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.