5.09 / September 2010

With Her Light Off

There is a small space between her being alone and her working where she stores up small talk. Sometimes walking from her apartment to the grocers, she will let it loose a little—a hello for the Arabian man who works the news kiosk, a no thank you for the homeless one who sits playing pots and pans for quarters, a nice to see you today for the Marilyn Monroe trying to cover up an extra twenty years of street time beneath a pound of makeup and a mole that is not always firmly attached above her curving lip. To these people, sometimes, she gives out that small reserve of words and finally getting to the store, she will be down to only nods or waves. With her reserve of conversation drained, she finds it difficult to talk. Her mouth emptied out, words burnt up in the exhaust of conversing, she will point. Point to the apples, sometimes, strawberries if it’s the season. How many? they will ask and she’ll hold up three, maybe four fingers, and nod yes that’s all.

On the harder days when she cannot even manage a nod, when a wave is more than she can bear, she carries a notebook, a nondescript pencil. She writes concisely, packing the words together indiscriminately. Twopacksofcigarettesunfilteredandwhereistherawsugar? If the pencil breaks, if the book fills up, if she loses either, she begins to lose the sounds of things. What is cracked leather over gravel, laughter? What is the squeal of tires, a Christmas tree burning? She remembers silence more and more.

She watches the lamp, red-shaded, the light a Christmas glare through it, the smoke in the room heavy, like the hand belonging to a man she has never met before, and she breathes in and she remembers.

The night—beginning with the lipstick drawn across her lips in the dark mirror of her apartment, down the narrow stairway and past the kitschy souvenir shop with windows full of plastic jade dragons, incense and red-framed mirrors, to the corner where she stands fingering a loose thread at the hem of her skirt. There, she catches the eye of a man—lonely, alone—who asks first with his eyes and then his wallet and then does not ask at all but takes and takes and now—

This night is a night she knows well because it has happened before. For many nights, in the same way—the lipstick drawn and the eyes and the red glare—and so she lies in a bed with his one hand on her hip, his other holding a joint, and she watches the light and knows that he will not stay the night. He is John A—fat, but wealthy. He folds his clothes when he takes them off, sets them neatly on the dresser. He wants to keep the creases straight. The socks alone cost more than she did, he tells her. But she is not listening; she has learned to fall away from moments like that. Instead, she watches the lamp and thinks of her childhood, about the bicycle her father bought for her eighth birthday. It was the color of pomegranates cracked open, a deep ruby and as bright, as shining. Her mother, quiet, thin-lipped and dark-eyed, nodded—there, happy birthday, Samantha—and then sat down on the porch with the baby at her hip. But her father ran down the drive, holding the back of her seat until she out-peddled him and he let go, laughing and shouting, you’ve got it, you’ve got it now.   She remembers the sound of gravel beneath rubber tires and cracked leather shoes, the smell of September—leaves on fire with color in that season, dying off by twos and threes or in the wind, throwing themselves from the trees in hundreds; the whole orange and yellow and amber glow of the world around. Her father’s laughter. She remembers that.

When the joint is through, John A draws his hand back from her hip, rests both hands on the large bowl of his stomach. Samantha closes her eyes and says nothing. Near three or four he leaves the money on the bedside table, pulls on his clothes with a quickness that leaves her feeling sick. She is familiar, too, with this process and the sick feeling, which sometimes lasts long into the next day. Afterwards though, she turns the tv up high, slips into the shower, out of her mind, but still—she remembers.

She is not afraid of walking home alone, not afraid of the catcalls; she does not blush or look down. And yet, she cannot bring herself past the door of a church, not to see how the light may fall through a stained glass windows there or how the heavy scent of incense intertwines incredibly with the soft echo of prayer. She is afraid of playgrounds, flower shops—the creaking of a swing set, the laughter of children causing the sudden flight of birds from a tree, vase after vase and a room full of color, fresh cut stems and petals on the floor, ribbons—these are the things she cannot stand, things that whip up a shaking in her hands and set her heart to stopping. She is afraid of these things because they represent what is missing in her life. To be near them is to be reminded of their absence and so she does not enter a church or buy flowers ever or sit in a park. Instead, she likes the dark corner of a cafe, a cup of coffee, black and sugared, and the slow alternating rounds of people coming in, sitting down, getting up, going out—the bearded faces and clean-shaven, holding hands or arms folded across their chests, the clicking of high heels or a cane tap-tapping down the aisle, the groups of students who come in joking loudly and the ones who sit alone at the counter to heckle the waitresses—they pass her by, this cross-section of humanity parading itself through a Sunday morning and far into the afternoon. She sips her coffee and remembers.

There were good times—laughing until she felt her sides would split, letting the happiness of the moment all tumble out. Once making dinner on a Sunday, her mother, in a frenzy of familial togetherness, gathered them all up into the kitchen to cook—her father on the knives for slicing onions and carrots and cutting the potatoes into quarters, she and Boone working on the pie, kneading the dough together with their small fingers. Her mother went to fetch more flour from the pantry. It slipped from her hands, a large and heavy package, and landed with a dull thud, splitting at the bottom and leaving a small hill of flour on the linoleum floor. Her mother stood wringing her hands and cursing softly, but her father stooped to pick up a handful. The three of them stood dumbly watching as he cupped the flour lightly between his hands, shaped it carefully—and threw. It hit her mother in the shoulder and she let out an oof of surprise. A hail of flour balls began and in a matter of moments the kitchen was transformed into a veritable snow globe. All of them shaken up in it, all of them white as ghosts and laughing so hard the tears ran down their floured faces in long trails. Wasn’t that happiness she remembered?

Sometimes she dances. And in the sway of her hips, she holds the secret lives of men and her own shame. In the indelicate movements of her limbs, her body carving out beats in the music with gestures she no longer stumbles over, the knees parting low and in the arching of her back and hands gracing the curves of it all—in all this, she holds her tongue, with all its stories and no one to tell them to. She holds onto the bed stand, but not her ideals. And she does not hold hands, but grudges—yes, those.   In her dancing, she does not hold back and it makes the men all hold their breath.

She dances, sometimes, in the impersonal privacy of a hotel room, when it is asked of her. She will not dance in a bedroom, not on bar tops or half-lit stages, under strobe lights or neon. But closing her eyes, in a space that belongs to no one really, belongs only to those who occupy it and only at the time of their occupation—a space of consistent fluctuation, a no man’s land of intimacy—only there can she hold herself together against whatever it is that tears her apart—the pull of her own limbs, her heart, the greater pull of the world.

John B asks it of her. He wears too much cologne, combs his hair back with too much gel; he touches her breasts with the tips of his fingers and asks her to dance for him. And so she does, slowly.   He sits at the edge of the bed, watching as she moves.

He says, “Did you always dance like this, baby?”

Hips swivel.

He says, “That’s beautiful.”

Hands over her head.

He says, “Come here.”

She opens her eyes—how can she tell him that dancing is not just moving? Closing her eyes, she is able to go back, begin to erase the bad things that have happened. He starts taking off his boots—tugging at the right, then the left. “Keep dancing,” he says. But she wants him to stop. She wants him to hold her hand. She wants to ask for that small comfort from John B.

“More with the hips,” he says, undoing his belt. She wishes she could tell him about the things that matter to her, the things that make her up—things she cannot help but remember out of that complicated structuring of events in her life, the things that make her who she is.

Like how there was that Christmas. A year or so before. Her mother, her father—all tension. When they fought, the tree caught fire—evergreen up in a blaze, like just their being angry struck a match at the base of it. But no, it was her mother throwing a lit candlestick across the room at her father. Her mother, shouting, swearing. And her father, throwing his hands up. Their faces contorted in anger. The two of them in the living room for half an hour, faces lit by the row of candles burning across the mantle, and she, Samantha, at the foot of the stairs just outside the room, holding her little brother Boone’s hand so that he would hush—shh—and she listened. Somewhere in the house, the sad, discordant jingling of Christmas carols. The scent of cinnamon. What were they fighting about? At the end, her mother let out a scream that wasn’t words at all, just desperate, unintelligible frustration. There was a thud, the sound of something rustling and then the Christmas tree was aflame and the living room hot—so hot, so quickly—and her mother ran to the hallway to call the fire department. Her father stayed to put it out; his hands burnt so badly reaching for the presents beneath. They were lost anyway and he wept. She remembers that—her father weeping on the porch at Christmas and the living room a blackened space.

“That’s beautiful,” John B says again, licking his lips hungrily.

He smells like cedar, John C. He has thinning hair, a southern accent. There are heavy lines around his eyes like he’s been looking at something too hard, too long. They carry a question: how did we get here? He sighs, yawns. She says nothing, rolls away a little in bed.

“Want one?” He offers her a cigarette. She reaches back without looking, lets him place the cigarette between her fingers. She holds it there idly, watching the wall opposite her.

“You look pretty. Young, too. Pretty young.” He opens the lighter, snapping his thumb over the wheel of it. She says nothing still. He lights her cigarette in the flame and closes the cap with a smooth flick of the wrist. “My daughter’s away at Columbia. My wife worries herself sick over it. Burns the toast in the morning, leaves the coffee pot on too long. That kind of thing.”

She nods. The cigarette slowly burns itself through; she does not smoke it.   His hand in her hair. She rolls back, looking up at him. He has a dimple in his right cheek. His shirt—a starched, white, collared thing—is half unbuttoned. Chest hair, salt-and-peppered and wiry, curls out at the opening. Could she be close to him? This John C with a wife and a daughter, talking about burnt toast—she wants to tell him, too, about the Christmas tree on fire. Her father’s burnt hands. She wants to know if he would have reached, too. Would he have burnt his hands for that?

He says, “I’d guess you probably don’t have that kind of thing. Someone burning the toast over you.”

She puts her free hand over her eyes. “No,” she says. “Not anymore.”

He sends one hand down her side, turns the light out with the other. In the dark, she opens and closes her mouth, but no words come out.

A feeling that if you cannot see it, then it doesn’t count—crying in the dark does not count, making love in the dark does not count. If she closes her eyes, the world does not count. Her father, her mother, little brother—all exist only in the darkness of her mind now. And that does not count. Sometimes, though, the things she sees when her eyes are closed are worse than in the opening of them—like the night her father died.

That night, which pivoted the axis of their lives into a downward decline, began in June—and lasted for many years. Or that was how it seemed to her, that night came and came and no sunrise. He went for milk, for cigarettes, and then—forever, he went. Whenever she closed her eyes afterwards, she saw the accident as she imagined it—a green light, her father accelerating into the intersection, maybe fiddling with the radio, maybe reaching for his newly unwrapped pack of cigarettes, a single hand at twelve on the steering wheel and he, accelerating into the intersection, and there would be a squeal of tires and the sound of glass breaking and metal folding, like an aluminum can beneath a foot, but amplified a hundred times, a thousand times, and then no more accelerating, just the milk carton cracked open, dripping across the passenger seat and mingling with the smell of tobacco, a shattered windshield, a streak of red, her father crumpled behind the wheel. The other driver would struggle dazed from his own car, nursing a broken wrist, and it would be a full five minutes before he cried out, help someone call 911.

Whenever she closes her eyes that is how she sees it—night and night and no more accelerating.

John D has been here before. This same room. He has eroding gums, a receding hairline. He smiles with only one side of his mouth and tells her where to stand, places her hands here or there—molds the shape of her as he sees fit. He stands in front of her, pausing momentarily, and she runs her fingers down the blue-grey tie he is wearing.

This is part of the game, the role she plays, this constructed persona. She runs her fingers down his tie and she stands just so with her hip cocked to one side and her lipstick is exactly the color that says take me, you know what I am. Underneath though, none of this is her life, not really. Somewhere along the line she dipped into an unreality. John D catches her hand halfway. He half smiles. She does not look up.

He kisses her wrist. Her mother at the funeral. He kisses her forearm. She can’t remember, though she was there. He kisses her shoulder. She can recall the sky being blank and cloudless, an expansive mute blue. His lips at her neck. She remembers the grass of the cemetery, dry and brittle beneath her feet, the way it seemed to crack and cry out under each step. His lips over hers. The words of the sermon spoken still stand vivid in her mind and she can recall them one by one, dreaming them sometimes, waking up with bless his eternal soul still on her lips. He puts his hands over her hips, pressing hard. Both the smallness and the largeness of the hole her father was lowered into; smallness because it held just a box and a body; largeness because it held so much more'”things she loved, things that kept her safe, held her together, things that could have been. She remembers even, Boone, standing next to her mother. He was so young, only six, and he toed petulantly at the dirt and tufts of loose grass at the edge of the grave. There was a cut on his cheek from a fight with a neighborhood boy. She remembers the shape of it—like a check mark.

But her mother? She cannot remember—was the dress long sleeved or short? Did she braid her hair loosely down her back the way he used to like? Was she crying? And did her hands tremble, holding lightly onto Boone’s shoulder? Did her mother look at her just once? Repeatedly? Never at all? How did her shoulders slope that day and was she the one to throw the first handful of dirt over the coffin lid? Throwing that, was her mother reminded of the handful of flour that hit her shoulder? Did she laugh? Did she ever laugh? Or was the handful of dirt also the lit candlestick? Was she crying? Was she angry? What was the shape of her jaw that day, how did her slender neck bow? Samantha cannot remember, though she was there.

John D stretches out over her as they lay finished. He says, “Well, that was fun. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”

In her small apartment over the kitschy souvenir shop, the smell of incense and spices and Chinese food permeates the air—she throws open the windows, all three of them, to let a little sun in. The sounds of the street below drift up—people walking by, cars, chattering, mariachi music from somewhere off in the distance. In her apartment, there are three rooms—a kitchen, a bathroom and another space, which holds a single mattress, a moss-colored lamp without a lampshade, and a coffee table she found in a back alleyway. She sits on the floor between the mattress and the table and lays a little plastic bag down—a parting gift from John D. What’s inside is like closing her eyes and dancing for her; the same feeling in a substance. She snorts it—she could smoke it and that would be less painful, but she likes the way it makes her eyes water, her nose sting. And the feeling afterwards—soft elation—is a thing she does not know how to find otherwise. Crawling back onto the mattress, she curls into herself.

There was worse, too, she remembers. The fighting: erosion of happiness and no more good times. No one to laugh and run along side her bike—the spokes of it rusted over, the pomegranate shine washed out. No one to start flour fights in the kitchen and make them all cry from happiness, no family cooking together and no one to reach for the presents under a burning Christmas tree, to carry those burns on their behalf. They began to bear their own burdens—her mother smelling like a medicine cabinet most days and so angry in her sadness, using her fists to beat it out in Samantha. Boone in fights, too, every other day at school. Samantha the one to come and talk with the principal, to explain, plead their excuses. Three years of that—and she dropped out of school, got a job waitressing. One night, two a.m., she left home without any goodbyes, no more trying. And then what could the waitressing do if she could hardly ask for orders? If forming the sentence, how may I help you today? was such a horrible irony in her eyes—no, she couldn’t do that. She couldn’t go back, either. So she drifted into her trade: sex and dancing and no closeness anywhere, no belonging. Silence.

John E wears a backpack and large-framed, thick glasses; he takes them off nervously and sets them on the nightstand. He tells jokes to break the ice. “So, why was nine afraid of seven?”

“I don’t know,” she says, leaning back against the headboard with the sheets pulled up high around her. Her head is still a little unclear, a little foggy. “Why?” she asks.

“Because seven ate nine.” He laughs timidly at his own joke, runs a hand through his closely trimmed hair and looks away. “I don’t usually do this.”

She says nothing, fiddles with the edge of the sheet. This one, John E, is sweet. She wants to tell him about drugs, about forgetting and remembering, about how it feels to dance for a stranger, to have their hands on your body—to be close to them in a physical sense and removed in every other aspect. She wants to tell him—John E. Any John. She wants to.

“You’re quiet,” he says. They sit next to each other, both looking out across the room, not so close that they’re touching, but not so far away that they couldn’t.

His hands are in his lap. The boy—he can’t be much over sixteen or seventeen, around Boone’s age now—begins to blush. She takes a deep breath.

“What has no beginning, no end, and nothing in the middle?” she asks.

“What?” he says.

“A doughnut.”

He laughs, quietly at first, and then louder and louder, as though some damn of laughter had come down inside him—the room flooded with it. “I like that one,” he says, catching his breath at last. He reaches over, takes her hand and holds it for a little while in his own sweaty palm. The handholding'”that gesture, the simple closeness of it makes her ache in ways she had forgotten were possible. She wants to say something meaningful to him—this John E holding her hand. It is the closest connection she has felt to anyone in a long time—and it is no closeness at all, only a semblance of closeness. But if there is handholding, she feels, then there can be talking, there can be connections drawn, there can be belonging.

He squeezes her hand, tenderly, brings it to his lips, kisses the back of it and lets it go. He is ready now, he tells her.

Afterward, she gathers her things from the room and walks to the cafe. That pale face of morning—before the sun has risen, before night has vanished altogether—an inbetween time. The streetlights go out, businesses begin to stir, street performers, vendors, all take up their usual places. Somewhere in the distance, church bells ring—softly, faintly, as though the sound is only the memory of church bells. In the cafe, she asks for a window seat. She would like to see the day begin.