|Jan/Feb 2013 Spotlight|
Three cop cars are double parked outside his building, all barking radios, and red, white and blue lights flashing, with clusters of people standing around on the sidewalks. Pablo stops at the corner and hides behind the news kiosk, catching his breath. Dakota clutches his arm. She looks up at him, streetlights in her eyes, smile smearing her mouth again. This is her movie. This is the kind of movie she likes, probably. With cops after them. Love and danger. Love in danger. Danger in love.
A group of his fellow tenants is gathered by the front steps of the building to check out what's happening. Pablo watches the police lights strobe their faces. He recognizes a few but not Miss Pamela who must be giving evidence inside. He guesses his neighbors won't believe it, such a nice, polite young man. He guesses his life in the building is over, even after he straightens this mess out. Early notice. Or did you just get evicted too? said the bear in the woods, as if he knew the future. Like someone in a dream, piecing things together, Pablo is also furiously trying to sort them out, to find one sure one to guide him.
The news kiosk hiding them belongs to Peg, a nice, young woman with whiskers as thick as any man's, from some kind of hormonal disorder. She could be the bearded lady in a side show circus except she shaves or something. He can hear lively musical voice as she makes change for customers on the other side of the thin wooden wall. Peg starts at the kiosk at four in the morning, cutting the strings on bundles of papers and magazines, unloading candy from boxes and arranging it all on the shelves and displays. If he has insomnia at that hour, Pablo will watch her from his front window, fascinated by her methodical work in the dark. By nighttime, when he gets home and buys his nightly Hershey Bar from Peg, he can see her five o'clock shadow as she stands in the yellow light of the little building where she spends most of her time. He often thinks of her going home under the cover of darkness to sleep a few hours and then, early in the morning, her shaving cream and razor.
Pablo likes Peg a lot. Once she found his lost wallet loaded with cash and wouldn't accept a reward. She calls him Dear or Sweetie, and always says God Bless. Pablo arranged a nighttime shoot, asking Peg's permission, and took photos of her that looked as if she was about to be launched into dark space in her kiosk. Peg was smiling, waving, happy to be there, happy to go. Now she's on the other side of the wall where his photo of her is tacked up, calling customers Sweetie and Dear, a gentle caring person. This is where you go instead of a confessional to get your spirit cleansed and refreshed. Will Peg absolve and forgive him? Such a nice, polite, young man?
It's because you called 911 about the giant, Pablo, Dakota says. That was stupid.
I didn't say who I was. I didn't tell them anything, Pablo whispers with a fierceness that surprises him. Jesus. Listen. It's about you, Dakota. Because you didn't go back to your school like I said. Because you're a missing girl now.
So how can the police know about you?
Miss Pamela. Miss Pamela is always watching the local news. I can hear her TV every night up through the airshaft and, you know, she probably called them.
She's just jealous. I told you should stop putting it to that woman.
I already stopped that. I never wanted to do it anyway.
Then why did you?
She fell on me, like.
Fell on you, like you didn't have a choice. Come on.
What does that have to do with anything now?
Don't, Pablo. Please don't send me back. I can't stand it there. I won't stay. I'll run away again and again and again and never stop until you're my husband.
You're crazy. Husband? You're fifteen. No way.
You just have to know who you are.
This whole thing is crazy. It makes no sense, Pablo thinks, echoing the words of the guy in the woods. How can it all this be happening to him? And in just one day, his whole life turned upside down by this girl? How come I can't walk over there and straighten this mess out? Or probably the police will arrest me no matter what I say. Probably the truth doesn't matter anymore.
Peg, Pablo wants to ask, what should I do? I will do anything you tell me.
What do you want, Dear?
The truth? The real truth? Another kiss like the one on the hill and another after that and another and another and then to be in that dream country with her but it's all stupid and wrong.
Well, then, if it's stupid and wrong, what do you want to want?
Just no trouble. Just the day before yesterday again.
You know that can't happen. What about what Dakota wants?
Her? I don't know. Her spirit is wild and might do anything. Who knows?
Don't. Please don't send me back, Dakota says again, whispering in his ear. I need you to be nice to me tonight and tomorrow I'll go back and tell them what happened. I promise.
She kisses his ear, sealing the promise with a chill down his spine.
But you promised before and broke it.
I know but my blood was coming and everything, everything, everything, Pablo, my whole everything life. I can't take it anymore. If you don't help me, I'll just die.
Shhh. Quiet. Okay. Damn. All right. No more convincing. But we'll have to take the side streets, no buses, no subways, about two miles. And tomorrow, when you go back, you have to tell them the truth.
That I didn't molest you.
I didn't molest you.
I know you didn't.
You have to tell them.
I will. I promise. It's a deal.
They walk now, Dakota shivering in her flimsy uniform, clutching Pablo's arm. She presses close like a nuzzling animal, buries her eyes in his shoulder, puts her hand in the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt, in there with his keys. It feels good to guide her, to have her give in to his strength, to have strength enough for two. After all his thoughts about this being Dakota's movie, maybe it's his movie really, rescuing her from a life of stinking situations. Maybe this is what he has always wanted, for someone to know how strong he is, the size and generosity of his spirit. And there is another reason maybe, not so nice, to which he is closing his eyes, but still he feels it growing larger in the dark spaces of his mind.
Pablo stops. She is shivering so much he takes off his hoody and puts it around her shoulders as she stands there with her eyes looking down to the ground. They walk. She ducks her head and presses into him as before. Pablo slows when they come to an avenue and it's traffic. He is their eyes at the corners and lights. Sometimes while they are standing there with other people waiting to cross, Pablo worries that someone might have watched the news and recognize Dakota. He figures that soon his face will be up on the TV screen next to her face. But there is the truth, if it still matters; he has done nothing wrong. In fact, the world has wronged this wonderful girl and he is only trying to make things a little less wrong this night.
They keep on walking, not fast, not slow, finding a rhythm together, down the narrow, darkening side streets, past parked cars, skinny sidewalk trees, locked bikes and house after house where people are just now coming home. They walk without talking, as if a single word might give them away to this world settling down for the night. Lights go on, doors open, voices are heard, usually TVs, maybe one with the story of a student missing from high school since yesterday.
At every corner, rush hour cars, buses and trucks zoom by, headlong for home. Though she must hear them all, Dakota doesn't even lift her head off his shoulder. It seems she would walk twenty miles like this, whatever he asked of her, never questioning, just trusting. Pablo loves this. It makes him think how tired she must be, spending the night outside and then the last hours up a tree in danger of her life. There seems to be no in between with her, to her wild spirit. Pablo tries not to think of the big movie they are in, only the little one, step by step down these streets. Of course, they will soon have to walk into a movie of police, school principals and judging neighbors but for now, until then, this feels right.
To Pablo's surprise, Louis doesn't answer when he buzzes so he has to use his key to get in the building.
What's Louis doing out? He hardly ever goes anywhere after dark. Or maybe he's just not answering. That happens sometimes. Pablo buzzes their signal. Three short, one long. Three short, one long. Nothing. But this time he's going in, needing bust in on his studious, hermit friend.
As Pablo selects the right key from his ring, he slides past those belonging to Grand Aunt and Grand Uncle, various keys from work, the one to the lock for his bicycle and the storeroom where it's kept, good thing he doesn't have a car and all the keys that come with it. He slides past those to his place where he can't go because of the police and those to Little Grandmother's place where he won't go because he doesn't want her to know about Dakota and because the police might already be there. It's what he would normally do, go to Little Grandmother, so she could welcome Dakota with warm food and feelings and her wisdom that says things are not as bad as they look when they look their worst. He knows they would love each other for life.
That's right, Pablo says once they get in the hall. It's Passover.
What? says Dakota sleepily, just worn out by everything all of a sudden.
It's the first night of Passover so he has to spend it at his parents' house. The Seder, a Jewish thing. The escape from Egypt.
I know what Passover is, Pablo. You're not my teacher.
Upstairs, it's true, Louis isn't there, only his cat, a skinny, wheezing white female with a very pink nose and a sharp spine jutting through her thin coat, a diabetic cat with the tremendous thirst and appetite Pablo has fed a few times when Louis went for family weekends and came back with horror stories like you wouldn't believe. Who would figure the alienated Louis for a sickly cat he dotes on? But there you go. People have surprises that contradict their flow like rocks of safety in the rapids. Who would figure Pablo for a Jewish friend like Louis? But they are tight and can talk endlessly about philosophy, psychology, history and Louis' fucked up life. For Pablo, Louis is a door into the world of worthwhile ideas. For Louis, Pablo is a door into the world of worthwhile actions.
The white cat was Louis' pet growing up that he kidnapped from his parents' home. It's sickly now, needing several pills a day, a special diet and set of instructions Pablo must follow when he takes care of her. Shekinah, a beautiful name to say but a complicated Cabalistic concept, the image of the lost bride of God. Louis told Pablo that his life crisis will be brought on by Shekinah's death so he must keep her alive as long as he can, until he's stronger, sparing no expense at the Vet. The thought of her death scares the hell out of him. Louis spends most of his time at home reading, looking for answers in books.
Seeing the cat rub against Dakota's legs, Pablo remembers the little potted plant with white flowers belonging to the sleeping-bag-man, the delicate plant he imagined the guy talking to and loving like a wife on his lonely hill. He feels he's getting glimpses of a truth he will never be able to see whole. Small white flowers for a bear of a man, a white cat for Louis. Surprises that contradict flow, rocks of safety in the rapids. Unexpected loves like this girl. He wants to ask Dakota if she has a Mayan birthmark, same as his on her spine, as if that was a sign to tell him what he should do about her.
Dakota scoops up the cat Shekinah. It purrs like a motor in her arms, stretches up, rubs chins with her. She laughs and says, That's all right, baby, baby, baby. Mama's here now. Pure cream animal and coffee-with-cream human, bristling fur and springy curls, rubbing chins together, sickly cat and boarded Catholic school girl deprived of contact with animals, clutching tight. He notices pieces of dead leaves stuck in Dakota's hair which seem to make him think another stray thought, that it was from her molesting foster care father that she learned to kiss. Life is way too much.
After telling Pablo, she wants a bath, Dakota goes into the bathroom and shuts the door. He hears the water start to run into the tub and Dakota to sing “Karma Police” by Radio Head, a song he loves that seems to fit the crazy situation.
arrest this man
he talks in maths
he buzzes like a fridge
he's like a detuned radio
Inside the windowless bathroom where there's barely enough room for a person to stand, the school girl Marina Smith stops singing and sits on the edge of the tub to watch it fill. The water falls like light, pours into itself, churns, shimmers, swells, rises. Used to the cold, echoing lockers at school and the humiliation of communal showers, the luxurious privacy of a bath is a thing to be treasured. But she can't. It is all she can do to keep her composure. Her body is trembling, as if from a deep inner chill, at the prospect of letting someone touch her. She tries to calm herself by closing her eyes but when she does an expressionless face hovers and looms in the numb darkness of her mind. The man who tried to turn her into a thing.
Marina stands and looks at herself in the mirror. Her fingers quiver as they touch the skin of her face like a blind person to know its shape even as that face looks back with seeing eyes. Who is real? Me or the one in there? Which is stronger, the determination I see in my eyes, or the fear making my body tremble? She doesn't know. All she knows is that she has to conquer this fear. She refuses to be a thing.
Pablo doesn't know what to do with himself. He begins to leaf through a few of the books Louis has left lying around on the floor and every other surface, all carefully underlined and written in but, because of the prospect of sex, impossible as it is, forbidden as it is, he can't concentrate on the words or even sit still in a chair. His cock is hard and throbbing. There is only one thing to do: He goes into Louis' small kitchen and, standing on a foot stool, jerks off powerfully into a sink full of dishes. Life is definitely too much but he's doing his best. He laughs at the prospect of trying to explain his worthwhile actions to his intellectual friend.
Pablo gets on the phone and orders Chinese take out for a nice surprise. He does the dishes, sets the table, lights a candle. Still no Dakota. The food comes fast to a Pablo answering the door and paying with his face half-hidden in his hoody. He puts it on plates and it sits there growing cold. Still no Dakota.
Are you all right in there? he says from the other side of the bathroom door.
Yes, Dear, she says, telling Pablo the movie she's in now, sure. I'll be out in no time.
Finally Dakota appears in the living room wrapped in an emerald bath towel, her hair brushed out straight so it is bristling with electricity like dark flames around her head. No more floppy curls, her hair is a black, electrified backdrop for her pretty face. She looks like a sorceress, with her smear of a smile, informing him of the spells she has in store. He can't sense her fear. To him, she is beautiful and newly born, stepped out of the cracked egg of her old life into the scrambled mess of his. No more than five feet tall, she's a woman-child who was not allowed to be a child, a child-woman who was not allowed to be a woman, and yet her spirit was greater than anything that happened to her. Her skin is a sweet delicious light brown, her eyes like dark rooms lit way back by single lanterns, her face as open and innocent and sleepy as the face of a child ready for a bedtime story.
You better get dressed in something, he says. Like in a robe or something, from the bedroom.
My tits are starting to come in, Pablo. I don't believe it. All at once, it's all happening after so long. They kind of hurt too.
Wait here a minute, I'll see what I can find for you in the bedroom.
I want you to feel them.
No. No way, girl. Remember what we said?
Come on, feel my new tits for me. Feel me up, Pablo. Feel me.
You have to stop this.
You know what I'm talking about. Ordering me around. Like that.
And you have to know how to act.
Okay, girl. Here I come for you.
Pablo moves toward her. She stands her ground. He reaches over, puts a hand on the towel covering her chest and cups it around the small scoop of flesh underneath. It is a breast all right but not much of one. Not even a half a handful and Pablo's hand is pretty small. She smacks it away.
Cut that out.
See? That's what I mean.
You're trying to push me around, just like you were pushed around, Pablo says. Like that.
No, it's just that you were such a pig about it. Like a doctor. Here let me show you how.
I don't think so.
I'm going to show you how I need you to do it. Gentle.
No way, girl. I'm not a puppet in your show.
He kisses her, maybe a little too hard, and just like he thought she struggles away.
What are you doing? she says. Be nice.
What are you doing? Trying to ruin my life?
Stop it, Pablo, please. Just gentle, be gentle.
Dakota unwinds the towel from her body, drops it to the floor and steps forward like someone in a ceremony. He can't help himself. He lets her come and kiss him again, the way she does. This will be the end of him, the end of the life he has known, if he lets it. He will be someone he no longer recognizes, who has been in him the whole time, in league with the man-slaughterer and with the man who made Dakota the way she is.
Where'd you learn to kiss like that from anyway? Him? The foster father, you say you hate, Pablo says cruelly as a last resort, knowing all the while he is crossing the line. Huh, girl? Where? Puta.
He catches each fist she throws at him, avoids her wildly kicking knees and holds her wrists hard.
You're an idiot like all the others, she says, in tears now, throwing her head from side to side. Blaming it on me. I hate you. I hate you.
Listen to me, Dakota, please, sweetheart. I'm sorry I said that. You're a great girl. I love your spirit. My spirit loves your spirit, you know that, but I'm a grown man and it's not right, sister, not right in this world.
Pablo lets go of her and takes a step back. Standing there, fists clenched, tears streaming down, Dakota resembles a wild animal in her defiant nakedness, but when she bends to retrieve the towel, it is the bending of a slave to renew her burden. As she bends down, Pablo notices she has no birthmark at the base of her spine. What was he thinking? Life's not like that. His crazy thoughts are really crazy Love has no reasons. It just is.
Dakota wraps the towel back around herself and lays down crying on the couch. Of course, the white cat jumps up.
I'm sorry about what happened to you, he says, standing over her. I wish I could make it right but I can't, you know that.
Go away, she says, clear as a bell in the midst of crying. You're so stupid, you don't even know who you are and how to act. Leave me alone.
Pablo stands there helpless for a few seconds, blind with seeing in this tangled web. He goes into the bedroom and lays down on the bed, kicking and throwing all the books Louis sleeps with wildly onto the floor. There are no answers in books. There are no answers anywhere. Life is just a tangled mess.
Dakota's crying from the next room messes with his mind. He is thinking so much he can't think, of her past, of his, and of the connection their spirits have, no matter their ages. It's all inarticulate noise, from depthless sources in himself, without beginning or end, chattering confusion of what's right and what's wrong, in which no clear voice can be heard. Which voice is Pablo's? Can Pablo listen to his own voice?