by Karen Sheets
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MY DEAR READER, though it may be profane to admit it, I give these words to you grudgingly. They must be released at all cost, but whose hands will rescue my little birds?
My memories of Carmen are still fresh atop my plowed mind, giving way to leaps of logic, crooked exposition, and shufflings of equilibrium. Please allow me the liberty to unburden myself without scorn.
BUZZING, HUMMING, TINGLING of warm needles piercing the most sensitive flesh into bits, the pain of the foreshadowing of vomit, the joyous inability to exfoliate the crust of one’s life, inability to die. But there was also music, the dusty smell of burning music, music vibrating harsh but clinging as sandpaper on silk. The kinetic electricity that courses from her to me is enough to force all the toxins from my limbs, like a hard sweat that leaves the muscles dry-wet and unable to bend again.
It reminded me of when, young, my mind and mouth competed for food in the wild chaos of love, communication and stimulation. I would begin storytelling, then running, slip and scrape on the crags, my mouth hanging open, bleeding out its former efficiencies and perfections — an accident, a crash. Mismatched jigsaw ideas then would reverberate in the aftermath, the quiet that follows death, disaster, flurry, argument, sex. What could be said then? I could think of nothing but to express simultaneously everything I had ever thought, wrapped together in sum. I neither cared to finish my story nor believed that its raison d’etre was anything more than the pinnacle of breathed life I had just lived.
And the lipstick that rubbed from her lips onto me. . . Like wiping a surface with a cloth dripping with a colorful sully, it cleansed with a stain, smeared and forced a color onto me much duller, but much more indelible, than its own screaming red. But by the time she had finished fellating me, her mouth had lost its clean new red shine; our respective orifices drooped, sorely pink, sapped and flaccid, devastated by her kiss.
I WAS NOT a shy man at all then, and never have been one. But with Carmen, I never felt I was at home, even when stillness covered our conversation with its palm, pulling us into the effortless cohabitation of deepest friends, and lovers entrenched. Though I will always be, first and foremost, a writer of fiction, I was employed then by the higher echelons of the professional world, and had realized certain feats of interpersonal discipline as such. I could wag hands warm and jolly with powerful businessmen, ting delicate crystal and smile teethily with feathered old dowagers, and hold my balls tight before seductive but manipulative felines. But Carmen — though I saw her nearly every day for half a year, every time her large eyeballs rolled up to mine I felt naked and awkward in the light, as if exposing myself to a stranger. I felt my lover was a stranger, and therefore that my love was strange — that I was not engaging in a sensuality kept within the bounds of normalcy, that there was an impurity in my way of thinking which would keep me from being what I thought I was.
Every time I held Carmen’s hand, for example, her fingers were cold as bone and she’d quickly snatch them away and hold my back, instead, in a much deeper embrace. Every time I kissed Carmen on the lips — save when in the throes of making love — she would take my head with her hands and shift it to her cheek, her neck, her chest. Again, strangely shying away from the proprieties of love, I thought, in favor of a much darker, more luscious, hidden caress.
Definitions, portraits, vignettes: these things ripen with age, but Carmen — the more I remember her, the less I can decide upon who she was, how she related to me, words with which to describe her. It is as if she lurks ghostly about me now, snatching and dissolving the fragments of herself she once gave to me, relics I had kept, boxed, preserved, organized.
Or even with what she occupied her days, I can barely recall. She claimed to make her living by the practice of the metaphysical — palm- and tarot-reading, dream interpretation, spiritual cleansings and the like. But she never offered me any of these services, and never spoke of offering them to any other specific person; she always spoke in shadows and gradations, subtleties and vagueness, ornaments rather than content, metaphors rather than concepts. She never told me of her observations; she painted landscapes of truth, she arranged and rearranged features in realms; she expressed, manifested the spinning world about her, or the environment in which we both sat.
Once, in a restaurant, we were eating a late breakfast to close a long, vivid night. Out of nowhere, in the middle of her omelet, Carmen began jittering and then started crying — cold tears of consternation rolling down her cheeks as she sat staring into her food and the restaurant about her, the other diners, the mediocre wall hangings, the waitstaff, all the mundanity crushing her in a vise, and she couldn’t speak to me. Her gaze kept shifting as if to escape, and she could hardly look into my eyes for the remainder of the half-hour it took me to finish our repast. I could only ask her repeatedly what was wrong with varying phraseology, asking her if she was sick, or if I said something repulsive — she was scaring me, I told her, and begged her just to whisper a sliver of explanation to prevent us from combusting.
We left the restaurant, and in the sidewalk outside the door she sighed, proffered a somewhat tender apology, and then, turning, gruffly proclaimed that our waitress had stolen her joy! That the doe-eyed Grecian matron who brought me orange juice on ice (one of my favorites) without my asking for it, was also a psychic in what Carmen weightily termed “the dry land.” According to Carmen, the waitress eyed our happiness with envy, and sought to wring it from Carmen, and quickly succeeded! I immediately remembered how one of the other waitresses, the psychic’s sister, had asked her sister, “What happened? You seem so much better now!” I believed Carmen, I trusted her fully and thought I saw what she saw. But now it seems so foolish, and dramatic, so overhandedly mystical.
CARMEN INSISTED UPON riding astride me every time we made love. When we first began, when our relationship evolved out of the muck from one lucky stumble of conversation outside my building, I absconded back up into my rooms with her, fumbling at the lock embarrassingly, and we finished our conversation on my red-clad bed, naked, she sat atop me with her large heavy breasts like Tantalus over the river. I persisted at trying to touch them, her, at trying to pull her down to me so to complete the game we had begun. But she kept speaking, obliquely shifting my hands back to her womb or legs, “William, stop. . .,” she would barely intone — out of obliviousness rather than sultriness — and would not reach her face to mine until she finished speaking.
We were talking about a book that was important to both of us, and Carmen was remembering how she read it as an adolescent. And for the first of many times, a writer expressed ideas Carmen had previously thought inexpressible, buried far too deep within the mind, or even irrelevant to “reality.” At this point, she said, she “became intelligent,” realizing what leaps the mind could take within the realm of intelligibility. But now, she said, she can no longer feel this way, as she watches her observations and impressions falling flat on the mind of opposing conversationalists. “No one understands so readily anymore,” she said. “But you,” she bestowed on me, “understand so much more than most, and though you may not immediately understand fragments of my poetry, it is only because of my lack of clarity, not your open ears. . . You could, in time, develop the decoding system for my way of thinking and talking. You think so rationally, and yet you are open to the mystical, to the mysterious and difficult, to that which approaches the inexpressible. . .” At that moment I found a purpose.
AFTER WE MOVED in together, I discovered that Carmen was a waitress at an exclusive and maddeningly fashionable fine-dining restaurant. She did, however, form the pivot of a strange coterie that came to her for advice on matters of every nature at all times of day and night. She was not psychic at all, nor a magician nor sorceress. The definitions of those words have become faulty. She was, to the contrary, the keenest observer I have ever observed myself; she watched things so closely, so intensely, that she could mimic them, even become them, and see, in the cracks between the observable and the unborn, the events leading up to scenarios presently unfolding, and the unavoidable consequences of those scenarios. Like the spy or detective who pieces together an obvious plot and strategy from crumbs, certain scraps of paper, and a gleam in the villain’s eye, Carmen would watch, and watch, a man on the bus and know where he would get off, and how his wife speaks to him.
When Carmen came home at nights after working, she always knew what I had eaten for dinner, based on smudges of food I could never obliterate from the desk drawers, walls, sinks, or tabletops I had inadvertently touched. Once, the phone was on the couch, and papers had fallen to the floor below it, and she knew I had a long, relaxing conversation with a close friend, ran out to get a drink with him, and returned just before she arrived.
Just before she left me, we had begun to play chess regularly. At a resale shop she had found a beautiful wooden chessboard of Eastern European craftsmanship. Half the squares were finished light wood, and the remainder bright kelly green, and the pieces were cut and finished wood with bright kelly green embellishments. Green was her favorite color, and she decided to become a player. We played perhaps three dozen games over the course of that week, and each time she was victorious. Toward the end I had grown angry and nervous. “She may be brilliant,” I told myself, “but she is impressionistic and scattered. . . I am the sculptor of clear, firm ideas; I am the one with routines streamlined to produce desired effects; I am the writer of our story — is that not power?”
After losing our last game, on that, our last night, I began to unravel. “How selfish and pompous I’ve been,” I thought, and “obviously I am incapable to concentrating on the game — but only on my wiles and strategies within the game. . . And isn’t that just the story of my manhood itself, not paying attention to anything but my own little whims, and here I am believing myself in charge of Carmen, but it is she who knows far better than I how the world works. . . Everything I have based my personality on is wrong, and worthy of ridicule. . . My stories have the visual quality of a photocopy, the voice is hoarse, and they speak nothing but of a simple man banging into walls again and again. . .” I went on with this nonsense of unhappiness for some time. Carmen assured me, as I half-knew myself, that these feelings would pass soon enough, but let them be a lesson to me.
I climbed into bed next to her, and she said she didn’t want to make love. She said she knew when she bought the chessboard that this would happen, and it was supposed to happen. She said she feared I would never trust her view of the world, and her power. She said, “If you refuse to slip into the pit of doubt, you will never be enlightened.” The next morning, she was gone.