“I remember the day was warm, not really hot enough for a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, but definitely warm enough to be all sticky and feverish in fancy wool slacks. The kind that gave you prickly bites on your legs until you’re about to go insane and your mind has to learn to ignore it.”
“So you didn’t like the pants. I get it.”
“Yeah.” The whole body drain after sex thing has left me susceptible to regression. She wanted us to share our secrets and somehow convinced me to go first.
“Go on.” Isabel sits straddling my hips, nipples at attention and her skin flushed from the past exertions. She needs to know all this. Although I would much rather just lie here and watch her. “You’re stalling again. Stop staring at my tits and get on with it.”
“So anyway. There I was, all dressed up and colored in faded green grass stains and yellow hot dog juice. I was a clumsy kid, and lunch ended up on my lap before I got a chance to eat it.” She’s smiling. “So I had decided to escape. I’d had enough of the picnic, and I knew it would be awhile before the adults were done. They were busy praying and eating, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. Some picnic revival where most of the adults ended up drunk, and I never did see anyone praying.”
She leans over the side of the bed and reaches into my jeans for cigarettes and a lighter. It’s a choreographed movement the way she enacts the whole process in one smooth motion. By the time she comes up she’s already lighting it and takes a few drags before handing me the cigarette.
I bust out laughing at the side effect of a sudden memory flash. “The guy watching us kids was a pathetic ex-hippie born again who was still clinging on to his old ways, probably out of habit or the hope it would all mean something again. He had a ponytail of matted unwashed hair. It was supposed to be dreads, but his hair didn’t really take to it. He wore sandals and frayed jeans with a tie-died shirt and played the guitar. I think, he wrote his own songs.”
She takes the cigarette out of my mouth; her movement is as graceful as an old movie, tossing her hair back before placing the cigarette on her lips, inhaling long and slow, holding it in for a second before exhaling, as if the whole process was some natural human action. She slides off my stomach, taking her weight off her knees and onto my hips. The shift of skin on skin friction is enough to warm the blood. She hands me back the cigarette, and this time I meet her hand halfway with mine, as well as shift my weight under her to show her my rising predicament.
“No. We promised we would do this before anything else. ” She’s not in the same mode as I am and is sticking to the plan. I smile and take the last few drags from the cigarette, poking it out in a pottery class refugee on her bedside table.
There are dozens of these creative melt downs all over the house, some painted in tacky colors of middle age retro fashion and others just charred clay. They belong to her mother; she had her crisis a few years ago and felt the best way to get through it was creatively. “Why pottery?” I asked. She said her mother needed something else to do with her hands.
“You’re stalling again.” She pokes me in the ribs, and my convulsions of ticklish protests almost throw her off the bed.
“Alright then. There I was sitting by myself trying to avoid the world around me. I found this nice spot some distance away under a tree.”
“Some things never change.”
“Some things change a great deal.” How many times have others tried to get me to tell this story, and now it’s just spinning out of my head like some mechanical recording device gone haywire. It just all seemed to go wrong from then on. Even when it happened, it was hard for me to talk about it without sounding like some dictation machine. It begins. “The official excuse, back in the day, when they were all trying to explain how it happened, stated that is was a seizure, a dementia that struck a part of my brain.” I’m finding it harder to look at her.
“It’s all right. Go on.” Her eyes lead to a perfect moment of stillness within me.
“As I looked around at all the people, everything seemed normal, a regular picnic setting, almost postcard like. Then there were the sounds, faint at first and almost inaudible. I thought it was a radio in the distance, some sort of traffic noise that I never realized before. Within a few minutes it began to get louder. It sounded more like grunts and snorts, the kind barn animals make at feeding time. I still thought it was funny, believing somehow it was external commotion going on somewhere.
“I noticed one of the church lady’s eating her food like an animal. Her face was covered in slop as she dredged through her plate. A minister was grabbing random things from the table and stuffing them in his mouth, his face no longer human but monster like. I was no longer able to tell who was who while they gorged on whatever they could get their hands on at the table. Some of them broke out fighting over scraps that had fallen to the ground.
“The kids were all separated into packs. They looked more animal-like than the adults, cartoon creatures with human characteristics but with animal heads. Some were fighting each other, and as one lost, the pack that was with the loser became the winner’s. Then the ones within the pack started fighting the new members, and then they were all fighting each other.
“The victorious ones would continue stomping and kicking the fallen. But as they kept stomping and kicking they became disease-ridden, decayed and old, and they would fall and another would take its place kicking and stomping until it decayed and withered. I just stood there, watching the whole sequence being played out before me. I detached from the whole moment, never considering if I was next or losing my mind; it just seemed so normal to be standing there watching. Then it stopped.
“My mother was calling me. At the moment I heard her voice it all became normal again. I just panicked, thinking that my mom had found out that I had ruined yet another dress shirt or had gotten into another fight. No profound realization of what had just happened affecting my motives beyond saving my ass.
“I just moved around the tree away from anyone’s view. I freaked out mostly because I just knew she wasn’t calling me for some endearing mom thing. I could tell by the sound of her voice; it had that loving call with the mild undertone of “you’re in deep shit”. I figured I had been ratted out by one of the kids for fighting during the kick ball game.”
Isabel reaches for another cigarette and I develop a compelling need to get her off me. I start sitting up and sliding from underneath her. She looks at me with eyes that don’t say anything beside the fact that they’re trained on my face.
“Go on,” she says as if prompting me into the next line of the act.
“I had called this kid a cocksucker during the game after lunch. I didn’t know what it meant and don’t think he knew either, but he took offense to it. We ended up rolling around in the grass, his hands at my neck and my thumbs in his eye.” I bring up a nostalgic chuckle at the image of that cocksucker. She catches it and laughs with me.
I think I’m falling in love. She kisses me on the lips, still with that smile of smiles.
Somewhere a voice is screaming at me to run, scolding me for unraveling myself like this, berating me for giving in. We’ve been hiding things about ourselves, me and her, scars and frailties that never allowed the other to get too close. She wanted us to come clean before we got any further in a relationship.
I have never known anyone like her. We agreed and promised to break down these walls, completely leave ourselves vulnerable in front of each other, figuring from there nothing else would seem so bad. I can feel her watching me. The room is compressing me with a cloud of stale smoke, deodorant, sweat, and sex. The smell of her aura seems to penetrate it all, and it helps me find the way through.
“I’ll catch you if you fall,” she whispers and, for whatever reason, even when so many have promised me similar things, I utterly believe her.
“In my panic, I held my breath, believing that my mom would notice my breathing. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until I started feeling the pressure on my chest and in my head. I really don’t know for how long I was holding it but by the time I realized I was, it seemed natural. It was a lot easier than I had ever imagined. I could ignore the pressure, the exploding little prickles on my skull and face, and once I realized this, it became easier.”
“Our bodies have a self defense mechanism,” she says, “that prevents us from doing anything stupid like that and dying. Some sort of life preserving fail safe.”
“Yeah. One of my doctors mentioned that to me a while ago.” I’m fidgeting and she’s holding on tighter. “I knew either way that I wouldn’t die, that nothing serious was going to happen to me, and I wanted to test that notion in my head.”
“How dangerously zen of you at such a young age” Isabel’s voice goes low in a seductive actress motif.
“I met a man who was seriously into that shit. He would go on about achieving these altered states of consciousness by methods of depriving the body and self inflicted pain. He had all this information about Native American tribes and other primitive societies in the Amazon and Africa that incorporated pain-inducing rituals as a way of enlightenment. He was intense, always looking for heaven or whatever it is that’s out there.
“He had been fasting for a couple of days when his sister found him collapsed in the garage. He was piercing his body with these long sewing needles when his body went into shock, and he passed out while in the process. His sister called the paramedics, and the authorities later committed him because he posed a danger to himself.”
“That sucks, having your quest shut down like that. I mean, he probably was just having some mid life thing and needed answers. My mom should do something like that. She’s been looking for answers.” Isabel pulls my hands to her chest, folding her arms against herself but never letting go. My fingers conform themselves to the soft responsive tissue of her breasts.
“The pottery?” I look around. There were several different styles of pottery in her room alone. Each representing a different phase in her mother’s breakdown habits: bowls, vases, animal-like figurines, and truly expressionistic mounds of beaten earth that ranged from smooth curvilinear pieces to hard edged, rugged manifestations that hinted at a troubled mind.
“At first I was proud of her,” Isabel says. “You know, doing something to express herself and her anger, like one of those late blooming artists. No matter how much I couldn’t tell what the hell she was making, I kept telling her to keep at it. It kept her out of the house, she wasn’t getting drunk with whoever the guy of the moment was, and she seemed to be getting something out of it.” Isabel’s trailing off and talking more to her bedspread than actually talking to me.
“What happened?” I ask.
“She was fucking the instructor.”
“He was married. It seemed that whenever one of her pseudo-relationships would collapse, she used him as a standby. A fix to get her through till the next big one came along. She has a plaster mold of his penis in her bureau, which is about all she has left since his wife caught them, and he had to close up shop.
“The weird part about it is I really didn’t care so much that she was screwing the guy. He must have been doing something right because she really appeared happy in a way that she never is or has been with any of the guys she slums with.
“It’s just that she made me think that she was actually doing something to better herself, and I encouraged her to do it. She took it as I approved of her banging the guy, and somehow my approval forgave her of whatever wrongs her mind made her feel she was doing.” Isabel crushes the remaining cigarette filter in a blue glazed bowl on her bedside table.
I hadn’t noticed the tension until it was released from her face; there was hope for her now. Her look was in transition, and I just stare at her awhile as she vacations in her ideas.
“So what happened next?” Isabel’s question stabs at my gut. “You have to finish. It’s important now. You were detaching yourself from existence and…”
I sigh and do it again, allowing myself to be put back in that spot, in that time.
“First the sound got turned off. As if I had just shut the radio off after listening to it at full blast for an hour. It felt vast and completely overwhelming. These dark curtains were closing in on my vision, and I was watching myself sitting there with my face all red and my eyes bulging out. My hands were around my neck. It was silent, as I watched myself about to explode. But I was also watching myself watch me. I was older and really thin and tired looking, but it was me watching me.” She’s moving behind me and enfolds me in the large blanket, her body pressed against my back and her arms wrapped around my shoulders. I could simply sink into her and never have to think again; my own tension being absorbed into her.
“I looked past the child that was sitting there about to pass out and saw all around me was nothing. The light of a thousand fluorescent bulbs was radiating everything. There were shadows of people walking along what might have been the horizon. The darkened forms were stick figures blurred by the illusion of rising heat. I couldn’t tell where everything ended through the intensity of the glare. I shielded my eyes to see it all clearer. The land stretched out before me past my field of vision, like a desert, a flat and arid desert, with a sky that looked as if it was one giant oil fire plume.” I stop and breathe. It feels like the first breath I have taken since that moment. It all felt connected. That this is what happens next. After all has been eaten and after all have been beaten. “This was the end of something, something inevitable. I could hear the sound of the ocean lapping lazily on a shore.
“I awoke lying in my bed. It was dark, I was in my pajamas and I could hear my parents downstairs watching TV. I had had a memory blackout. Even though I was conscious the whole time, my brain wasn’t recording any of it. This was how the doctors came up with the seizure theory. It’s a common side effect.
“My mother, I was told, was already at the ‘my child’s been kidnapped’ scenario when one of the kids found me under the tree. I was grounded for a week for fighting and running off and although I was conscious, according to mom, I was staring into space the whole ride home, looking at her with a blank expression every time she asked if I was all right. I never mentioned what I saw until after the funeral.” I fold myself deeper into Isabel, and she holds me tighter. “My mom never really believed any of it. She wouldn’t look at me or even be in the same room alone with me. My father thought it a sign from God, an omen.” I’m pausing again as it plays out all over again in my head; it’s as clear as a re-run on television.
“They divorced a year later. Dad took the whole end of the world vision seriously. He convinced a whole bunch of parishioners to follow him to Arizona back in ’94. They were a real Heaven’s Gate group just sitting and waiting, my dad at the control of the spaceship.”
“Was that the last time you saw your father?”
“Yep. They had bought this old hotel and converted it into a church with living areas. There were almost a hundred people when I got there. He was using what happened to convince all these people that the end of the world was coming, and that he was blessed for having an early warning provided to him by his son. They treated me like I was royalty, like I was some sort of prophet.”
“Wine, gold, and all the concubines you could fuck.”
“I was 11. I stayed in the only air-conditioned room with all the toys and video games I could want. Some of the followers took shifts watching me. My father showed up at night and would pray a lot. He wanted me to tell him some great secret. When I had nothing to tell him, I think he made shit up.” I can still smell the memory of cedar in the room and the sun burnt people who watched over me.
“One Christmas he tried to get me to go out there again. But my case manager didn’t think he was stable enough to provide a healthy environment. The last letter I got from him was just before the new millennium. He ranted on about the coming tribulations, about those that will be risen up and those that won’t. He had written me off as one of those who would stay behind because I had denied that which the Lord had granted me. The irony of it all is that I never felt that any Lord granted me anything. I’ve come to believe that we are all capable of experiencing more then we see and believe, if we happened to allow it. I think believing the Lord was behind it all made it easier for him to accept all that changed afterwards.”
“Who died?” Her words pull me, like a cord, back in time.
“My sister was born a couple of months prior. Everyone talked about the sibling rivalry that happens with a new baby in the family, but from that first day I saw her, when my mom came home from the hospital, she was the star in my sky.”
“What was her name?” She’s running her fingers through my hair, and I try not to slip into oblivion.
“Julie.” It’s been a thousand years since I last said that name out loud. “They put her crib in my room after the first few months. My father had intentions of buying a house within the year. When I woke up I was pretty dazed and stunned. It took a few minutes before I processed the whole thing. Everything played out in my mind in slow motion while I lay there. What was playing in my mind was nothing I could relate to. It was this whole new scenario I wasn’t really prepared for, and it wasn’t some pearly gates fantasy with winged infants and white clouds. It was an end. I just wasn’t sure to what and when, but it was going to be ugly, and a lot of people were going to be suffering for it.
“Julie was awake in her crib, and I got up to see her. That’s when I noticed this throbbing in my head. I stumbled to the crib and there was Julie just staring out into nothing. She had that amazed look babies have; everything was new, even her own hands and voice.
“I lowered the bar to her crib and climbed in with her. I wasn’t that big a kid, skin and bones mostly, so the bed held my weight all right. She was warm and smelled like lavender and baby powder. I had just added a whole new universe to her perception. I started humming a song, and she hummed along in her own baby way. She finally fell back asleep after awhile.” I stop and my mind feels as if a switch has been hit. The dictation machine begins to warm up, and the tape starts to turn.
“I put my hand over her face. Her breath warmed a small spot on my palm that had turned ice cold. I watched her as she slept; unaware of anything that was going on. I couldn’t imagine her being a part of what I had seen. Back when my mom was pregnant a friend of ours had a baby that died shortly after being born. Everyone said the baby was an angel, that all babies became angels when they died because they never did anything wrong. I knew Julie was better off an angel.
I apologized to her and told her she would be better off in heaven. I told her I loved her, and that I hoped she could watch over me. I told her to tell God that it wasn’t her fault. My mom found me in the crib the next morning.”
The tape has busted and is now turning violently in its wheel. My face is wet and warm and my vision blurred by the salt. Isabel, rocking back and forth, swaying me along in the rhythm; the river gushes out, and I hear her humming a song.