They say it is a transaction, swift and just. That acquiescence is implied in the dregs of the eyes, in the viscid residue of a gaze unstuck. They say that the patterns in your skin begin to shift, that the shapes of your body mould to fit the other. There are no words, they say, no need for words. A decision made synaptically, neurons weaving across cranial space, through the gentle touch, in harmonious pandemonium. My maman says, it is like saying a prayer in your head without having to speak words and the miracle happens. My papa says, it is a spell, a witches’ brew, making magic of ingredients only women carry the knowledge of. Either way, the absence of words is worth noting.
They always speak of it like an act; of stepping through the roaring ropes of a cascade wall, or of eating something loaded with fiber, that goes in one end and comes out the other leaving everything in between scrubbed clean. From virginal white to lithe and tender crimson. From veils of gossamer mucus burst to monthly beds of moss and mire. But they say a lot of things, and most of the time, without an eye for the connotative weight of their run-on phrases. Most of the time, they are men. And sometimes they are girls either wound up too tight or women, shredded muscle and festering meat. And every so often, they are monsters.
I watched those legs many times through the laminated leaves. Impossibly long and biscuit brown, strewn freckles like dark pebbles in a murky stream, grasshopper joints at the knees. Ribbons of muscle binding long bone, as her calves gripped the sides of the see-saw. See those thighs, splayed evenly like soft puddles on the hot rubber swing. See the toenails, small seashells painted coral and curled uncut. With each ebb and flow through the air, the pads of her feet toughened by sand and moldy sneakers worn without socks. And once, see her from the hip down. A white lemon bikini bottom, swollen small tufts of aurelian hair hair like heather, sweeping the crust of the earth.
That was the last summer that I spent playing in the cabane that my Papi had built when Alice was born. Washing dishes and making brews of daisies and fans of parsley from my Mami’s garden. Building little rafts of bamboo sticks and sending paper dolls and ants on great Viking funeral pyres down the thin and cadaverous stream. The spiderwebs had already begun to choke the corners of the roof, and the once bright hues of cheap plastic toys and mock household appliances had faded to even pastels. One doesn’t really notice these things until long after they’ve become irreversible.
I spent longer and longer seeking altitude; cooler and wider horizons, trying to inch my gaze beyond the butte and the uniform salutes of parallel pines. My cousin Maxime taught me how to swing my foot to carry momentum, so that my leg could just barely wrap itself around the bottom branch of the magnolia tree. From there, it was splinters and junebugs and ever-weaker branches to the top. The first time, Maxime fell and broke his arm, bits of bone blinding us both, pale tongues of fat rolling out from where half of his humerus swung helplessly. I watched him run across the meadow, Natalieeee Natalie! Putain de merde! Fuck! And I smiled until it dust broke and I understood that no one had seen me climb the tree with him. The second time, I went alone. I bent my arms close to my body, for fear of leaving pieces of them behind as I crawling up with the little strength I carried in my sallow, brittle legs. Et voila, the man spoke sharply from beyond the teeth of barbed wire at the edges of our property. Encore un foi, tu m’emerde. Well fuck you. I often anticipated responses to sharp comments, lending spice and fire to the perceived injustices of others. I still do.
Laure? Laura? I had heard a woman calling her name, a thick accent crusting the edges of her words with foreign sounds. And then, my own knees trembling with indignity at the poor woman’s plight, I saw the legs tearing through sand and brush, kicking up swarms of dust with the flick of an ankle. I was transfixed. Not, at first, because of the legs, but because of who they might belong to: a Joan of Arc bearing sword and steel, a comic book heroine morphing before my eyes, to slay the beats and crown the martyr. Laurence. My illusions were quickly dispelled when I heard that name, shared by an aunt whose battle with anorexia and inexplicable halitosis rendered me nauseous with pity and the abject hatred that frequently follows. But the legs.
To get there, I had to walk by the totem that my Papi had built when I was born. Its ghastly features and crippled smile were made ever more unpleasant by the veritable colony of fat and crapulent beetles that nested between its toes. But beyond the property of rented cabanes next to ours, there was a bend in the road where the swell of cement had given and collapsed into whatever space there was between the earth’s crust and its core. And from where I knew that bend to be, there was a sheet of clapboard that had been propped up onto a broken brick, to make a slope of sorts. I figured that someone had set it up that way, and that it had to be a boy, because only boys did things that would invariably put them in more danger than they already were. I’ve found that seeking confirmation of the things one has been told by a trusted adult often yields expected results. The boy’s name, I would find, was Maxime Miellotte and he was staying with his Mami on a farm down the road. Later that summer, we would weave our fingers, damp with fear and baby fat, and lay in the bend of that road. The rich smell of heat rising from cement and the anticipation of near death by old, rusty Renault, we picked stars and made promises. Because I’d misspelled his name, and Laurence was irrevocably in love with him, I never saw him again.
But on that day, before I met one of many boys, I walked by the totem, snarled at the beetles as they seemed to approach with uniform caution, and there, beyond the brush, sitting underneath the rubber curl of the swing, was Laurence.
Hello, she said to me in English, why are you watching me kid. I tore the journal from between her conch shell kneecaps, shredded a page and threw it at her in a haughty proclamation of my right to be referred to as anything but a kid. We became very close, very quickly. She was older, and from Belgium, and she was interested in boys and me. She especially liked me because when we were together, she said, the boys looked at us double. As an accessory, I was exceptionally efficient. Two is more approachable than one, plus you look and dress like a member of a German punk boy band, so they like you but they love me. The first time that we went to the beach together, on a shallow day of sleep and sunscreen-soaked magazines, she lent me a bathing suit. It was tourmaline pink and bound me like a Polish sausage. But that was the day that she saw me as I had once seen her, all tangled limbs and imperceptible swelling. J’ai une idee. On va te rendre irresistible. She never spoke to me in French. Begged me help her to practice her English.
I look like the fucking lead singer. She had scribbled my eyelids with khol, like a sugar-cracked child using crayons with his fists. Hold on, let me show you lipstick. That night, for the first time, we went to the lac d’Hossegor. There was a boardwalk that roped around the water in a crescent and tapered off where the beach began. We walked from the ice cream parlour- une boule s’il vous plait (giggles)- and along the lights strung like punctured fireflies across the water. I could feel my skin taught beneath the cooling creams and paints, my ankles trembling in patent pink pumps. The first time, I noticed it before i felt it. But after that, it was different. They typically ambled with legs wide, and fists jamming through the summer air, swinging at the neutral spaces around them, claiming them as their own. Sometimes, but rarely, they were teenagers, like us. Most of the time they were men, splitting cigarettes and patting at their hair to spread it across exposed scalp. All of the time, they ran their eyes from rim to lash, up and down our bodies, matching intent to purpose. It was intoxicating, breathtaking in its lush perversity and brassy liqueur. Sometimes they tickled their fingers at us, clawed at our shadows passing by. Often, their raucous tongues split the silence with catcalls and brazen questions. I felt that I bore something hallowed and coveted. Something that I could bend and borrow out but tuck back in to the folds of my tight clothing. I felt struck with power, dancing at the precipice of generosity unfulfilled.
Later in the summer, I bought a dress. At 40 euro, it was the most astronomically expensive object that I had ever seen, let alone purchased. Starched linen and ribbons of worn canvas, it tethered my waist and cast forth my breasts like new moons. I wore it down to the straps and the sheath. We spent the summer willowing up and down the boardwalk, drooling out filaments of our secrets, bending our bodies just enough.
Part II: Antoine
The middle parts are never as important as the beginning or the end. As it turns out, intention breathes life into happenstance, and fate, a bloated ouroboros, feeds itself. Again, a night dans les Landes. This time, I am seventeen. The boy that I am looking at across the empty nightclub, through the bars of a stripper’s cage, its occupant on temporary flight, turns out to be twenty-seven. He doesn’t ask me very many questions, his boyish clothing and autumn hair swept through like raked leaves give his nonchalance away. His friend creeps out to smoke a cigarette, and we hear the motor of an old Ford Mustang- rare in the sud-ouest- growling and purring. He leaps up and runs outside- his friend has left him behind. I am still seventeen. And I do not know how to drive, will not know how to drive for another four years. Some things have changed since summers past, I am woman, membranes broken, language spiced and targeted more carefully, illusions dispelled (yet not forgotten), and a wardrobe built on that white dress. It remains to be true that I trickle through hours of makeup, of biking alone through the forest, on craters and dimples of abandoned country road, to reach a place where I may be seen yet not found. Antoine knows how to ride handlebars, and this time, I am wanting to take a different route home. Developing a tolerance, the gaze no longer suffices. We weave and wobble the way home, and wake up to each other, nauseous and in love. Antoine wants to be a teacher. He shows me many things, and we draw together through the afternoons. He tells me smooth secrets, and hints at dark pasts, and we taunt and tear at each other for weeks to come. We are determined to etch matching symbols into our skin, so we do. We draw the outlines, the borders, but can’t decide on the content. But again, the middle part is just not that important.
Part III: The other
Which came first? The bird or the island? He laughed though it wasn’t a joke. My hair was matted and smelled like cat food. The flight had been long and I had been alone and sitting next to a man who was unbelievably invested in the meaningless insect’s footprints that dotted the pages of my journal. I didn’t even get up to take a piss, because I was sure that he was going to leave me some kind of a note or keep my pen as some kind of sick souvenir. Which was funny when you think about it. But it wasn’t funny then. I hadn’t eaten anything because I didn’t eat much anyway, and I knew that it would end up sloshed in the roaring vacuum of the airplane toilet, and not out of the right end of me. When we stepped outside, Antoine took my hand, wet and limp like a used napkin, and tucked it into his pocket. It’s too hot. But that didn’t matter, and I knew it because the denim around my fingers drew tighter and tighter and his breaths more shallow as we walked. I missed you, he said, when he peeled my Green Day t-shirt from the tattered sports bra that smelled like airplane and piss. The Air Bnb was a double, and there was an old woman next door who was overcooking rice and chittering away in Spanish. Que esta pasando? I felt my wrists and ankles go limp, the anchors of my heels rolling in place as I collapsed onto textured wool and the mattress squealed beneath the weight of us. I felt his fingers, cold and searching, and familiar bitterness swelling my tongue. Desire grinding against an organ that was supple and tender and buried between the folds. Give me a second. I haven’t shaved. There is a hair on one of my nipples that I don’t want you to see. I felt myself pooling around us, expanding to fill the room to the curtains. My knees cracked and sprawling, my hair wet and caked around his thighs, I thought of pillars of salt as the warmth spread across my gums and down my throat.
Apparently, Spanish galleons used to catch the trade winds to this archipelago, on their way to the Americas. Tenerife is the largest island, and also the womb of a dormant volcano. Tourists flock to feel its tremble and subterranean strain. Seemingly, eruption is a common interest. We’re going to go on the second day, he had told me in advance, because it’s a sunday and I think there will be less people. Well, we didn’t end up going on the second day. Because we had an eruption of our own.
There isn’t much to do on an island sinking in the breast of the Atlantic. We woke up late, drizzles of afternoon sunlight dousing our eyelids, making something like love as the bells of the cathedral wept and wallowed through the hours. We ate mostly mangoes, before I had developed a sharp and merciless allergy. Drank beer in water bottles, the bubbles expanding across the plastic and causing them to burst. Other methods to drink beer in the middle of the ocean. Apparently. On the first day, we visited the site of the Carnaval de la Cruz. There was a sheltered market there, and the chicharerros chittered and poked at us with their wares. Often, a child would place an object in the palm of one’s hand, and then weep profusely, claiming theft and demanding retribution. It was funny then, but it isn’t funny now. Antoine bought a feathered fan for his sister. Animal cruelty- ever the social justice warrior. Most people can get behind ending the cruel treatment of animals. Not so with causes pertaining to the human race.
Shit, it was hot. And he wanted to run his lips along the nape of my neck, or guide his hand into the side of my shirt, where the yawning dip of my tank top met my breast, like a fish moving through moss and loam. Que bonita. I felt their eyes tearing at the outlines of my clothing, like the proverbial locusts carving bits out of leaves and lemons. But Antoine was always there to defend my honor, novio, he held a hand up to the sun when I wrinkled the corners of my eyes, framed the image of me- yet cast me aside upon foreign glance, like a Dickinsian villain veiling a weapon with an overcoat. We bought spiced ceviche from a weathered raisin of a woman, and ate it on a rock by the shore. The fleas and gnats wove concentric circles around our ankles, the behavior of beings cast as an object of ridicule. Ridiculous things. We talked mostly about the animals, and about the future. Were there canaries here? If so, where did they live? How long did they live? He asked me if they came from coal mines because he had heard there somewhere and I laughed. And he asked once more. Again, retrospective humor. How did the animals get to the island in the first place? Do they all have to know how to swim? I was thinking about the way that he swam; thrashing and bold, slicing cleanly through the licks of water as if bound for a target beyond. Where do you want to live when we are older? I didn’t care, thought the question strangely foreign and dissociated from our plans for the future. Many of the natives here apparently moved to Louisiana when the Spanish took New Orleans. He spoke the words as if stillbirth from his mouth. Wikipedia or something I had told him? The first girl whose bed I had slept in, whose breasts I had touched, lived there. She was strung out like string cheese, tattered and pale, her pores expanding with each pill, the sere and livid skin of a heroin addict. I’d like to move to New Orleans. Certainly proved a mildly interesting thought experiment. I’ll be anywhere you are. Fancy that.
On the second day, we fought. As was standard procedure, we threw dishes and spit glass, I drew hieroglyphs and taunting messages into my wrists and inner thighs and he drank the rest of the warm beer and promptly vomited over the kitchen sink. If I had to cast a speculation, I could comfortably assume that we had been fighting about some combination of the mundane and the absurdly existential. You will never love me like I love you. Well, you will never move to the United States because you’re a goddamn fucking pussy and you’re ten years older than me and you’ve never moved an inch in your life. You are too hungry, like a feral animal. Did I advertise myself otherwise? Did I claim to be tame? Je t’aime. Moi non plus. We whined and contorted ourselves like tormented pedophiles, flesh-eating monsters born of love and lust. Fucking John Greene couldn’t have done a better job. So naturally, I ran out barefoot and came back hours later to find him weeping into a flower vase full to the brim with whiskey. I held out a bottle of wine and spun out to some France Gall baby pop and waltzed him out into the starlight because it was New Years Eve goddamnit and we were going to have a fucking good time.
At the first jeweler’s shop, he tells me that I have a choice. We nuzzle at each other, long, hard pressure of the thumb on the back of my hand. He strokes the space where he wants to put it. The ring. A black pearl? He asks the jeweler the same question twice until I interject in Spanish. Perla negra. But the old man, wiry and red as copper, says no hay en nada parte. They are rare, and bear dark things. I pick up a skeletal golden band, wrapped in a figure eight around a tenebrous, milky sapphire, a tail of diamonds as small as the fluorescent plankton on the beaches at night. Que bonito. C’est parfait. He squeezes hard, to make it push past white knuckle. Outside, he takes to one knee with a flourish, as passerby pause and give whimpers of wonder and whispered congratulations. It is done, and we are happy, and we buy mojitos in paper cups and sit on the tin roof of a tienda, watching the sun set over the gentle eddy of a year passed.
The shrimp is jeweled with bits of shell, and I’ve had enough champagne to pickle organs unseen. You were making eyes at the fucking waiter. I am pleased somehow, and he reaches over the table and clenches my hair in a hot fist. Defiant, clouded eyes, I bear down on him, slip the shoes off my feet, laces in a bow on the zipper of my backpack, and take off, as I do, as one does.
In every version, it ends the same way.
She is become soluble, disappearing into the haze and humidity of early morning, somewhere in the middle of la calle, waiting for the hot cement to turn her to gas and foam. She left him a shoe, the man, felt she should leave something behind, and is sitting o the other, the heel puncturing the warm, alien flesh of her left thigh.
Antoine is grasping, clawing at her arms, as if to free them from pliant sockets. What did you do. What did you do. But I can’t remember, and I don’t understand the question anyway. Besides, I don’t think he has an answer in mind.
Later, he will yell and fizzle the cherries of cigarettes on the carpet and also on his palms. He will tell me he is leaving, but we will both stay, and he won’t ask me the strange question again.
Because what happened was this: there was tenebrous desperation creeping through the slits of my blood-laced eyes. There was something like fear but without trepidation. I turned a corner, wailing, and collapse on the bent hood of an old Peugeot. How did the French car end up on a Spanish island off the African coast? How do things get where they go? What does it take to get from Point A to Point B? Is it expensive? Is it worth it?
A gate shrieks at the seams, and the man apologizes for the nail-cracking noise. What’s going on? Are you safe? I spit up bile into the space where the sidewalk tucks into cobblestone. Jesus. Mary and Joseph? The man comes closer, and I feel the halite melt of his gaze, the thermal echo of his body heat near my back. I feel relief, the drought in my throat assuaging the surging mud in my mind. I am hungry. This is common. I did not eat very much but I am hungry. And the man takes my hand and tells me that he is kind, and that I have stepped on a splinter of glass and he wants to help me take it out. Slowly. It won’t hurt. The man is in his thirties, without hair but not pretending otherwise. He makes me a piece of bread and I can’t tell if it’s been toasted, and when I put it in my mouth, I can feel my teeth bursting grain and butter hot under my tongue. I sit on a cheap, crimson, patent-leather couch and I cry. The man brings a glass of water to my burnt and bitten lips. And sleep slams the light behind my eyes.
I awake to pressure expanding through cavernous space. A familiar feeling of unknown depth and origin. The lip of my dress is choking my bladder and I have to urinate. I think about that ugly couch and weigh the scent of piss against comfort. But there is a firmness pressing up against my pelvic muscle, there are balanced weights on the cloved bones of my hips,the branches of my ovaries ache and strain. In every version, it ends the same way. For us, on both ends, it starts and it ends the same way.
As I burst through the doorway like pus from a burst blister, he asks me: Where are you going? Are you okay? Again, I wonder about the question, and what it holds in its bowels, what it’s begging to release.
Funny though, not then, not now, and not to me, but somehow, and to someone, how an incomprehensible question gives stillbirth to a galaxy more.
What are other words for forgiveness address something other than culpability? Is it reprieve? Is it grace? How does one release without forgetting? How does one consent without giving in? Or refuse without having to say no? Or leave without leaving behind? Or stay without surrendering? Feel the healing without feeling the pain? Or ask questions without giving away intent? Giving answers without begging the question. Going mute without making a sound.