by Karen Sheets
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I MET VERA when I was twenty-two. It was a weekday night, I remember, in a Mexican club, though it could have been the last Saturday night before the end of the world, humid with sweat and surfeited with the devilish smell of cigarettes, salsa music blaring and shaking in the spaces between bodies like yellow, orange, and red. Vera was wearing silver, stabbed into the room like a machete through a steak. She was slight, unmuscular, and ivory; her hair brown-blonde like a color that could never take hold. She walked lightly, stick-like, breakable. I could tell from the first that she was machine-like, and overthought.
The room pulsed with dancing. Dark eyes, flailing limbs, hair whipping, backs bending, hips pressing into rhythms. Vera was at the bar abutting the dancefloor, alternating swallows of her drink with hungry inhalations of her cigarette. (At the time, I believed cigarettes to be exquisite props.) Her lips were heart-shaped, painted red, and parted engrossedly. Her eyes were wide as bowls, canvassing the room again and again, penetrating the dancing space of particular couples. I knew, from experience, that she was watching like a sickness. She lit another cigarette off the first and ordered another drink. The bartender, a spineless man, liked her; she left two bills on the paper cocktail napkin. Like an anachronism, she didn’t move a whit to the music, only stared and stared. I could not decide whether she was the most or the least sensual woman I had ever seen.
I had drank too much and my guts were spilling out. I could feel the water in my eyes and taste the saliva I was swallowing. Watching her was making me warm. As I lumbered along the bar toward her, I realized I was almost twice her size; not because I am large, but because she was so small. I fitted my body in beside hers, innocent, slow, and harmless, but brave—a true gentleman. I looked to the floor for stability but fell upon the bow of her slender thigh, poking from the short silver skirt. The fabric of her dress made me fear for my life. Acetate, rayon, some blend of synthetic polymers—technology encasing a silent, fleshy china doll. For a moment, I thought she would crush me.
“You’re beautiful!” I half-yelled over the music, into her shoulder. The next second stung like a gong in my head. Never had I so blatantly approached a woman, nor said something so brazen, embarassing, but true. Like a sordid diary entry, I felt half dirty and half like a reeling ape—stomach tightening, forehead burning, and a slight spasm in my crotch. To my credit, after the proclamation, I looked away. A half-step later I resurfaced for reconnaissance. Vera turned to face me, and bored into my eyes. I watched her; her forehead wrinkled and unwrinkled as she absorbed and processed me at breakneck speed, a deep sea exploration in fast-forward.
And then she kissed me. I was dumbfounded. She kissed me like a vampire, consuming and greedy—from the tips of her toes she was sucking at my soul. Even then I found it evil. I slid my hand under the silver shirt to her small, naked breast. It was delectable and unquenching as a petit-four.
FLUID AND UNFATHOMABLE as the sea; powerful and subtle as the wind; graceful as bird soars and leopard struts. These are the melodramas I had taught myself to see in woman. Life was gray rain transcended only by the adventure of tasting a woman between her legs, smelling her unperfumed, kissing her without lipstick, running my hands about unshaven legs; watching her light a cigarette, nuzzling her armpit, wrestling her while she’s silly from sleep in the morning.
I had gotten off to an early start, and by the age of twenty-two I had already sown a fair amount of my wild oats, nay, hurled them, like the mustard seed, with haphazard passion, some falling to fertile soil and others on the roughest of cliffs. As many times as women had fallen asleep with my face between their legs, I had seduced the most beautiful woman in a room. I had even lived with a woman I met in college, the woman I thought I would marry, for three years. So I was no stranger to pursuing, and on the off-chance aquiring, the objects of my desire; and from the rare victory I had accumulated strength. Yet I learned that there is scarce time to celebrate victory: a woman, like a bottle of wine, changes as each new glass is poured. One never knows whose cup will run dry first. But there is a sudden, bitter pang to the last gulp—tannins scratch across the teeth like nails on a chalkboard. Pity the one who can taste the end.
Over the years I convinced myself that woman was the inexpressible, the impossible, the intangible. I realized, when I met Vera, that I maintained this dubious platitude only by constructing and tending, the way old men do on the Aran Islands, some sort of everlasting wall—it could be physical as brick or gossamer as symbols—between each woman and myself. I never liked watching a woman urinate; she could make pancakes naked any day; but once I caught a whiff of feminine angst I flew to the door. I avoided the dirt, skirted the drama; I always washed the dishes, and sex was always on her terms. I was the force of lightness. If woman was ocean, I was a dingy, tossed about, carefree, trusting her grip.
WE EMERGED FROM the club into the December night, stepping from a hot spring barefoot onto tundra. Vera looked so malleable to the surroundings; her body convulsed, she changed temperature the way a child swallows horse pills. In the passenger seat of my car she shivered in broad strokes, like a sheet of rubber.
We had been talking about music since I told her about my band, at the bar—we had just been signed to a record label the previous week, so I was riding high, thrilled and excited by all music, in general. Vera proved to be extremely perceptive to sound, and everything she said made sense in an uncanny way, rang like hidden truth. I felt like a tribesman stumbling upon a patch of diamonds in a cave. She compared a piece of Chopin to the note progression in a drum-and-bass track. Our conversation was harmonic. We always say we start playing rock-and-roll to get girls; ironically, here she was, turning me on by her capacity as a listener.
Vera’s apartment was spare the way things are hidden from people in an asylum. The living room was a stereo, a pile of records, and some ramshackle chairs that looked like they had been dragged in on the soles of unsuspecting shoes, or given as gifts by friends who had grown tired of crouching on the floor. The walls were the unsettling white of old apartments plagued by one-year tenants, slathered year after year with coats of the same sickly white. Punctuating the walls’ screaming silence, however, were photographs—eight-by-tens and four-by-sixes—framed simply in glass. All the prints were clearly made by commercial photo developers, as the content showed an interest that would otherwise have manifested itself more in the printing. The images were, for the most part, faces and close-ups, running the gamut from elderly to babies, tree bark to coffee cups. There were some unabashed sweeping landscapes, as well as scenes from strange perspectives—a middling house as seen from the back, the sky from laying und
The bedroom was a large black trunk of clothes—it could have easily held pirate’s treasure or magician’s equipment— and a heap of blankets on the gray carpet for a bed. It was surprisingly comfortable, like camping or passing out when you’re drunk.
We sat on the pile of sheets sipping tequila softened with sugar and lime, drenching the fabric and lampshades with cigarette smoke. I took advantage of my university degree in journalism and interviewed her on the sly; she reveled in it like a cat in the sand. She was full of descriptions of herself and her ways of seeing, feeling. I sensed she had interviewed herself before.
Vera worked irregular hours as a shelver at the main branch of the city’s public library. Off and on, she volunteered as a model or prop for performance artists, and acted in strange films shot by students at one of the city’s art schools. “I think about trying to capitalize on what I have,” she told me. “I know I look strange, and kind of pretty, but not in a loud or obnoxious way—just like this strange and little creature crawling along the bottom of a wall . . . .” In truth, she was not so much pretty as beautiful, and not so much strange as a galaxy unto herself. I told her as much, and she looked down, chewing her lips. That threw me like a cowboy; I was sure she would flash me more of a stretched, cinematic grin. Instead, she looked confused. As if she made a meal she knew tasted bad but all the guests were lying that they loved it. I find humility endearing, but her face wore the empty mask of self-deprecation. I was touched, but I feared it; it always seemed to me a far too dangerous way to think. I
We made love and she was wild, slapping me with arms and legs. I doubted her sincerity, and wondered what she wanted from me. After a while the vividness and energy began to fade. “Don’t wait for me,” she whispered, “I can’t come when I’m drunk.”
One day, like a pebble from the clouds, a silence fell between us unlike any of the awkwardness, fear, or boredom ever mixed on my palette. We were in a fast-food drive-thru, about to order dinner on the way to a film, for which we were running late. Everything was fine; I asked Vera what she wanted to eat. She screwed up her face, irises scanning up and down the columns of the menu, again and again, each time looking more desolate and alienated. “Um . . . I don’t know . . .” she said, her voice trailing off, “Nothing——I don’t think . . . .”
“Are you sure?” I asked, “C’mon. I know it’s not your usual caviar but you should eat something. Or—we could just stop somewhere else, how’s that? What would you like?”
Vera just shook her head, staring into the space before her with unfocussed eyes. “Nothing, thank you, I’m fine.” I pulled out of the drive-thru and back onto the street. “Vera, just tell me what you’d like.” I listed options. “I don’t know,” she said, “I don’t know.” I could only surmise that the thought of eating fast food ignited a chain reaction of disgust and indecision. I could not decide whether she was being a princess or truly hopelessly confused. I pulled over to the curb and looked at her quizzically. Under spotlight, she burst into tears. I slumped back in my seat. I had no idea what was going on. I started to retreat.
“Do you think you could drive me home?” she asked so small, looking into my lap. I peeled out and we crossed the city without speaking. The quiet between us was neither stone, ice, nor molasses. Rather, it was the consistency of a large plastic building block, the kind with which children play. It seemed——movable. It seemed to exist for no reason and at times I thought perhaps it did not exist at all. It was like a phantasm, or the reflection of a mirror. Arbitrary; a thing built from nothing like an explosive from orange juice; and only to be seen from one position and alignment—a hologram in spacetime. This position and alignment, I realized, is what men have known for ages as Hell.
It happened again and again. Psychically, Vera would simply vanish. At restaurants, during movies, in the middle of sex. Sometimes there were excuses—tiredness, hormonal imbalances, an attack of diarrhea, various neuroses—and she apologized for dropping out on a number of occasions. But there is nothing to say to a man who one second held something and the next it turned to water and ran out, transparently, between his locked fingers.
I think of Hell as not a presence but an absence; it is the nothingness that makes it so harrowing. Vera’s face, when she had her spells, fell slack until the personality and color fell off like a scab, hung lifeless and ill-fitting as the oversized clothes of an anorexic. She would avoid my eyes and gaze into what looked like a horizon. But I knew it to be, in fact, emptiness. Though we met infrequently, my mind orbited her stupidly as a dog. She surrounded and preoccupied me, barring my escape. She pulled me into blackness, a muse in reverse—she stole my thoughts, hung my imagination from the ductwork, stood blankly while I watched its blood drain out as from faucets. She had me bound with no ropes—ostensibly, nothing was wrong. But inside I was parched, how a castaway on the ocean is suspended in water but cannot drink a drop.
WE SAW EACH other no more than a twenty times over the course of several months. We would watch a movie, without saying anything, turn out the light, and have sex. We would listen to records, staring out the window of her living room, then have sex. I never invited her to my apartment and not once did she express interest in seeing it. She could shove her nipples into my nose, but psychically, I only poked at her, the way one handles a snake with a pole.
One day after sex a lie slipped out of my mouth, unpremeditated, effortlessly. I told her the label thought my band should move to Los Angeles, that there were more opportunities there for gigs and besides, I was excited by the prospect of travel. She lunged for a cigarette, and smiling her eyes whole-heartedly with it between her lips, she said, “That sounds fun!” I wondered if in fact she had been looking forward to my departure but would never have instigated it, out of her sheer silent passivity. At that moment it was over; by the time I left the only acceptable touch was to shake her hand, and Vera nodded with a strange firmness as she closed the door behind me.
ON THE TRAIN home I sat across from a beautiful raven-haired woman; she wore the pure skin and set expression of a foreigner. She smiled at me. We got off at the same stop and I walked behind her all the way to my street, then to my building, and finally, right up to my door in the courtyard. She turned around and shook with laughter. “You live here too? Isn’t that so strange!” There were words in Italian quivering on her lips. The combination of bizarre situation and mutual attraction made us giggle like jelly. She pointed to the buzzer. “I’m Roselli!” “I’m Ginsbourg!” I said. When the laughter calmed I invited her in for a cup of coffee, swinging my arm for her to alight the stairs ahead of me. Her calves were meaty and strong, the ankle bones smooth and delicate. I could feel them against my cheek. And there was a dime-sized hole in her thick black stockings, through which I could see her olive skin.