch, every burning leg lift, it was all for him.

She became convinced that hate was what made the world go 'round.

***

She had known that his class was having a reunion tonight because she still checked up on him on the Internet. She hated that she did this but she did.

She stood outside the ballroom entrance, feeling like a spy or an assassin. A maitre d' asked if she was with the band. There was a band performing covers of songs that were popular when he'd been in high school. She said yes, and the maitre d' told her to help herself to the buffet.


It was in her purse now, the stupid mustard seed. He had given it to her one night in the beginning, when the Superbowl after-party and its requisite beers had left the other adults in a stupor in the den.

It was an odd necklace: a mustard seed that rattled around in a hollow glass bead on a string. He said the mustard seed was from the Bible, something about how if you can have a drop of faith, even if it's as small as a mustard seed, you'll persevere, or God will reward you, or something. They had been at the kitchen table. He had encouraged her to have more chips, and more French onion dip, too.

"I think you have a beautiful body," he'd said. He talked about the voluptuous women in old paintings, and taught her the German word "zaftig."

It hadn't mattered to her what the mustard seed stood for. What mattered was that a guy had given her a necklace.


***


At first he acted like he was so attracted to her. But then he started to drop hints. He would say, "You look like you've lost a few pounds -- you look great!"


After a while working out wasn't doing enough, so she started throwing up.
She took to smoking to kill her appetite. She constantly chewed minty gum, and returned to restrooms compulsively to reapply lipstick, dark eyeliner. Her make-up became more extreme and finally outright goth around the time he'd ended things.

There was a period afterward when she called him up crying. Begging.

After the crying had come a period of silence, mandated by him. He asked her not to call, not to visit, not to write.

Then came the drinking. At friends' parties, Kari would go straight for the parents' liquor cabinet, straight for the vodka. It was clear and clean and did its work quickly.

And then came the men.

***

She remembered the day it had turned in her.

Gym class, tenth grade. The first day of the archery unit. "Imagine the bull's eye is someone you hate," their teacher had joked.

When Kari's turn came, she stood in front of her classmates in her size-extra-large gym shorts, her despicable thighs covered in "slimming" black tights even though it was spring. She could have thought of one of the many classmates who taunted her, or one of her mom's many boyfriends, a different loser each month.

Instead she had thought of him, and she got nowhere near the bull's eye. She pulled the trembling cord back so tight it almost snapped, and the arrow flew wildly up into the rafters in a spasm of misspent rage.


***

Of course he would be here. He'd been a football star in high school. He always used to talk about that. That kind of guy always comes to these things.


Kari stood with her back to a wall of the ballroom. It was dark, candlelit, probably in part to downplay the wrinkles, liver spots, scraggly gray hairs, sagging chins, saddlebags. She scanned the tables and the dancefloor.

He was married. He had been married the whole time.

His wife had been partially paralyzed in a car accident after they were married; she was already in a wheelchair the first time Kari met her.

"I can't leave her. Who would take care of her? Besides, I don't want to leave her. I love her."

***

A man in a tropical-print shirt went up to the microphone. He had been the class president the year they all had graduated. He had prepared a little movie, using old yearbook photos and songs from the era. Stock news images of the Vietnam War and Woodstock were interspersed among the yearbook pictures.

There was a photo of a young man with shaggy hair and sideburns lounging on the bleachers. "Bud!" a man's voice boomed. In a ripple, heads turned toward Bud, the football player in the photo.


Bud and his wife had been the popular couple at their high school. Most of their classmates had read about the accident in the paper. Bud splurged for a nurse who could stay in the evenings so Bud could have what he called a social life. At first this meant cards with male friends, then lying about playing cards with male friends so he could go to bars and, later, strip clubs.

All this was excusable as far as his friends were concerned. He was lonely; he deserved a little happiness for stoically staying by her side. None of them knew about Kari.

I'm the crack in your picture , Kari would often think.


***

In the hotel ballroom, Kari looked around her at the men. Men with creased skin sunburned the color of bologna. Men with crinkles around their eyes. Their lips and knuckles looked dried out. He looked like this now, probably.


After him, it was always men his age. This was what felt natural. She flirted with her teachers, college professors, random men on the street. Most of them were married. It was as if she needed that buffer of a couple of decades -- and a wife -- between herself and the man, and she didn't know why. Maybe she felt that her relative youth, her forbiddenness, was her asset.


As the nostalgic film ended, Kari saw a shiny bald head become a standing body in the dark. It moved toward a set of doors on the far side of the ballroom.

***

When Kari walked into a bar now, or even just into a Starbucks, men hit on her. Not just men his age. She figured men must sense a pliancy in her, a willingness to become what they wanted her to be. The heavy make-up, the tilt of her head, the ready smiles, the way she laughed at anything a man said that he intended to be funny.


Many nights she walked the streets around the apartment where she lived now and came up with mantras. She would tell herself it was like how muscles get bigger and stronger through damage -- when you work out or lift a weight, you're tearing the muscle, and in mending itself, the muscle becomes more powerful than it would have been without the damage.


Take the pain and let it galvanize you,
she would think. Take that power and harness it.

Such trite thoughts, all just variations on if-it-doesn't-kill-you-it-
makes-you-stronger. Like an old hippie in a yoga class chanting "Om." So stupid.

***

Kari moved quickly toward the corridor. She sat on a small bench. He was in the men's room, or outside making a cell-phone call. She didn't know what she would do when he returned.

Her spine stiffened against the wall.

He would come. Let him come. Let this happen.

She had not let it break her.


***

A motion had begun at the end of the corridor. It was Bud nudging his wife along in her wheelchair.

The silence had been long. Years long, except for a few gratifying times when he had called her up, drunk and wanting her again. When he was sober, he hadn't wanted anything to do with her.

Only pride had kept her from disobeying and contacting him. Some days the absence was so acute that she shuddered; at these times she felt as if she were hemorrhaging air, hemorrhaging nothing.

He had gotten to her that deep.


***

Bud wheeled his silver-haired, ghostly frail wife toward Kari. Kari stood.

"Hi," she said. "It's Kari, from next door."

His wife smiled, gracious. Kari felt rot inside herself, vile. Above the corona of his wife's hair, Bud looked at Kari from sunken sockets, bags underneath.

"Hello, Kari." Cold, wintry. As if nothing had ever happened.

His wife beamed at her. "What brings you here tonight?"

What should she have said? "Your husband fucked me when I was in middle school"?

The lie Kari came up with sounded stupidly Freudian.

"My father was in this class."

It could have been true. He could have been. Who knew, and did it matter, and did anything.

Kari walked away, leaving them to try to puzzle it out. She had completely forgotten about the mustard seed necklace in her purse. She'd meant to give it back to him.

***

She walked down the carpeted corridor, footsteps muffled to silence, vitriol surging in every vein.

Right now, he was thinking that she was weak. That was what he always told her that she was whenever he tried to encourage her to lose weight, to make friends, to be happy.

He'd never realized the strength it takes for some people to get through a couple of hours, to get up and shower instead of remaining in bed. To spend a Friday night at your apartment with a book instead of going to a club and shots of vodka and men who told her she was sexy.

She walked through the parking lot and made herself believe there was something to her muscle-mending mantras. Her anger had propelled her.


She'd fought her fear. She went sky diving, rode motorcycles in the desert, visited the isolated places near the poles of the earth.

She'd fought against him, his criticism, the mind games, the back-and-forth of his love. She stopped having reckless casual sex.

She moved to a city she loved, filled her apartment with warm colors, a kitchen herb garden, and two cats.

She was going to graduate school.

Maybe it all would have happened without him.

She walked to her car and sat in the driver's seat. She met her eyes in the rear-view mirror, framed by the heavy black eye make-up she still wore. She watched the look in her eyes shift: crazed, wounded, passionate, resolute, fierce.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Playing dead

My cousin Matt went to a local casting call on a random lark and got chosen to play an extra in that Civil War movie Steven Spielberg made. For several hot months Matt drove to the set and put on bloody period garb and played dead on a battlefield. One time Spielberg himself walked through the scene, correcting the placement of the extras’ limbs and fallen rifles, rearranging their bodies, and he moved Matt’s arm into a different position. Matt told this story to everyone he knew.

We started calling him “Mr. Hollywood.” His once-estranged brothers came around to joke about how they wanted to be part of his entourage. Matt was a bad seed who beat up his younger brothers, told lies, drunk-drove cars into fences, dropped out of school, got high, always seemed to end up back home with his long-suffering parents. We were all relieved he’d found something to do with his life, something to be proud of. He talked about other casting calls, other movies. Maybe his buddy Spielberg would hook him up.

When filming was over there was a special local premiere for the cast and crew, plus the extras and their guests. Matt went to the premiere with some friends. He sat in the theater and got ready to see himself up on the big screen. His friends would laugh and give him high-fives. They would celebrate with booze afterward. This was his night.

He never saw himself up there. His scene got cut. No one had told him this would happen – he simply didn’t appear once throughout the entire movie.

Why was he surprised by this? Hadn’t the rest of his sorry life prepared him for it? Or had it set him up instead – had the delinquent trajectory of all he had done wrong or failed to do led him to believe, Hollywood-style, that he would have his triumph, the rowdy underdog, that he would one day make his debut in a world that was better than he was? 

Monday, May 5, 2014

May 5

On Cinco de Mayo 1992 a boy in a trenchcoat asked me out in front of my school bus. He wrote in magic marker on his hand:

“I’D LIKE TO START SEEING YOU,” in confident but careful all-caps that trailed down his thumb, so that I had to turn his hand to get to the end of what looked like a statement but was actually a question.

22 years later I try to imagine him writing it. Where had he done this? At home? At school, during an idle moment in one of our more laid-back classes? What did he feel like as he wrote these words to me? There must have been anticipation, uncertainty. Excitement.

To think of a time when the sky was so blue and blank and open. I hadn’t yet betrayed him but I would, several times over, amplified each time. I will never be forgiven; he has made this clear.  

On Cinco de Mayo 1992 I told him “OK,” and he held up another finger, on which he had magic-markered: “GREAT!” (I wondered – did he have a back-up plan for if I had said “No”? Did a different finger say “THAT’S TOO BAD”?)

I think we awkwardly hugged then got onto our separate buses. It was spring and we were 13 and I hadn’t yet hurt him.

I didn’t feel the sting of never until I was denied forgiveness.

To think of a time when the sky was so blue.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Caricaturist




I had just been fired when I got the idea. Maybe it came to me because I was desperate.

For almost four months I'd had a job copyediting technical manuals for a branch of a large company that made refrigerators and other middling home appliances. The building was in a forlorn industrial park and my office smelled like dust, even after I brought in lemon-scented wipes and scrubbed down every surface. I'm not a fastidious person, but this was egregious
— there was dust griming the slats of the vents in the ceiling, dust motes in the air that you could see. I spent all day in a room with no windows, and my job did not require me to speak to another living person at any point during a typical workday. When my boss and his boss came in to fire me for my negligence I had let too many errors slip past me and into the latest edition of a manual, conveying inaccurate instructions for fixing the defrost thermostat I'd been feeling so isolated that my initial sensation, although I knew they'd come in to fire me, was just gratitude for human contact.

I don't have a college degree; I'd only gotten the refrigerator-manual job because I passed an editing test with flying colors, and surely also because everyone with the education the company desired had better things to do. I got fired in the middle of the month, and I only had enough in the bank to cover one more rent check. This was in November
not the time to be unemployed in a beach town that hibernates in winter. In winter here, whole days pass with no human tracks on the sand.

Asking Dad for help was not an option. He moved to Florida years ago, where there are tracks on the sand year-round. He was still trying to sell our old house. I snuck in there once, after he was gone and a "For Sale" sign was out front. I broke a basement window and slept on the floor of what used to be my bedroom. I was drunk when I did this. A neighbor heard the sound of breaking glass and called the police. Dad decided to press charges before he decided to drop them. He put the house on the market after Mom died. She did it with sleeping pills.


In summer here, schizophrenic bums migrate from the shelter to sleep on the beach, under the pier. Tourists clatter into the small souvenir and bait shops that line the pier. The bums under the pier, using overflowing trash bags and shopping bags as pillows, look up and see cracks of light. The light flickers as flip-flops scurry across the wooden planks. The bums don't only sleep there because the pier offers shelter in case it rains. They huddle beneath the tourists' shoes and shouts like huddling around a fire. They're warmed by the sounds of families and children.


I know this because I've slept there, too. When I was lucky enough to have the refrigerator-manual job, I also had an efficiency at a motel that would rent you a room by the month. But for a while before that, after my dad left for Florida and the "For Sale" sign went up in my old front yard, I slept beneath the pier and on park benches. I sometimes slept on the couches of my friends, local "townie" hookers and drug dealers who, for some reason, are the kinds of people I befriend; other people tend to bore me or strike me as phony. It was after I had slept in all of these places that I returned to my old house. I remember, in my stupor that night, wishing it could be the very last place I slept, and that I had bottles of sleeping pills.


I got the idea one night when my friend Dana let me sleep on her couch. Dana is a professional dominatrix. She had returned from an appointment with a client and was sitting at her vanity table, daubing off her make-up with a cotton ball and a bottle of Sea Breeze astringent. When she visits clients, Dana wears her black hair pulled into a tight bun, which creates a severe face-lift effect. That night, after waking in her apartment and watching her from the couch, I asked if she had a pen and something to write on. She gave me a pen that said Marriott on it and the back of a Chinese take-out menu. I wrote something
not a story; more of character sketch. It was a portrait in words. I had been thinking about things Dana had told me about her ex-boyfriends, about her father; I had been looking at her softened face with her hair down and her make-up coming off. I handed it to her when I was done. It made her cry, in a good way. It also made her slide under the blanket and press her body to me. I think I had made her feel understood. She fucked me vigorously. Now she has the portrait taped to the side of her vanity mirror, where it's always side-by-side with her reflection when she puts on her red lipstick and pulls her hair back severely.

The idea was that maybe I could do that for other people and get them to pay me, or at least fuck me, for it. That night at Dana's, in my post-coitus and pre-sleep delirium, I envisioned myself with a little booth at a summer carnival. It was almost winter; I thought that maybe I could start on a few locals while looking for a new job, and make actual money on the idea in the summer when the tourists came back. I blew most of the money I had left on a tent from a camping-supplies store. I set the tent up on the beach where I might attract a few locals, maybe some of the hardy souls who go jogging with their dogs. I made a sign that said: "Get Your Portrait Done In Words. Satisfaction Guaranteed Or Your Money Back." I borrowed duct tape from Dana, who liked to wear it in X's across her nipples with clients
her trademark and taped the sign to the tent. Inside I had a legal pad I'd taken from my old job, a pen, a radio, and a book. I didn't expect many customers, and for two weeks I didn't get any. I listened to oldies and finished my book, then three more. The only tracks on the beach for as far as I could see were my own.

The third week, I was sleeping in my tent one night when a police officer unzipped the door and shined a flashlight in. He said that I was not allowed to live in a tent on the beach. I told him it was my place of business, and he asked whether I had a business permit. I told him that had not crossed my mind, and he sent me packing. I would surely go much further in life if I had the capacity to be reverent at the right moments.


In the meantime, the grocery store did not need any more cashiers or baggers, the hardware store did not need anyone in the big lumber warehouse, the mall had all the sales clerks it needed, the restaurants were not looking for any more waiters or cooks. I checked out of the motel for good and set my tent up on the beach again, this time in a different spot closer to the pier. I didn't know where else to go.


I got pity clients. Dana brought some of her hooker pals to my tent, and I wrote character sketches about them for practice. This helped me hone my process. I asked one of them, a well-known local prostitute in her fifties, to tell me a little bit about her life. I watched her expressions closely as she spoke. Her teeth were bad; her job did not exactly come with a health-insurance package. She was good-natured, and bragged about the time she was the star of a string of articles in the local newspaper. With her brazen red hair and crotch-grazing miniskirts, she was hard to miss on the streets of this town, and she took pride in being something of a local celebrity. "They referred to me as 'Red,' even though I told the reporter my real name, which is Bonnie." She had been in jail once. She said she wanted to tell me everything, and to write whatever of it I liked. At the top of her written portrait, I wrote the title: "Bonnie."


I wrote while she talked, which was difficult. That helped me decide to ask clients to leave me alone to write for an hour and then return, like you would do with a one-hour photo developer.


I also soon realized that I would have to take a different approach with each client. I'd simply asked Red to tell me about her life, and she did. But that blunt tack made others clam up. Tanya, another friend of Dana's, who came to town from the sticks and became a prostitute to fund her various drug addictions, grew visibly defensive when I asked the same of her. So we talked about the weather, about the palm-tree design on her handbag and why she'd chosen it. Little things, mundane things. With Tanya I had to be more observant. I took note of the bitten stubs of her fingernails, of how the blond part of her hair had grown out several inches to betray the brown roots of her real color. She adjusted her tight mini-dress incessantly, pulling it down, then pulling it up, unsure whether the situation called for her to be more ladylike or more provocative.


Dana and Red loved their portraits, but Tanya's upset her. She thought I was pointing out her flaws, that I was criticizing or ridiculing her. So I told her, "I haven't finished it yet; this was just a rough draft." It was a lie, but she let me take it back and write a new one. In the new portrait, Tanya was confident and in control of her life. She had naturally blond hair and pristine unbitten fingernails like mother-of-pearl. I made her out to be some sort of mortal goddess, a beach-town Aphrodite. She was thrilled. I told her she didn't have to pay because I was using her and Red for practice, but Tanya peeled off her tight dress, took a condom out of her palm-tree purse, and made love to me on the plastic floor of the tent. Dana and Red were looking for shells among the litter washed up by the lapping waves.


It was an important lesson for me.


Afterward I listened to Tanya's breathing as she slept on my chest, the shouts and cackles of Dana and Red still a comfortable distance away. Tanya slept naked next to me, and I stared at her peaceful pockmarked face. The tent was a pine-green color, and the sun through the fabric made everything glow with a verdant, mossy light, as if we were sleeping under trees in a tropical rainforest. Tanya wasn't beautiful, and her life was a sad wreck. The truth had made her cry, but the fantasy was a narcotic. From that point on I thought of myself not as an artist or a portraitist, but as a caricaturist. Political and celebrity caricaturists inflated flaws to create something grotesque, but I would play up the things that people liked about themselves, or the things they wished were true, and omit the flaws. My caricatures would be just as grotesque, but in the other direction. This approach would make people happy, and it would make me money.


Long ago my parents and I went to a carnival. This was in summer when there are enough tourists to fill the Ferris-wheel cars and necessitate lifeguards on the beach. At the carnival my parents paid for me to get a caricature done. I was in the tenth grade and my skin was a mess of freckles and acne. My hair is brownish-red, and pubescent ginger-colored down had started to grow on my face; my father had not taught me how to shave. Sitting in the chair before the caricaturist, I feared the worst. But when he handed me his sketch, I saw that he had left out the acne and freckles completely. He had drawn a sort of young Robert Redford. He had used my reddish hair, but otherwise it was someone else. I was both relieved and, somehow, disappointed.

That day my dad bought my mom a bag of blue cotton candy. He tried to win her a stuffed animal by throwing darts at balloons pinned to the wall of a booth. His aim was bad, but each time my mom told him he had just barely missed, he had come so close. I watched the caricaturist hand ordinary people glamorous cartoons that looked nothing like them. I watched them pay him, then show the pictures to their friends and families.


The anxious, unkempt Tanya whose head rested on my tingling, falling-asleep arm, the one whose young looks were already ravaged by crystal meth, the one who smelled like cigarettes and weed, the one with defensive eyes like a cornered dog and ragged, bloody cuticles
that was the Tanya I wanted to write about. I kept the first portrait I did of Tanya, the one I'd told her was a "rough draft." In my mom's obituary there was no mention of how she died. My dad wrote the eloquent blurb for the local newspaper, about a woman who was a librarian at a college and founder of a book club and grower of prize-winning orchids, but he left the most important part out.

***

In December I still had no job and was living in my cold tent on the beach, bundled up in all of my clothes and blankets. The police officer with the flashlight came again and I had to leave. My money was all gone except for enough to buy me a few weeks of Dollar Menu dinners. For two nights I slept under the pier alone; all the real bums were smart enough to be at the shelter, but something in me, some unqualified snobbery, wouldn't let me go there. Snow fell on the second night, and I woke on an island of sand in a sea of white. No one made tracks in it until I did, walking away from the pier and heading for Dana's. I couldn't stay on her couch forever; we were friends, but she followed strict personal rules that kept her from letting men take advantage of her. I called on other friends. The guy who feeds Tanya's addictions let me sleep on his floor for a week, on wall-to-wall beige carpeting redolent of cat piss. I grew hungry for human contact and went home with a girl I met at our town's only nightclub. After a drunken fuck, she let me sleep curled up behind her, spooning her body, my hand cupping her ass. Sober in the morning, she asked me to leave.


There were icicles hanging down off the pier.


I asked Tanya if I could stay with her. Tanya lived with her boyfriend, who was also her pimp, and because she and I had slept together, she thought that was a bad idea. He didn't know we had slept together, but he was profoundly jealous
he had wanted to beat me up, and beat her up, too, when he'd found the flattering caricature I'd written about her. She had folded it and put it in a zippered pocket of her palm-tree handbag, but he found it and ripped it up. I had worn out my welcome everywhere. I gave in and slept on an available cot at the shelter until I grew too depressed to go back. I went to the well-known local plasma bank to give blood as often as I was allowed to, and I had their requirements memorized: for $35 per given pint, you could donate two times a week, with a minimum of two days between donations. I dug through the Dumpsters behind restaurants where I'd previously inquired about working as a waiter or a cook. I went back to my old house. Next to the "For Sale" sign was another sign that advertised the brand name of the new security system protecting the house.

I had almost nothing left to sell. I went to our town's gay bar and let a lonely-seeming older man buy me shot after shot of whiskey. When the room began to tilt like I was on a ship, I let him coax me into a restroom stall with him. We slipped into inevitability, into a businesslike exchange. I told him we could do this whenever he liked, and to tell his friends about me. I bought myself fast food and cigarettes this way. I did this until the winter was over, and the tourists came back.

***

When the earliest RVs and minivans lumbered down the road and filled up the Holiday Inn and Red Lobster parking lots, I felt inspired to fill out a fresh set of job applications. I didn't care about honesty in writing, about portraits versus caricatures; I wanted to survive. I craved a permanent address, a guaranteed place to take a shower. The seasonal rise in the tide of tourists meant job openings, including a few at the post office; I guess someone had to help process the flood of tourists' postcards. While I worked my way back to my pre-firing, motel-efficiency lifestyle, Dana urged me to give the idea another shot. She was, after all, good at parlaying unusual talents into a career. In the trunk of her SUV she brought me a folding table, posterboard, a lockbox for payments
not much more than you'd find at a kid's lemonade stand.

I set up the table near the big summer carnival and made a new sign
"Caricatures in Words" and we posted a Xeroxed copy of Dana's portrait as a sample because it was my best work so far. When the opening description of Dana in her dominatrix gear put people off, I wrote up a fake caricature that I thought might appeal to the middle-aged moms who are the chief buyers of souvenirs here. It was about a fictional churchgoing woman, a pillar of her community, a good wife and mom. I laid it on so thick it was practically parody, but it worked several moms read the sketch and wanted similar ones done for themselves. Some said they were going to put the sketches in their scrapbooks, and one suggested I consider using pretty stationery and calligraphy.

As I talked to these women, I listened for clues about what they liked about themselves, and what they wanted to be. "My kids come first," one said. "The Lord comes first," said another. When I asked how she'd describe herself, a frumpy sunburned woman in a visor said that when she was younger she'd been told she looked just like Elizabeth Taylor. "My best feature is my violet-blue eyes," she said. I left out what I really wanted to write about
the sideways glare shot at the eternally dense and disappointing husband, the way one woman had to keep getting up to stop her older son from punching the younger one, the chipped and dated dusty-rose polish on one woman's life-hardened toenails. It wasn't all bad stuff I wanted to write about — one woman had lines that appeared around her smile and eyes when she laughed, like ice cracking in the sun, but what woman wants to read about her wrinkles?

People evaded my first-impression assumptions. A statuesque strawberry blonde in her forties with vixen-red nail polish and an exotic amulet around her neck sat before me, and I thought she'd need no embellishment or gauzing
until she spoke, in a flat voice, only of things along the lines of how she liked to come to town because the outlet mall had some really good deals. A wispy, timid-seeming woman in a black T-shirt, with haunted eyes, said things that seemed to have hidden meanings, such as how sad she found it to come to the ocean only to have her husband and kids want hamburgers and steaks all the time. "I want to eat things that know what it's like to swim in the sea," she said and held my gaze. Her portrait was one of the few I didn't hate myself for writing.

The novelty of my services became a draw, and my clientele expanded. There were teenage kids who lined up in raucous groups (I left the acne out of their visual descriptions like my predecessor of years ago), vain businessmen in town for conferences who seemed to think it was all one big hilarious gag, retired grandparents who seemed grateful for attention and company. I was interviewed by a local reporter, and a manager for the carnival invited me to set up my table on their grounds instead of across the street.


At night, hanging out with Dana and her friends, I wrote more caricatures of the day's customers but exaggerating in the opposite direction. On a bar napkin, I would write about the fanny packs and cellulite, atrocious hick accents and the appallingly trite things a lot of them said. It wasn't that I disliked my customers, but after a day of sugarcoating I needed to balance things out. It became a favorite activity of ours. Dana, Red, and Tanya would pen short non-odes to their more heinous customers. We wrote these on napkins that we passed around, getting drunk or high and laughing.


Business was booming. I even had people ask me to do caricatures of their babies and dogs. I was telling Dana, Red, and Tanya about the glorious bullshit I spin in such instances one night while buying them a drink. Tanya stepped outside with her cell phone to take a call from her boyfriend. She came back in and sat on the stool next to me. "Such bullshit, what you wrote about me," she said, referring to what she had saved and what her boyfriend had ripped up. "I'm not really a blonde, for one thing. You know that. Anybody can see that."
That was the last time I saw her. The next week Dana told me that Tanya's body had been found in the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, who had then left town.

***

I stopped doing caricatures. For weeks after that I came straight home from the post office and got drunk while still in my uniform. I could still conjure Tanya's face that day in the tent as she had slept naked beside me, as if it had happened yesterday. I had studied her the way a real portraitist might, the wayward hairs that didn't follow the line of her eyebrows, an asterisk-shaped splotch on one cheek that could have been a birthmark or sun damage, the whitened skin of a scar on her elbow that could have been from something innocent like a bicycle accident as a kid or could have been from some more horrifying incident in her sad and dangerous life. I had stared at the dark-brown, oily roots of her hair, at the bitten nubs of her fingers. I had loved all of these things about her.

I smoked and drank and stared at the generic furniture that had come with the room I could now afford to rent.
"Such bullshit, what you wrote about me," she had said at the bar before taking a long, hard drink. The narcotic I had given her had worn off.

Dana told me that no one had written an obituary for Tanya and she asked me to write one. What I sent to the local newspaper was that first portrait I'd written of Tanya, the non-bullshit one. In it, I had written that she was a prostitute who struggled with drug addictions. I'd written that she was vulnerable and kind. I'd written about the bitten fingers and the nervous fidgeting. Of course the newspaper wouldn't print it. So I Xeroxed copies of it and put them up all over town, even in family places like the Holiday Inn lobby. I thumb-tacked copies to telephone poles, to grocery-store bulletin boards.


I went to my old house, which I couldn't enter without activating the alarm. In the mailbox, in an envelope addressed to my father, I left a new obituary I wrote for my mother. My mother was beautiful and depressed, with small clay pots of prize-winning orchids that scented the air in our old house, and scar lines of old cuts across both wrists that she covered with the many expensive bracelets my father bought for her.