|Jan/Feb 2013 Fiction|
Don't lose sight of yourself, my mother has grown fond of saying, as if self were a thing to be tailed, sneakily, headlights off. Her voice—I'd forgotten it—so high and tight, a corset-wearer's voice, panting and gaspy and somehow stretched, like the Wicked Witch of the West while melting. She likes to pinch flesh, then frown at the marks left on my thighs. My great-great-grandparents, back in Korea, allegedly tried to bind her feet while she was staying with them for a summer, so I guess I'm lucky. Still.
I suspect she uses her free time to rearrange my furniture and then drag it back. The books in my bookshelves have all been "organized" by size: Sophocles and Austen, cozy thanks to their Penguin bindings; Pliny settles next to the textbook of a low-level philosophy course I'd taken on a whim, one of those classes where if you used the word love instead of eros you were sent into the hall; Borges and Bunyan, she got lucky there. Pilgrim's Progress is a dream sequence, and coincidently the only Borges story I can remember is the one about the man who, while dreaming a man into existence, discovers he himself has been dreamed.
Since I kissed one of my students, it has felt necessary to plot out my own dreamscape. Sometimes I believe my life can be big—epic even—with heroes and battles, all the conventions. I suppose making out with a student falls low on the spectrum of glamorous themes. Perhaps I've finally done it and fallen completely in love with my work. Yuck. My mother used to say that a woman who sleeps next to books instead of men can only wake up to papercuts. Cherry can be clever like that.
"Let's get back to your love life, girlfriend."
She is guileless, my mother, brutal, and she has mustard above her lip. Every night we eat out. Spago or California Pizza Kitchen, nothing fancy, but Cherry whips out my father's MasterCard so fast, I swear she keeps it in her cleavage. Tonight we've ordered Animal Style burgers off In-N-Out's secret menu. We sit in our loud red booth and kick each other's ankles by accident. After every bite I shift the food to one side of my mouth and hold it there, as if the options are limitless.
The mustard looms like a bright yellow moon.
"We've covered this. I'm getting high A's in the love department."
Cherry makes a face. She hates when I even mention academia. She always wanted me to model, said there weren't enough Koreans in the magazines. There aren't enough in the Humanities either, but I rarely bring that up.
"You have a little..." I hand her a napkin, mime wiping my own upper lip.
"Oh, oh, oh."
She won't tell me what the fight with my dad entailed. All I know is that instead of driving the usual three miles to the nearest hotel, she found it necessary to hop a plane to LA and invade the crawl space I call my spare room.
"You think this is, like, the Mother Load, right?" she said as we were moving her in, one suitcase at a time, each bag bulging in an exaggerated way, almost too "thrown together." (Why, Mother! How angry you must have been to pack so poorly!)
I agreed with Cherry; there was wear and tear between us. Too many rinse-cycles, too much tumble dry. "But I also think," I said, "that this is my chance to prove to you, once and for all, that I'm actually happy, you know, this way." It might have been convincing, if I weren't sweating bullets from carrying all the luggage.
"Sure you are, girlfriend," Cherry squealed. I prefer my father's voice, gritty but gentle, as country as they come. If intonation governs any large part of human attraction, it's true my parents are ill-suited. They are like the bass and tenor parts of a barbershop quartet, floundering through their omitted melody.
Cherry dabs at her lip with a dampened corner of the napkin. A week has gone by, and all her moving in with me has so far ensured is that I can't get any work done. As we sit here, chewing the fat, I imagine I can hear the pages on my latest article begin to curl. I am supposed to be examining the interminable final monologues of legendary Roman characters poisoned, set aflame, or run through with their own swords. Whirlpool-swirling the ketchup smeared on my paper placemat, I think of Pallas, Creusa, and, ahhh, Dido.
The placemats here come bedecked with advertisements for In-N-Out hats and t-shirts, expounding in bubble lettering their less than subtle slogan: In-N-Out—that's what a hamburger's all about!
Cherry takes a brush from her purse and pats her hair all over with it, the way older women do, not really brushing at all. She looks at me expectantly, but I put my finger in my mouth and shrug. The man I am technically dating, Brent, is no one to write home about. He is distinguished-looking, well-off, older. So what if he looks at me the way children look at the candy that's filled with more candy, like I have a center he wants at? Brent keeps a hot hand on the small of my back, always. He opens the doors to nice places, then pays for the things inside them.
"He's a lawyer," I say to Cherry. "He's very lawyerly."
Whenever I make jokes, Brent's guffaws always indicate the same mild surprise, and when I drink, he tips up the bottom of my glass.
"He has a kind of a booming laugh, and flecks of gray in his hair."
"Flecks! Well, now." Cherry reaches to fluff my unfluffable bangs. "I'm sorry, Dahlia, I have to say it: I'm relieved. I came here with two words on my tongue: Online Dating. It's not just for fat girls anymore."
"I want all your options open. I think of you sometimes, and you know what I see? A big sign like they put out in town when shops go under." Cherry raises her hands and spaces them a ruler's length apart. "Closed for Business."
I take another bite, picturing other signs Cherry might see in the boyfriendless intervals: Now Hiring. For Sale. No Vacancy. Recently, someone vandalized the marquee at the McDonald's near campus, so that it read Now Hiring Losers, rather than Closers. I watch Cherry chew. Thirty times each bite, she instructed me when I was little, or else the food wouldn't properly digest, and chunks of it would gather in my thighs. She told me that if I wore more blues and browns, instead of the pinks and grays I liked, my eyes would actually expand. That girls who climbed trees were 60% more likely to get varicose veins. That rich boys were better kissers.
When Brent and I met, My mother would like you was one of the first thoughts I had. "A professor, huh?" Brent barked, and in his voice I heard cigarettes, money, age, then money again. My mind next went to Cherry. Must have been a psychic spurt, a warning from the Fates, who I know like to trip you up, no matter how loyal you are to them, no matter how much you compliment their vicious, ugly designs. "Keep it up, girls!" you can shout, but they only sneer and cackle, run at you with scissors.
"Girlfriend!" Cherry squeals, loud enough to draw looks from the group of kids two booths over. "I'm so proud!"
I can only shrug, again. I am missing my student, his long face and arms. How he sets the curve. He knows about Brent. He says he's seen us "around together," and he says it in this hangdog way only the very young have.
Cherry does a sort of sweeping slide over to my side of the booth, crossing a leg over mine. "Why wait so long to tell me, huh? Is he black? Is he Catholic? Is he over 70?"
"He's ... whatever. We were set up. It's not like destiny. I'll tell you when it's destiny."
"No, I'll tell you when it's destiny." Cherry leans down so that she is looking up at my face, the ends of her hair grazing the wrapper of the burger I've somehow eaten half of. "Pssst," she whispers. "It's destiny!" She pokes at a spot below my ribcage, tickling, and to elude her I stand, feeling a resentment flowering warmly out from the spot she touched. Why such brightness? What is destiny to her?
I sit down on hard red plastic, across from my mother and my original seat, waiting and tugging at my hair—a nervous habit—with greasy fingers. My father is a forgiving man, not the fool she is always making him out to be. A week alone with her is enough to turn me, in his eyes, complicit. By allowing her to pretend she's come here just for me—for the scoop!—I've been made complicit in his humiliation.
Outside, a Volvo pulls out from the drive-thru and finds itself blocked by an SUV attempting to enter, unpardonably, the lane marked Exit. The sharp bursts of the Volvo's horn gradually lengthens to a smooth legato, conducting the larger car off of the curb and back into the street, where it sits, like a predator robbed of its nerve.
I turn back to Cherry, scraping at scraps of melted cheese with the remnants of her fries. She is not a hard woman to fool, but the thought of the continued effort it will require worries me. I watch the group of kids to my left, the girls in their impertinent tees: Goddess. Trouble. With my student I've insisted, for the most part, on mere handholding, thigh-grazing, tugging on the ends of hair. I believe what has happened between us is no one's fault, and I tell him so, constantly. It all began so unromantically, after all. At the drugstore where we ran into each other, me shabbily dressed, over my head in over-the-counter cold medicines and clutching a bottle of children's Dimetapp to my dry, naked cheeks, I confessed to him, "I am something of a hypochondriac." He replied quietly, touching my hair.
"What do you steal?"
"I... what? No, not a kleptomaniac. A hypochondriac."
"Oh. Oh, shit, I'm an idiot."
We both laughed, his fingers still so inconceivably close to my face, warm and quivering like a bird. The next day the two of us stayed after class to go over his homework sentence by sentence, only our sleeves touching. You are not an idiot, I thought. I am an idiot.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked. He scooted closer to my side of the double desk.
I circled his improperly constructed second person plural imperative of the verb to lead, not answering him. This boy. Who knew nothing of hard luck or ill fortune. He'd seen me greasy-haired and out in the world, so?
"Talk about what?" I asked. He could rotate his pen around each knuckle, so that it appeared to dance upon his hand.
We were doing the Aeneid, Book II. While I marked his translation, he talked about his family. His parents were drunks, he said, but they drank together. They'd come home wasted and squeezing each other, and in the mornings my student would come upon them, entwined. Had he read it at the time, it would have reminded him, he said, of Laocoon and his boys in the Aeneid, killed by Athena's twin snake assassins. "Because when I read that, I was like, Wow, what a way to go, you know? But it was also like I'd seen it before somewhere. It was familiar."
The next morning I assured him there would be no more incidents, no more improprieties—"Enough of this monkey-business" was what I said. We were in my office with the door closed. He fumbled with my stapler, and he stapled his thumb.
Cherry leans confidentially across the table, taking my hands from my hair but keeping them cupped around my face. "I want to meet him," she says "This man of our dreams." She does not smile. Our booth is so close to the public restrooms, I can hear the toilets flushing. The tabletop itself is a sticky mass of dried food.
"I feel sick," I say.
Cherry removes her hands.
"Seriously, I may vomit."
"Here, my water." She tilts her cup. "Oh wait, there's just ice in there. I'll get some water."
I lean over, letting my face hover inches above the table's surface. When Cherry is back, I am grateful for the water and her quick return. I look at her over the cup's rim, and I try to admire her as a woman. My mother wants one thing for me: the security that comes with a man in love, a smitten man, a man hooked in, a man enveloped. As far as she knows, I am searching for exactly this. I've been telling her the same lie for years, confidently, like someone good at one dirty joke.
But this isn't what makes me randomly ill. Other things do that.
Like for instance, stacked on his leather couch, Brent has pillows covered with the pelt of deer. The pillows have a softness one strictly associates with the living. Yet there they are, un-alive and propping up bodies. They are worse than tacky, these pillows. They are cruel.
I've described them to my student. "You're an animal lover, like me," he said. "My cat—you know my cat, but here's what you don't know about my cat—what you don't know is she can control the weather."
I laughed. I had pitted him against Brent in a fight he could win, easily, and he knew it. Cat-lover against skinner of deer.
"I know—some Cat!" he went on. "So early one morning I asked for a snow day, and she was like, Done. Then later in the afternoon she began bleeding from the face. I've never asked her for anything since."
I decide to tell this story to Cherry, leaving out the part with Brent, and referring to my student as "this young man I used to teach."
My mother begins gathering our trash. "Isn't that something?" I say.
She piles our crumpled napkins and torn ketchup packets on our stacked trays. "So this is what happens in your classroom?"
"We dazzle each other, Mom. More or less."
It's late by the time we get back in the car. The clock on my dash says 10:32. While my mother is here, I'd hoped to find a suitable substitute routine: two hours a night for grading, 100 words for my article. Weekends hold the occasional departmental functions, where I like to joke with the younger faculty about the fliers for parties our students stuff in our faculty mailboxes—the hopeful notes from doting freshmen (See you there!?) scrawled in the corners—joke about actually showing up, one of these nights. The truth is I love being a popular teacher. I tell my students important things. How to pick a ripe avocado. The difference between men and women.
Men, for example, don't pack their entire lives into Tumi luggage just to make a point, while women do. Some women.
We take the quiet surface streets, Cherry rummaging in my glove compartment. "What are you looking for, proof of registration?" I ask. "A gun?"
"Let's go somewhere," she says. "You're all better now, right? Take me on a tour of ... what's it called? The Strip? The Vine? Which way's Rodeo Drive?" She rolls down her window to lean her face to the breeze, dog-like. "Call your boyfriend. We'll hit the town, girlfriend."
Before I know I'm doing it, I stick my tongue between my lips and blow.
Cherry rolls up her window. I feel my hand taken off the wheel and squeezed. "Coming here was my choice," she says, sighing. "The life I was living? Fluff. It wasn't real, not like yours could be." When we reach the final turn, contents spill from the open glove compartment. "I want a real life for you, girlfriend, I really do."
I am watching the road, eyes peeled for parking. Clearly Cherry is still hoping the two of us might somehow stumble into our old pattern. Back in Arkansas, we were the only Asians in one tiny white town, and we strutted our exotic stuff over cracked sidewalks, past Piggly Wigglies and through restaurants with 5-item menus. But by now we've assimilated differently—Cherry, alone in her skin, in my father's pale South, and me here in LA. To get along we'll have to improvise, endure the way my students, when they cannot translate Virgil exactly, often come quite close. Close enough, I tell them. As a teacher I know I shouldn't. As a teacher it is my job to make distinctions, to tell them, Yes, it's okay to be wrong, but only when you don't know it.
Cherry unlocks the door of my apartment with the key I copied for her. She walks straight to the guestroom, humming, swinging her purse. Across the hall, I close the door to my own room behind me.
What I like best lately is to picture my student in my apartment as it was before Cherry arrived. I picture him sitting on the edge of my bed, fidgeting with my quilt, rubbing at the black ink stain I can't figure out how to effectively hide. The clock says 11:15. I get into bed, pull the quilt up to my chin. If he were here, he'd inspect the art on my walls, the size of my closet. He'd smile at all the clutter and the candles burned down to their wicks. "It smells like you," he'd say, squeezing the stuffed cow I keep on my chest of drawers.
I do not worry about his anonymous course evaluation. What he might say to the question, How available is the professor outside of class? How he'll rate my level of enthusiasm. I can see him writing something like, Professor Burke certainly taught me a thing or two, in the space for additional comments. In parentheses, wink, wink.
"I'd never do that," my student's image protests, smiling. He saunters toward me. "You must have me confused."
When I open my eyes, my mother is there.
At home, where my routine remains, for all appearances, invulnerably inflexible, Cherry's face masks itself into a resentment just as rigid, though one look in my closet, which houses three pairs of almost offensively simple pumps, can send her barreling into the halls. In high school she'd call me in sick and we'd go shoe shopping, sometimes driving all the way to Tulsa or the Park Plaza in Little Rock, just to find heels to match a skirt in a precise shade of aquamarine.
Now I feel bad. If I had less on my mind, great and mutual realizations might occur. We are meeting as women in a place beyond our origins! I want to see her as a real woman, a brave one who has taken flight across country, for there seems a kind of heroism in the decision, beyond its theatrics. Running straight from the dark into more dark. It isn't as if she showed up at my doorstep with mascara trails, pleading for refuge. She gave me warning with a flight number, time to imagine the worst. But I'd imagined nothing. I downed Tylenol PM's. I dreamed dark dreams in which I removed the staples from every stapler I came across.
Cherry opens her mouth a few times, fishlike, at the foot of my bed, eyes taking in the tomes and scraps covering the right side of the comforter, head to foot, which, if one squints hard enough, and from the proper distance, can take the disjointed shape of a prone human beside me.
"We'll go out tomorrow," I tell her.
She nods and leaves the room. I pry both eyelids open with my fingers. Then I hold them open, just like that.
The next evening the phone rings. I grab for it like the last little bit of something on a plate, saying Hello just as Cherry does, from another phone, from somewhere else in the apartment, and I try not to think of that horror movie I saw as a child, the one where the babysitter finds out the creepy phone calls are coming from inside the house!
I hear the click of my mother hanging up.
"Have you got her liquored up yet?" Merritt asks. "Soused?"
"Merritt! Hi! Feel like going out?"
"Oh, God, your voice. Don't move."
Merritt is my best friend. I know because it is hardest to lie to her. I promise, "Not a muscle," and listen to her rummaging.
"Hey, you hear this? This is me literally running for my keys. Now I'm sprinting out the door. I'm getting you out of there."
I chomp hard on a nail, sending ripples up my teeth. "I can't promise we'll end up alone."
Merritt takes everything in stride; even so, she has the patience of a gnat. I hear her car rumble and start up, it seems, grudgingly. "For Christ's sake, Dahlia, how about laying down the law for once? Give the woman a deadline."
"She's family," I say, though it sounds like She's dying, or She's dead.
"Oh, please," Merritt scoffs. "You know the rule about premeditated crimes."
"Which?" I ask.
"The sentences are always longer."
I've known Merritt since college. My mother doesn't like her, I think because she keeps her shoes on in the house. I ask Merritt what she means.
"I don't know. This is me running a stop sign, by the way. I mean you're the victim here. Hey..." I can hear car horns blowing the C major scale. "Don't be the victim. It's the story of your whole life." Merritt says this, for some reason, with twang. "You ever get her to listen to a single thing you tell her, and I promise I'll clap with one hand. Then we can all plant a tree, cut it down, and watch it fall noiselessly."
Merritt is a teacher, too. High school. She has clear ideas of what is possible.
We hang up. What I didn't tell her is I've already promised Cherry drinks, with Brent, tonight, and Merritt isn't Brent's biggest fan. "Oh, he's just a doll," is all she'll say about him, once adding, "a really creepy one." I call her back to break the news. I hear no peeling brakes, but she does hang up.
Ten minutes later the doorbell rings. "Everybody ready for this?" Merritt asks once inside, as if we are about to go witness an execution or a live birth.
Brent orders Oktoberfests for everyone. When we arrive, Cherry, overdressed in a silk skirt, sashays into the seat right next to him. Brent makes the expected comments about Cherry looking far too young to be anyone's mother—why, he must be at the wrong bar! Cherry smiles big enough to reveal gums. Merritt orders a basket of crinkle cheese fries and a back-up jack and coke, saying, "Thanks a million," to the waiter.
It is trivia night, reserved for Westwood's finest graduate students and businesspersons who wish they were still graduate students. I like the crowd. The rules say no cellphones or Google, but tables are known to trade answers—The Red Badge of Courage author for Gerald Ford's middle name—and I like to see the young men, leaning over, rubbing their patchy beards, whispering to tidy women and men in business-black and shiny shoes.
It goes like this: the MC asks his questions via a PowerPoint presentation displayed on a projector screen at the back of the bar. Brent can be counted on for vice-presidents and grammatical exceptions. Merritt has Science covered, and I am in charge of antiquity. Cherry, of course, is a wild-card. Already she is deep into small-talk with Brent, so who knows how much help she'll be.
"Just tell me you're not personal injury," she says, rocking slightly on her stool and gripping the table with just the tips of her fingers, meekly.
"Nope," Brent assures her. "Family law."
I'm not crazy about the spot he's chosen—a high table in the corner, closer to the kitchen staff than anyone else. Plates clanking, water running, my mother's squealing laughter: this will be my soundtrack for the night.
"You might even come in handy," Cherry says. "As long as you know nine times out of ten it's the man's fault, right?"
"More like 75 out of 100," Brent grins. He nudges my foot under the table. "It's a big firm."
"I didn't think divorce was anyone's fault anymore," Merritt says in her distracted way. The waitresses here wear very short skirts, and she is eyeing them critically. "At this point isn't it government subsidized? It can fall anywhere between chicken pox vaccinations and Social Security?" Merritt nudges her drink toward me, and I take a drink. She's been married before, post-college, prior to moving to L.A. I don't know much, just that it ended "honestly and amicably," though the way Merritt said it, I imagined the episode was "honest" the way those Princess tees covering the gangly bodies of those In-N-Out girls are honest. I asked her once how you were supposed to know something was over, that you weren't in love anymore. "Oh, I don't know," she answered. "You keep buying the underwear that comes in the five-pack, I guess."
"By now divorce is probably an option in all sorts of Medicaid plans," Merritt is saying now, tilting her chair until it rests on two legs. "No Marriage Left Behind."
"Who said divorce?" Cherry innocently bats her eyes.
I blow a raspberry into the bar's sudden silence—the MC, in his standard Jack FM black t-shirt, glances our way. He's readied the projector for the game; amidst the curling smoke of the bar hovers the first question: Who invented the polio vaccine?
"Salk," Merritt whispers. She writes it in pencil on our lime-green score card The first questions always come fast (later come the gaps meant to encourage more drinking, the bar filling up with smoke, with belches and uncertainty): capital of Ecuador (Quito), youngest Beatle (Paul, according to a generous UCLA Sig Ep on his way to the men's room), what is triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13). We get stumped on what the H's in 4-H stand for.
"Dad would know," I say. "He used to go to those competitions in high school. I know one of them is Health. Let me think."
"Isn't it something like horticulture...?
"Husbandry?" Brent suggests.
I groan in frustration. "God, Dad would know this."
My mother makes a harrumph noise.
"What? He would."
"Somebody here knows," Cherry looks around, eyes narrowed. "We don't need your hick father here to win a stupid contest. Anyway, this is LA—no one cares about the 4-H club, which means no one here knows the answer, which means this question doesn't count anyway."
That's when I notice Cherry's hand gripping Brent's jacket sleeve. I see how close she is to him, practically in his lap. This is new. I assumed she came all the way out here for the usual reasons: Dad neglected the yard-work again, refused to exercise, or chose hunting over Sunday brunch one too many times. But as I watch my mother lean into Brent, a thought comes to me with perfect clarity, like the answer to a trivia question you know but can't remember learning. My parents have stopped touching each other, I think.
Cherry wants to be touched.
I feel myself flush, and what happens next is frightening, for I feel, eyes closed, that I am looking impossibly into my own face. Now is not the time to remember, but I do remember, what else happened that day, after class. Inside my office with its bare cream walls, "I believe you're a great teacher," my student whispered, and then I let him put his hands on me.
I pull myself together, start to say something to my mother. That word—hick—stung. But the next question drowns me out: What is the oldest college in the United States?
"This one I know," Brent says. "It's Harvard."
"You sure it's not Yale?" Merritt says. "Why am I thinking Yale?"
"I'm pretty sure Harvard."
"Ask Dahlia, she's the ivy-leaguer or whatever it's called." Cherry rolls her eyes. "She should know. Tell them about your students calling you at home and using your first name. Sooo hip, girlfriend."
"My goal in life," I say. Brent laughs his booming laugh. I am beginning to dread the prospect of the two of them drunk together.
"Please. You give these kids the wrong idea, and then what?"
I consider defending myself: it is college, after all, everything barely adult, everyone finding his shapes and limits. Instead of knowing the world as they've planned, I can say, most will digest only its sparest parts. And they'll miss home—imagine missing that! In class we've all agreed: Tragedy means the loss of something gloriously experienced. It is bigger than the pain from any old Never Was.
Finally the fries arrive. Someone, not our waitress, deposits the basket on the table's edge. Though Merritt ordered them, we all fumble with our utensils, unrolling our napkins so everything clatters onto the table. Brent takes my napkin and places it in my lap, his hands lingering.
"Excuse me for loving what I do," I say, brushing his touch away. "You open yourself up to people, you make yourself understand their histories, and doesn't it help you make sense of your own?"
Cherry's eyes threaten to roll right out of her head. She clings, smooths Brent's tie, and she is coming into focus for me, then blurring again. My eyes sting from the smoke and effort. Our glasses are empty, and no one has come to take them away, to ask after us, for it feels like a long time.
"I'm a lawyer," Brent says. "I know about history. All you need to know about history is it repeats itself."
"Yes," Merritt says, "it gets old, doesn't it?" I can tell she is getting impatient, poking her own thigh with the tines of her fork. She keeps looking at me like, "What's the story here?" And God do I feel like telling her, right here, everything. Merritt my friend.
"I'll tell you what gets old," Cherry says. "People. People get old. Who cares about history?"
I don't respond. Round one is almost over. The group at the table closest to us keeps high-fiving each other; they are all wearing graphic tees under sport coats, all their drinks past half full. I stuff my face with Merritt's fries.
"Where's the fire?" Brent asks. I have to swallow, hard, against the lumps in my throat. Brent leans away from me. We've spoken of our respective upbringings before, the same night I told him sex just wasn't part of the picture, at which he assumed the posture of a criminal caught in the act, holding his hands way up. "I don't know what I'd do without my parents," I listened to him say. "Probably I'd be the same. Probably I'd just do this." And then he just sat there, looking around. It shouldn't be, I thought, that parents either damaged you irrevocably or left no effect whatsoever behind. But if it had to be, you should at least know which category you belonged in.
"I feel sick," I say. Pushing the basket aside, I lay one ear against the table, can hear the tapping of someone's nervous foot against one of the legs below.
"Come on, Dahlia. Don't do this." Cherry's voice. Disappointed, cautionary. How my father desired her! At times it embarrassed me, how I could sense his plain longing—even when Cherry was in the same room, mere steps away. How he wanted her! Sooner or later that longing must reach us here, curl around my apartment windows like Prufrock's yellow fog. I lift my head, feel sweat beading above my lip, and I watch Brent's gaze arrive there, narrow, and depart.
"Do we need to get you out of here?" Merritt asks, already standing up and pushing in her chair. She takes my sweaty hand. Around her I feel criminal. Merritt, who knows life can't be epic, not when it's so fucking ridiculous.
"You realize we're leaving without the answers," Brent says as he holds open the door.
"I'm fine," I theatrically reply, "with the answers I already have."
At home, my mother wastes no time. "I think you're a stupid girl. You blew it tonight. Boy, you really blew it, Dahlia."
"You, however, seemed to have made quite the impression. 'Who said divorce?'" I imitate, batting my eyes.
Cherry glares. "You need to decide what kind of attention you want, girly. Listen to me—you've got to treat your beauty like it's borrowed. Because it is!" She shifts her purse from hand to hand, undoing the clasp, reclasping it. "We spend all this time getting ready for tonight, and by the end you're stuffing your face and sweating like a pig. Great strategy, girlfriend. Really great."
I turn away from her. She knows nothing, nothing about the point I've reached, where thinking of a boy can energize my whole self. Someone worships you, and you can find yourself buoyed up by only that, your more respectable longings reduced to peas beneath the mattress. She knows nothing. Not how tired I am of these diversions, these flings. I want something in my life to go on and on before stopping, and to be worth talking about at the end.
Cherry comes around to me. I notice a run in her left stocking, all the way down; it disappears between her toes. "The bigger and the better, that's what we're after, right? He really tried tonight. And don't you dare spit at that!" Without warning she grabs my face, her fingers locked into my cheeks like a muzzle. "Where do you think you come from?" It feels like my entire jaw will disintegrate in her grasp. The way she holds it I have to look at her, right in her eyes. "He's a good man," Cherry snarls. "Accept it."
Finally I break away, pushing past her and into my bedroom, where I look down at my bed, stare down at it, as if at some crime, and massage the joints of my jaw. With my mother, it is never her expectations that pain me. What are anyone's expectations but irritations? Once I'd stepped on a nail and it went all the way through my foot. Now that was pain. It changed my walk, and with that, maybe my whole path.
My worn Aeneid I keep under my pillow, like a diary, and my fingers retrieve it automatically. I read it to calm down, to get my mind off or on track, depending. Sometimes I even read it like I wrote it, like it can give me clues, remind me who I am. I skim pages with my fingers, linger on Book II's description of Aeneas carrying his father out of Troy on his back. Would we carry our mothers like that?—I have penciled this in the margins. Then I wrote over the pencil in pen. When did I do that?
I remember her invading my sleep-overs in high school, listening in on my phone conversations, and then knocking on my door after I hung up so she could give her opinion. Eventually she stopped knocking altogether. She'd walk right into my room with the portable phone pressed to her ear, a finger to her lips. Once, while Crystal Fleck was telling me how a boy I'd turned down had fingered her at a party, Cherry reeled in making gagging noises.
Jaw throbbing, I look up to find Cherry standing over me. I never hear her coming anymore. The woman pads her way to where you stand, and then she is upon you.
"How many times do you think a woman can make the mistake of her life?" she asks. "I'd say you're tempting fate here, if I ever believed in it."
"You've always believed in it."
"That's just what I wanted you to think."
"Mother, at this point, you might as well start speaking in tongues, because I can't tell the difference. I'm sorry you can't understand what's important to me. That what's important is..." I stop, struggling. I don't know how to explain. The bigger and the better, that's what we're after! This is Cherry's philosophy; it explains all the family trips to Hong Kong, to Aruba. She met my father almost by accident. In Vegas—he was there for a bachelor party, his first trip outside the South. He would have moved anywhere in the world for her. But we stayed in Arkansas, because according to Cherry the only way to appreciate the bigger and the better was to live there, in the smaller and worse.
Now all I can see is her scooting closer to Brent in the booth, rubbing the fabric of his expensive suit between her fingers.
"What's important to me is not what's important to you."
Cherry sucks in her breath.
The phone makes both of us start. She leaps to answer it but I get there first. An unfamiliar voice, a man's voice, calls me by name. "Dahlia," he says.
Cherry moves to snatch the phone but catches herself. She pulls her hand back, then reaches out again. Her eyes have gone weird, sort of shadowy and hard, like the ocean at night, and I swear that's when I feel it: my whole past, filling all the way up with error. I swear I feel the weight of it, gathering. I read once that the reason the ocean inspires people is because it is too big to hide. But this is wrong—the ocean hides everything! Occasionally it washes things up, but never because it wants to. Given the chance, it would swallow again everything it has ever spit out.
"I don't have much time to talk," my father says, pausing anyway. Error sprouts in the center of my chest and spreads. "I need you to do me a favor," he says, "and tell your mother to stop calling."
"What do you mean? She's been calling you?"
I stare at my mother; she has crumpled onto the bed, fist shoved in her mouth. "He said he wouldn't, he wouldn't," I hear her say.
"Yes, she has." My father stops, sighs. "But I need time to think about things. Tell her that. I love you."
I listen to the dead air that follows my father's goodbye, before I place the phone back in its cradle, gently, like a living wounded thing. I sit next to my mother. I still have those shoes, the aquamarine with a three-inch wedge heel. They are in a box in the back of the guestroom closet. I see myself retrieving them, slipping them on, fixing everything.
Cherry removes her fist from her mouth as delicately as if she's just used it to blot her lipstick. She smiles. "What difference does it make who left who? I say, 'Fine, Dahlia needs me anyway,' and you do. So I came."
"Because I needed you." I notice that for once our voices have entered the same octave, but I can't help thinking that, being finally in line, they will only eclipse each other.
"He'll come to his senses," Cherry pulls me closer, pats my hand. "By then I'll be long gone."
"Where will you be?"
"Somewhere." She looks around, as if she's mislaid, nearby, the directions. "Here, maybe."
"But you can't stay here!"
We sag on opposite sides of my bed, like a couple in a fight. "I mean, you can't stay here forever," I add, lamely. Lying makes me foolish with words. "I mean I want you to stay before you leave." I stop. Cherry looks at me strangely, almost smiling. I remember how, on the first day of the Aeneid, in class, my student stood up to read the opening line of his translation—"I sing of the man's arms..." and almost before the words were out of his mouth I jumped in to correct him: "Arms and the man! Arms and the man!" As if correcting error prematurely didn't simply add to the error, capitalize the error!
Upstairs someone heavy-footed is tromping around. Cherry raises her misty eyes to the ceiling. She looks at me. I have no answers. "Remember you were here with me," she says, lifting up her frame as she speaks, as if someone behind me is listening, as if this is the crucial thing. "Remember you were with me when I learned what it is to be ruined. Remember," she says, wiping furiously at her eyes, "for when it happens to you."
Suddenly I am standing. This is historical—is my absurd thought—and I have to outrun it. History itself! Not everyone resorts to the silly birdspeech of it, not me! I believe this, even as I feel doubt, every day, sharpening itself against my stone heart.
I find myself outside, then at my car at the curb, so I get in, start it, rotate the dashboard dials to heat. I hold my fingers to the vents as the engine warms, staring into the dark backseat of the car parked in front of mine.
Don't lose sight of yourself.
The car purrs around me, reliable and warm. Ready for movement, adventure. I define the hero the same as the rest of my colleagues, in a vocabulary esoteric and, if I am not careful, insincere. But what if everything could slim itself down, and the hero becomes just the person who takes on a burden, any burden? Perhaps he staples his own thumbs.
"I want to see you," I call and tell my student.
"I want to see you!" he gasps as he answers, and it is as if we've discovered something magical and significant, as if we've just had the same dream.
Calmly, composedly, we decide on a motel.
I drive there unsure, hitting all the red lights.
Finally the motel looms in the windshield, like something in a Ruscha. Parked in a lot spotted with SUV's strapped with car-top carriers, I try to pull myself together, calling for the part of me that recognizes the good idea in this. I am escaping the tired version of myself—not everyone can do this. If this is deceit, it is the necessary kind. It will uncover some bigger truth. Truths! Plural! For there are truths that can only be stumbled upon, like there are last words unworthy of being last. Because you have to say something.
My student and I agreed on a room number, 317, the start of my favorite verse in Book II. Arma amens capio; nec sat rationis in armis, sed glomerare manum bello et concurrere in arcem cum sociis ardent animi; furor iraque mentem praecipitant, pulchrumque mori succurrit in armis. A flight of exterior stairs lead right to the room's door. The curtains are drawn. I knock—twice, three times. Pulchrumque mori succurrit in armis. I back up, arms stretched behind me, groping for the rusted railing. I stare at the door. What if he is in there and not okay? I think. What if he's tripped? He could be lying there, half-alive, my knocks echoing faintly in his broken head. I rush to the door and pound on it—"Let me in!" I am crying and thinking—Who is this woman? Above me, a door opens and footsteps sound. My fist flies into my mouth. "Get ice," says a woman's voice.
"You betcha. You like your M&M's peanut or plain?"
"Surprise me," she says. "Wait, no! Peanut!" I hear the man chuckle, the door close. His steps fade down the walkway. I suck on my fist and taste tears.
My student is not in that room. I will have to deal with that. He has not shown up. If I had knocked on Brent's door tonight, like this, he would have opened it wide—"Gorgeous!" But young men are not the same. The young are young enough where the things they do don't have to matter, don't even have to be mistakes if they don't want them to be, but I am not so lucky. Not anymore. I am a liar lying to myself.
I retreat down the steps, wiping my hands on my blouse; pieces of the railing have flecked off and stuck to my palms.
In the lot, I find his car. He is inside with his head on the wheel, the ends of his hair curling over it. I knock on the passenger window; he unlocks the door and lets me in. Together we look straight ahead at the Chevron station across the street, plastic bags covering the pumps of the self-serve stations.
"This as far as you got?"
He nods, fiddling with his car's cigarette lighter, pushing it in, twisting it. I tell him about going to the door. He looks at me then. He flings his body toward me until the seatbelt catches; he has not even taken it off.
"Dahlia, I'm sorry," he says, reaching, clutching at a handful of my skirt's material. "Did you think...? God, you didn't think I'd stood you up?"
I nod, tugging the ends of my hair. "Maybe it's better," I say. "I'm not sure I'm ready to find out something like this about myself." The lighter pops out and I take it, hold the burning circle above his hand. In the Borges story, the man discovers his dreamstate after encountering fire that will not burn him. The point being, I guess, that's how you know you're inside a dream: when what should hurt, doesn't.
"I've probably told you this before," I say to my student, "but all that happens when you get older, is you become less and less who everyone wanted you to be."
"Then what?" he says. He hasn't moved his hand, or taken his eyes from mine. My cheeks feel stiff, as if I'd been crying, and I remember that I have.
"Then you become more."
Walking toward the front desk, I think about how it is the variety of my students' translation mistakes that always impress me. How everything, any word or phrase, can be translated wrongly, and vastly, and regardless of context. No matter where you are in the story, you can pick the wrong next word. Everyone can understand this, even this front desk clerk might understand, and perhaps he will look at me, as I ask for a key for the night, not with any voyeuristic leer but with an expression of comprehension that says, I've been there. Not where you are exactly, but I know what happens to resolve. I've seen it age, stringy-muscled, insist on the heavy lifting anyway; I've heard it cry out, in pain.
"I'm sorry I'm so immature," says my student, once we enter the room. The air conditioner squeaks and blasts frigid air; he turns its knob to the Fan setting, and then to Off. Everything is as I expected, or should have expected, even the stale hotel smell underneath the air's coolness. But the bed is soft. Nothing here is looming. How could a woman ruin herself here? Here, a woman could begin. I see myself heaving Cherry's luggage out my door tomorrow, handing her this room's key—I am that sick. I am about to live my dream with this boy, and these dreams are my sickness, these epic dreams. I am hoping with his warm body next to me and real, my dreams will change. And that inside them I can interpret them—where better?
There are no real stories. I know that now. Only translations, which are like gifts that are given some assembly required. All the parts are there, I tell myself, as I decide to love this boy. Like any point of heat or light, this love will change direction, will translate itself into other forms. This is why people die for love, after all. It is a way of saying to love—Come back to me! Come back to me or else! The only thing stronger than death is love, because you can not come back from it, but not just once. Again and again, you fail to come back from it. You rush back into those arms, again and again, even when it kills you to do it. Because it comes to you, always, that it is beautiful to die in arms.
"Dahlia," whispers my student. He has wrapped his arms around me from behind. I will tell him of my troubled childhood, but not now. "I sing of the man's arms," I recite, before I settle into them. Whole books, after all, have been written about this, about who ends up in the grip of whom.
"Dahlia," he says.
Anyone can find her way back.