'Things I Don't Tell the Neighbors' by Emmanuela Copal de León
Things I Don't Tell the Neighbors, Emmanuela Copal de León, 2000.

 

 

"The Gift,"
an excerpt from a novel in progress

Patricia Ammann

 

I become no one.

I hurry home to speak with you after leaving you alone in bed this morning, weeping into the sheets, your eyes dim and extinguished as the filmy windows of an abandoned city, the crowd scattering like a star exploding in slow motion, points of light flying out into nothing. You cannot rise, nor look at me, your face fresh and boyish, inconsolable, you cannot tell me what is happening.

It's up to me to stop it, but when I burst into the room it is hollow but for my sister staring out the plate glass window at the parking lots and cars strewn like cellophane-wrapped candy in the January light.

She turns to me, her eyes larger, darker, and I say "Where's Clay?" and she says, "He left."

My sister, she's got the face of the Mediterranean. Angeliki. Painters stop her as she's hurrying along Avenue A in her big sweater and tattered jeans. "Do you pose?" they ask, "You're a classic, that Mona Lisa smile. What do you charge, will you pose? Twenty-five dollars an hour, nude." She tells me this laughing, and a little mystified, and I laugh too, but because I know it has nothing to do with Mona Lisa or her smile; that's just a conditioned response. It's in her eyes that are the color of fallow ground, the darkness of earth to be brightly seeded that starts an echo of planting and harvesting in their hearts, a reminder of dirt beneath their nails, of bread and olive oil and salt and a bottle of wine, the light fracturing all over the white tablecloth and your heart in your mouth, two bodies lying down to make another, and then seeing that one life through. They're yearning for it as they wave good-bye, "Thirty dollars! Please, call!"

I can see you waiting to pack your things while I am at work, waiting until I've brushed my hair and laced my shoes and closed the fire door behind me before getting out of bed to pull on your jeans and sweat shirt and baseball cap, the bill hiding your eyes, your eyes matte, and pack whatever is left, load it into the car and drive.

You wear that black cap the first time we go out, your eyes aflame beneath the bill. Our table is staggering with food and still it comes floating to us from every direction like an homage to gravity; loaves of bread warm as a body in the morning, whole gardens settling into bowls and shellfish plucked from the ocean to be piled steaming between us, the bits of seaweed still strangling the meat. The light from the aquarium soaks your hands green, my fingers are slick with mussel juice. I try out one one-liner after another and you laugh and laugh across the table from me, throwing your whole body back to do it. Olives lie crushed beneath our feet. Glass is tinkling on the tiles beyond us; we order merlot and cognac, we categorize ourselves into jigsaw pieces to see if we'll fit. Whole chambers of mothers who will never leave them, the tube shuttling them their snapshots of the world, are slowly receding from my inner eye, one to a room. Drinking Turkish coffee like ink out of my grandmother's tiny cups on the earthen terrace overlooking our orchards that fell away into the sea. The slow circles we turned a thousand times a day, the sun its own weight in our hair. Everything flew into the sea when I left the island: my church dress and scooter, blood oranges and baby teeth, my heavy black stockings, the bench beneath the bowed garland of flowering vine, our little stone house with the arched window that brimmed with blue, the droning of locusts, the photographs of my father, his heart attack and the casks of wine, all of it sunk into the sand.

I think I will let myself fall into you for a while, with aplomb; I will try anything once, twice, three times if I like it. I decide I have changed my mind, you are delivering to me my new motto: in the vernacular of the present tense there is only one part of speech, the verb.

We leave the restaurant, your hand warm at my back, steering me through the thickets of people shouldering each other, tossing back their hair and opening their mouths to gulp water, wine and air. They are exposing their arched throats to each other, the night and their privately forbidden gods, the effort of enjoying themselves rendering their skin mercurial with sweat they are singing Heaven could be anyplace/why not here, why not here, and I say "show me," and you do.

You start by taking me to the races. We arrive and I'm thrilled by the sun sparkling on the tall, tinted windows overlooking the track, and then, inside the coolness, by the people, intent, wizened, smoking and staring at the score cards, the track, the little TVs. This is fantastic, I think, beautiful. You steer me around to get the cards, watch a race, find a table, figure the odds, reckon with intuition and put two dollars down on Pray for Rain to win. We head back outside, electric with the horses thundering past, these unbearably lovely creatures straining, quaking in their flight. It's Honor Bright but we are undaunted, and after a few more losses we see a pattern emerging. "It's the jockeys," I say. You nod, gazing at the quiet track, serious for a moment, and then you smile again, sling your arm about my shoulder, tell me I'm catching on. Your skin is warm. We are languid, we are lucky. Winning or not, we will be delighted to move from the cool rail to our table and cokes, the hard orange plastic of the chairs cradling our bodies, the skin on our legs glowing from the sun.

And, moving like this, like water, we begin to win, one race after another, until we've won five in a row.

We head home. It is still mine then, the hallways quiet before the footsteps running, running by the door. We're singing along to Dylan, joking, laughing at our luck. On the way we stop at the market and pick up some food with our winnings: salmon steaks, potatoes, rosemary, and for the salad, endives and Roma tomatoes. I cook, you mix gin and tonics and rinse and chop, and we smoke, singing as we're cooking, before we take our plates out to the deck to eat. We turn off the stereo, to watch the sun set, in silence. I believe this is the night I suggest we pray. You ask me what for, you don't go in for religion and I say no, that's not it, it's about thinking of the food and where it comes from.

My mother always asked us to pray before we ate, but I don't tell you this. Dinner was important to her; every night she arranged the food on our plates, regardless of who had cooked; she placed everything exactly on the dish like composing little paintings for us to admire. This was one of the few things she stopped doing after my brother Stamitas found her in the orchard, coupling with a soldier on leave, and the village turned its back on her, whispering about my poor brother, what he must have heard in between the scratchings of the olive boughs, and how it was enough to make any five-year-old's brain go soft. She also stopped touching things: glasses, bowls, the cross she loved to finger when she was thinking, the soft arm of the chair, our hair as we passed.

"It's not an answer," you say, and I ask, "Who said anything about answers?" and you look at me for a long moment with another reason on your lips before shrugging. "OK. You lead."

It's what, within a month of this? That you let your place and move your few things in. I never tell you what pleasure I find in your bottle of cologne in the medicine cabinet, the cassettes in a neat row next to the stereo. It's like when Angeliki comes and scatters her clothes about my rooms, only without the empty order after she's left.

You never do understand why she's got to come from New York for a week every few months, and you never ask: why she and I always speak in English over our afternoon cups of coffee, why I change the subject whenever you sit down with us and politely inquire about our childhood on the island and she starts reaching around for words.

You never impose your family on me, you say, why does Angeliki have to come so often? So take me to meet your family, I reply, and you consider this and say OK.

Your mother lives on the far side of the city so we drive through it until the buildings thin and finally give way to fields. Before long we are deep in the suburbs, each house its own silent sprawl in an expanse of empty lawn that spills over into a hushed street. I perk up; some things about the U.S. are still very new to me. We are driving in loops, cruising the same web of cul-de-sacs for the third time.

"Yes, you're right," you say, "we seem to be lost."

"But it's your mother's house."

"And I've only been here once."

"Why?"

"My mother likes to move every year or two."

"What?"

"Ever since we were kids. We used to move from our house to the one next door."

"Why?"

"I don't know. Just something she likes to do. I think this one's it." We pull up into a circular driveway and park before a set of Grecian columns which flank the entranceway. No one answers your knock, so you push open the heavy door. The house is dark, quiet and breezy. "Mom?" you offer a few times to no avail, so we begin to look, wandering long corridors that angle off in every direction before bringing us back to the center of the house again. Finally you steer me around to a set of stairs which descend into the basement. We step out into deep pile carpeting like cool grass beneath our feet. There's a shower of light in the far reach of the room, under which a dark-haired woman is standing bent over an ironing board. Next to the board is a basket stacked about three feet high with folded clothes. She doesn't hear us until we're standing next to her. "Mom," you say and she starts.

"Clay!" she answers, passing a hand over her face. Her fingers are alight with stones.

"How're you doing, Mom," you say, touching her shoulder. I like this.

"Well, all right. Should I have been expecting you?" Her eyes are soft as water in the night.

"You invited us over for lunch, Ma," you say, and she seems to take note of me for the first time.

"I'm Csilla," she says, "It's good to meet you."

Csilla, I'm thinking, you're not from here.

In the kitchen rows of tiny lights twinkle from underneath the cabinets and along the floorboards, giving it the feel of a yacht. The kitchen, like the rest of the house, is so clean that it looks completely new. Csilla rummages through the freezer for a few moments before pulling out a pizza. She carries it over to the microwave. It seems very heavy in her hands.

"Forgive me," she says, "but since I forgot that you were coming I didn't go shopping."

You move your hand over her shoulder blades. "That's all right, Ma. Hey, is Kathleen coming?"

Csilla turns from the counter. "Kathleen? No. She's in Aspen with that professor of hers."

"How about Richard?"

"He's out on the course." She sits down with us at the table and props her chin in her hands. "Your sister isn't doing well at the university." She turns her face away and looks out the window.

"But I thought Kathleen had it together," you answer.

"So did I. But I found a letter from the administration telling her she's on probation when she came to visit a couple of weeks ago."

"What do you think is going on?"

Your mother sighs and rises from the table. "Probably that damned philosophy professor that she says she isn't seeing anymore." She walks to the microwave and removes the pizza. "Kathleen lies," she says, "Would you two like a little wine?"

Later, after you've given your mother a quiet kiss on her cheek, in your car on our way home, you are very still.

"Is it Kathleen?" I ask.

You shrug, so I think I will help you look at it. I tell you how the villagers are right about Stamitas, that after the afternoon in the orchard, his body keeps growing but his mind stays put. Within a few years odd things begin happening in the village; milk and bread are stolen from neighbors' iceboxes, someone's lamb is found with its throat slit. In the beginning we wait to hear from the villagers, but not a word is forthcoming, and before long it is clear that we will all continue to shoulder what my mother has done.

"It's hard on a family when one goes awry," I say.

"That's not it," you answer, "It's my mom. She gets so sad sometimes. Has all my life."

"Why?"

"I don't know," you respond with a short but strong push of your breath between your teeth, like 'leave it alone.'

"You're ready for Las Vegas," you say.

We drive through the desert at night. You want for me to see Las Vegas for the first time like this: cresting one last pitch-black ridge before dipping into the valley wherein the city opens in a blaze before us, determined and unspoiled.

You have me drive down the strip. It's three a.m. I am tired and I cannot make out the traffic lights amid the glitter and flash hanging in the air. I'm relieved to pull safely into the parking lot of the Riviera. We get our few things out of the car and enter the hotel. It is a cavernous red and gold, a false plush that is easy on our eyes. My vision adjusts and I notice that people are wearing next to nothing: fishnet gowns that reveal every inch of hair and skin, cowboy chaps with the butts cut out so that we can behold the smooth halves of the ass. We pass two women at the elevator banks. They are talking, laughing lightly between themselves. Their bodies are lithe beneath black lace but their skins are stretched too tight across their faces in a way I recognize from the tourists on the island. One of them flings her red hair back, laughing, and then swiftly lowers her gaze again, at the other woman's face. She, the redhead, reaches easily through the space between them and slides her hands between the other's legs. The second closes her eyes, turns halfway, and leans into the redhead's arms so that they are standing like that, the redhead supporting her and reaching around to caress her, the second resting her head against the first one's shoulder, a half-smile opening her face. I see the heavy lips and the small white teeth and I cannot help thinking about what will come next, in their room, the red hair massed between two browned thighs.

"I never knew Las Vegas would be like this, " I say, and you shake your head. "New to me."

We find the reception desk, get our keys and you ask what's going on. The clerk shakes her head, folds her arms across her chest. "Swinger's convention," she says. What luck, I think.

The next three days we gamble. You teach me Twenty-one, Roulette, Craps. I like sitting at the roulette tables the most, not because of the favorable odds, but because I can sit, with a cigarette and a drink on the felt, and leisurely spread my chips around in between watching the other players around me. They've all come for something different, and you can see it in their playing. Some, mostly women, come because of a lack of imagination; they would not know what else to do. They sit at the tables flanked by their friends, trying to figure the odds and angles. They are serious, they do not people-watch, they are here to win money, the numbers are a chaos to be respected, they are making the most of a vacation, they are invisible, even to themselves.

Others come to heighten their visibility. These are mostly men. They come to the tables accompanied by glittery women, they are big, boisterous, crowding other players out of the way. They explain every last detail to their dates as though they'd invented the games, magnanimously slipping them chips from their own stacks. They do not pay attention to anybody but themselves, how they look, they ignore the little rules, the dealers, placing chips after the wheel has started spinning, as though they owned the hotel.

And then the fewest, the most interesting, come to annihilate themselves. They are small at the tables, polite, unobtrusive but for their fixed concentration, their flurry to get their chips down, the sheer staggering numbers of dollars in a single loss.

And you? What kind of player are you? None of the above, I think. You approach a table quietly, the light in your eyes leaping and the rest of your body tightly reined. You come with a quiet yet unmitigated curiosity, your movements controlled yet not ungraceful; you are loathe to disturb the space from which you'll observe. You suspect that, given the time, the right degree of suspension, you will come to feel the dice, the cards, the wheel. If you succeed in striking the balance between restraint and flow, between forgetting your body and filling it with stillness you think you will be in perfect service to the numbers and you will intuit how they will fall. But you may not pay too much attention to this intuition, or so you believe. Too much focus on the act and you will not sense the result.

And it works, much more often than not. You win and win and win, and sometimes you grin a little in awe of it, but never of yourself, you look down at the felt or some point in the air and smile at the perfection of knowing lying just beyond us all.

But still you will not risk too much money, despite one amazing streak after another; within twelve hours you've financed our trip and then some. But you'll never bet more than half of what you've just won.

Me, I bet wildly, I gamble with glee. When you show me around the tables you take a back seat to me; you just quietly explain the rules, laughing with me when I win and moaning when I lose. Within two days I've lost everything I've brought to play with, so I just head to the pocket teller for more. You caution me once, saying I should risk less, I should know when to quit. But I love the chance, it thrills me to lay my money down. For the first time, here in Vegas, surrounded by the absence of clocks, money is nothing and I let it go like a series of small sighs.

On the island the money belonged to the entire family; each member was worth exactly one-seventh of the entire amount that came in after we sold the harvest and that was as much as could be spent and not a cent more. The money held the very particular weight of a limb; when you had it you never felt it, when you didn't, you attained an inexpressible lightness, a feeling of flying off the earth. For you this is not the case. Your losses are a reflection on your ability to play, nothing more. The faces of your family would never float before you while the dealer is clearing your chips, you would never feel compelled to contrive an explanation to a memory. In the end you warn me that I'll do myself in but I laugh it off and you shake your head but you let me be. I think that this is a kind of respect, and I like it.

I am happy. It is all too extraordinary; living outside of time, floating through the casinos and shops inhaling the oxygen-laden air, and smoking, wherever I like. I feel healthy, my body is functioning perfectly, I am light, my sockets lubricated and my muscles toned. The dealers are sweet, they joke with me and commend my luck, seeing that this is the first time I've played. During the day we gamble too, and swim in the hotel pool, nap in our room and make love.

The next day, lying out by the soft pool, the desert air a veil fluttering against our skin, I tell you about heading upstairs the night before in search of cash. You've invited me to a morning Bloody Mary and although I'm skeptical, it is my year to try anything, so I do. And actually this is quite fabulous, lying out in deck chairs, my body succumbing to the weight of the alcohol; the brim of my new straw hat shading my face; I could tell you anything.

I'm at the elevator, waiting, shuffling to the music that's sifting down from the ceiling, when a man and a woman join me. They are wearing watches like flat bands of light around their wrists. They are dressed as though they should be gambling in Africa in another century, exchanging chips for skins. They are so elegant and relaxed they could be the dreamers, and everything else the dream. She leans on his arm, he props her without even looking down at the top of her head. I light a cigarette and she straightens to dig through her purse for her own. She leans over to me then, bending a little at the hips. "Light?" she asks, her voice dry in the asking, as though bored with the formality she acquiesces to, because there are, after all, these rules; it's a trade-off, and besides, there is no small pleasure in submission. I light it and she returns to leaning on her husband. The elevator dings and opens. I enter and they step in behind me with proprietary ease. She detaches herself from her partner to lean against the opposite wall so that she is facing me. Her husband remains to my right. The walls are mirrored and round bulbs burn yellow from recessed corners in the ceiling, the light is obscured by a rash of moths.

I look down and see she is gazing at me full in the face. She is singing softly, between breaths:

Have we lost our minds/ Will this never end

and with one hand she unbuttons the tiny top button of her black dress. The elevator is hung with drifts of smoke. My eyes burn. I glance at her husband but he does not seem to register us; he is looking backwards into his own body and orienteering himself to some desire there. The woman unbuttons her dress down to her solar plexus and pulls the flap of fabric away from her right breast. She is braless, and the breast is heavy, the nipple dark and beaded. Do you feel this same sluggish weight in your belly when you see my breasts? The heavy uncoiling of hunger. In the elevator the air becomes grainy, each granule suffused with a tiny wash of light. There's the twittering of swallows. The moths beat harder at the bulbs. A dark line necklaces the nipple, something winks at the center of it. I step closer to look. She is watching me-completely careless, not even curious. I am in line. The pulp of the breast is tattooed, a small gold ring loops through the nipple. I reach out and tug, lightly. She watches. I am perfectly predictable. I think of a nanny goat I had as a kid, the little udder taut with milk, how she seemed relieved whenever she was milked, how I have often thought, at harvest time, that plucking the trees of their fruit must be like scratching an itch. I consider allowing this couple to follow through with their expectations of me with my t-shirt and jeans, my dime-store earrings, my scooter and grandma's tiny opalescent cups in the sea. I will go to their suite, he will sit in a chair and smoke at the table that is too small for anything besides two drinks and an ashtray, she will put me through my paces, she will be the mirror they give me to see myself with, and I the one-way view into their echelon in this one brief life.

She pushes her breasts out a little and I tug again, just a bit harder. The swallows are flying crazy eights inside my rib cage, their sharp wings brushing against my heart. The mechanics of the elevator transform the moment into a matter of circumstance. I could still go either way. The elevator trembles to a halt, the door opens, and I leave.

 

"Something else, huh?" I say. Your eyes are very round under the bill of your cap.

"Aren't you the adventuress."

"And you know," I continue, "these swingers must be having the wildest parties in their rooms. Theme parties, based on various parts of the anatomy."

You pause, and glance away, toward the diving board and three teenage boys hanging out beneath it, talking animatedly. You turn your gaze back to me. "I imagine they are."

"I'll bet that if we got ourselves a couple of sexy get-ups we could crash some of these parties, check it out. Like field work." Maybe I'm kidding. I smile.

"You aren't serious," you say. You turn your face, giving me your profile, so that you're looking into the pool.

"Why not? Once in a lifetime chance, check out the underbelly. We could party hop, pretend like we're shopping around 'til we've found the right one."

"Would you have gone back to that couple's room last night?"

"I don't know."

So what if we did find the right one?"

"Right what?"

"Party."

"That's a thought. If everyone's comfortable, then we could stay." I'm still smiling, I still might be teasing. But what if?

You take another sip of your drink, pulling on the straw. When you're finished you keep it close to your face and look into it, rattling the ice. "Not with me," you say. "I'm not interested."

"Why not?" I ask and you wait a long time before telling me this:

You go to a friend's bachelor party. The best man, Blake, has arranged a hotel suite. The groom, Jim, is a surgeon in his last year of residency; the living room is full of young doctors sitting at tables with drinks and cards. You feel fine; people have brought their poker hats and even self-declared non-smokers have cigarettes in their hands. They are talking low at the tables, chuckling, and a lot of money is good-naturedly changing hands. The city outside the windows winks like a kingdom.

There is a knock on the door and Blake goes to get it. A woman in an ankle-length black wool coat enters, carrying a large lidded basket and accompanied by a tall man. Everybody looks up from their games. The guy next to you says, 'all right' beneath his breath. The woman puts the basket on the sideboard, talks to Blake for a few moments and then hands him a cassette. The large man takes a position by the door, his legs slightly spread and his hands folded across his chest. Blake cuts the music that had been playing to slip the cassette in. You have heard that this might happen but you thought that it was more of a joke and now you are feeling a slight clenching in your stomach and you don't quite know what to do. So you glance back at your hand, thinking that this game might actually get finished, but somebody calls out to clear a table and everybody else stands to do so, as one. A conference table is placed at the center of the room. The bodyguard takes the woman's coat and someone else shuts half the lights. The men get fresh drinks, light cigarettes and cluster loosely, but expectantly, around the table. You notice that two others beside yourself, Thomas and Ronen, are moving a little more slowly than the rest. Dave, another one of Jim's high school buddies, is standing next to you. "Blake considered asking the company for a blonde and a redhead as well," he says, shaking his head.

"So why didn't he?" you ask.

"He talked to some of the guys and we thought it would be too much."

"Too ridiculous?"

Dave looks quickly at you, askance. "No, you know, just too much. Three women."

"But we're about twenty men. I don't get it."

"That's cool."

You look up again and Blake is taking hold of the woman's arm and steering her towards a chair that has been set next to the table. She breaks away for a moment to retrieve the basket and sets it on top of the table. She has bright black hair that curls wildly around a small, blurred face. Her lipstick is almost neon against her lips. It has been applied in such a way as to give sharper definition to her lips. She looks at Blake expectantly and he helps her step up onto the chair. "Hey, everybody, meet tonight's entertainment," he says, and she steps onto the table. She is wearing a black leather miniskirt and a black leather bra. What a surprise, you think. You look up at her and she suddenly seems very large, a body under water, almost imposing. There's that knotting in your belly again. "This is Angie," Blake continues. "Angie, these are the boys, and this one here," he says, touching Jim on the shoulder, "is the lucky groom."

Angie removes the lid from the basket and carefully lifts out a six-foot, thick-bodied boa constrictor. The snake falls slowly out of its coils as she raises it into the air. Gently holding it with both hands, she leans toward Jim as though offering it to him. Jim can easily look into the shadow between her pushed-up breasts. The animal flicks its tongue over Jim's cheek. "Congratulations," Angie says, and blows him a kiss. The little crowd claps, and a few of the guys, like your friends Tucker and Evan, whistle. The music starts, slow and tinny.

Angie begins to dance, holding the snake aloft, so that it seems to be looking into her eyes, the tail end of its body lazily looping up toward her waist to seek a spot to wrap around. She steps slowly in a circle in a manner reminiscent of dancing with a partner, drawing him in and then pushing him away again. She is wearing very high heels and her ankles seem impossibly slim. She turns one more circle before facing the men and hanging the snake about her waist so it can move about her body at will while she snaps her fingers in the air above her head and it does so, it climbs her body to twine its neck about her throat and look out from beneath her chin while its tail wraps twice around her right thigh. Although she seems strong, moving with the rhythm of a trained dancer, the snake makes her appear fragile, and you wonder what prevents it from crushing her and you think she must keep it well-fed, imagining her at home, in her jeans, wincing as she drops a rat into its cage.

She begins to unclasp her bra. You close your eyes momentarily, wishing she wouldn't do that, and you think of Ginna, Jim's fiancé and that she considers you a friend, and how she'd told you a week before that she knows you guys aren't the kinds of guys to do anything like hire strippers for a bachelor party and remembering this you grimace.

There is a slow surging around you, and when you open your eyes the men have closed in a little more tightly. She peels off her bra and drops it to the floor. Tucker, the clown, crows as he picks it up and puts it over his shirt. The two cups hang like scraps of lace beneath his shoulders. He spins around, shimmying his shoulders and singing, "One fish, two fish, old fish, new fish!" The guys laugh, someone slaps him on the butt.

She takes hold of her breasts and shakes them. Breasts certainly don't need to bob, you think, in order to draw a man's attention. So far she hasn't said a word, as though she were alone with the snake in the room, and you wonder at yourself for thinking that she would. Her face is completely placid, like a singer singing a ballad without showing any emotion. She reaches around to unzip her and slowly tugs at it, rubbing her thighs across each other until the waist band slips past her hips so that she can kick it free. Tucker grabs it and puts it on his head. It flops as he does another jig in the crowd. She's wearing a g-string underneath. She turns around and bends over at the waist, simultaneously bringing the middle of the snake up to her neck and looping the boa's head and tail underneath each arm, so that the snake's face is resting on the small of her back, gazing out at the men, and the men can look out at the straight lines of her legs, the dimples in the backs of the knees and the furrow in her buttocks. The g-string barely covers her genitalia. She turns around again and drops to her knees. She spreads her knees slightly and the snake brings its head around from under her arm and searches her face. "C'mon now, Honey," she says, and the animal lowers its head to her belly and then down to her crotch, flickering as though it would slide its head beneath her underwear. There's more applause. She rears back and arches, brings her legs out from beneath her and turns over so that she's on all fours. It wraps around her thigh and she begins to simulate copulation; lowering her pelvis to hump the table like a man before stretching her legs out completely and spreading them. With one hand she reaches back and grabs one buttock and pulls them apart. The g-string is almost immaterial.

The boys cheer. She turns to lie on her back again, lifts her buttocks into the air, takes off the g-string, slides to the edge of the table, brings up her knees, spreads them and with her own hands parts both the inner and outer labia. Tucker yodels and makes as though to lunge at her. She swiftly moves back and wags a finger at him.

The clenching in your stomach has turned into a fist. You don't understand why Tucker or anybody else would want to peer into a stranger's vagina. You decide it's time to go, so you head back to the bedroom for your coat. Evan comes out of the bathroom just as you've grabbed the coat from the bed. "Hey, where you going?" he asks, zipping up his fly.

"Home. "

"What for? It's Jim's bachelor party, a once in a lifetime thing. He'd get all distracted if he knew you were leaving."

"I'm tired," you say.

Evan takes your coat from you and flings it back to the bed.

"C'mon, you'll perk up. Besides, Blake put a lot into making this happen. The woman's having a good time, and getting rich off us to boot." He's taken you by the elbow and guided you back to the foray. "Look at her go." You look and see she's got her legs split as widely as possible again. "Ain't it cash not having to work for it for a change?" he says. You don't answer.

She looks as though she'll turn herself inside out. Why this urge to dissect a woman, you wonder, why this inability to let what's private be private? When Evan meets a girl someplace normal, does he have to imagine her peeling herself open in order to get aroused? First he must know everything. Your friends are gaping like they've been waiting all their lives.

She lifts the snake off her chest and places it between her open legs. It begins to slither towards her crotch as though on cue. It noses a little way between her lips. She moans loudly, but you notice that her body holds no tension; she is completely relaxed. The men are becoming more agitated, "Damn smart snake, " someone yells. She lifts it again, rises to her knees and brings it to her face. She opens her mouth, wide, and slowly guides its head in. For an awful moment you think she's going to bite it off, but she simply tilts her head back and pushes the snake deeper into her throat before pulling it out a little and pushing it back in. The men are completely silent. She repeats the movement a few more times and then pops the snake's head back out and takes a deep bow. Still there is silence.

Someone, Tucker, you think, yells, "Get out the whipped cream!" The silence breaks; several men echo the call. Tucker ducks out for a moment and comes back with a can. Her man by the door appears then, shouldering through the crowd. She puts a hand on his arm when he reaches her and he holds still. She looks at Blake and says, "You'll have to pay. Two-fifty." He pulls the money out of his pocket and hands it to her. She gives it to her man. You cannot believe this. Your friends cheer.

Tucker shakes up the can and cocks it. She lies back down. He empties the entire bottle on her, tracing meridians lengthwise along her body from her from her hairline to her toes. Tucker throws the can beneath the table,

"Who's first?" he says, looking around. He grabs Jim. "Go on, Jim, it's your night." Quite a few of the others chime in, "Yeah, have at it, she's all yours!" Jim hesitates. "Opportunity knocks, Jim, probably for the last time." Jim shrugs and approaches the table. She coolly watches him come. He leans over her, propping his hands on the table and she arches her back a little, he puts his mouth to one nipple and licks the cream away. The men are very quiet again. Jim turns to face everyone, smacking his lips. Laughter. "You're up, Blake, and thanks for everything," Tucker says. Blake mocks a swagger to the table and clears a small square of skin on her stomach to the left of the navel. You notice that the snake is gone and figure her man must have put it back into the basket. You go over to the sideboard to mix another vodka tonic and you see that the basket is empty. Sipping the drink you glance about the room. The snake is hanging from a small, low wall lamp, facing the crowd and perfectly still. There's really no place to go, so you rejoin the circle of onlookers, hanging back on the fringe. Thomas is standing next to you, his hands deep in his pockets, shifting from side to side on his feet, looking as agitated as you feel. Both Tucker and Evan are at the table now, each with a breast in his mouth. She's got her hands on their necks, her fingers in their hair, as though to hold them there. You look at how close their heads are to one another and a heat rises to your face.

Tucker and Evan straighten up simultaneously, rising with the grace of two birds through the air. They look at each other over the woman's body for a moment, smiling, and then reach out and shake.

Evan spies you and Thomas as he leaves the table. You look quickly at the floor. "Hey, Thomas," he says, "want to go next?"

"Think I'll pass," Thomas replies.

Evan comes to stand a few feet in front of Thomas and the rest of the men turn. "It's all paid up, consider it a gift."

Thomas leans back on his heels and runs both hands through his hair. "Thanks anyway," he replies, "I'm all right."

"What's the deal, Buddy," Evan asks, his voice becoming a little tighter, "Not your style?"

Everyone looks at Thomas, including you. You know perfectly well what's going to come next. Your blood begins to race a little and you break out into a light sweat. Evan steps one step closer. "Above it," he says, "aren't you?"

"No way, man," Thomas answers, "I'm just not up to it right now."

Evan grins. "You'll be up for it, just move on over." The rest laugh.

You can hear Thomas exhale and the sweat trickles down your ribs. Thomas walks over to Angie, looks at her for a brief moment and then leans over, licks cream from her pelvic bone and then gives her a quick kiss on the lips. Watching this you know you have no place to go, your lips begin to feel terribly heavy. Before Thomas has even finished you are walking toward her, the room starting to tilt. There is that heightened awareness of the air on your skin that accompanies being watched. Yet when you reach her the rest of the room seems to fall away. She is lying there quietly, the broken lines of cream striping her skin, and it comes over you that you could touch her anywhere, like a lover you've lain with for years, the unfamiliarity of this body the only difference. You have permission to make her completely known. Although her rib cage rises and falls with her breathing, you are struck, for a moment, with the impression that she is plastic, inert and empty, a house that has been abandoned-you may wander through and pocket what you will. And it's exactly that surge of curiosity that infuses you. You feel delight seeping through your limbs like a kind of strength. You take hold of one breast and squeeze and you are surprised to find the warmth in her skin; you'd already decided that she'd be cool. You squeeze the other, as though comparing them, and then you push the two breasts together and suck one nipple and then the other and then the first one again. Your mouth is watering, you feel a throb in your jaw.

Something breaks your concentration, you look up and straight into her eyes. Below the surface there is shadowed movement, and you recognize sheer hatred and pleasure in her gaze. You understand that you've been had and anger causes every muscle to flex. An urge to bite one of the nipples between your hands makes your jaw hum, until you realize what you are thinking and you're flooded with shame. You release her and step away, wiping your hands on your jeans.

Someone slaps you on the back and you grin and give the sign that could mean victory, or peace.

Angie sits up and Blake moves over to her with Evan and someone else to whisper in her ear. You go to the sideboard and mix yet another drink. When you turn around again she's already kneeling on the floor in front of Jim, unbuckling his belt. Someone has put Tina Turner on the stereo, the air is laden with heat. The bodyguard is still at the door, keen-eyed and tense. You're feeling a bit dizzy, but still you watch as her head moves in and out of Jim's crotch, his friends surrounding him, laughing and expectant, waving cigarettes and drinks.

After a few more minutes Angie gets up and goes to the bathroom, rinses her mouth and returns. Someone else, a guy named Randy whom you've never met, is already undoing his pants. She gets down in front of him, still bespattered with cream. Randy places his big hands on the back of her head and she does it again. You turn away, nauseous now, and enter the bedroom. Three guys are crouched on the floor next to the bed. You can no longer register who they are, one of them wielding a pocketknife, cutting the boa into long strips. One of them stands up with a precisely cut six-foot piece of skin, pirouettes and drapes it over the lamp shade.

No one notices as you finally get your coat and leave.

These are feelings, you say, that you never want to feel again.

That night, much later, I cannot get the picture of you wanting to bite her out of my mind as I'm trying to sleep.

On our last day in Vegas we visit the Mirage. We enter and it swallows us. It is a small, verdant city, a florid labyrinth, and before we settle down to play we walk, just looking, for miles. The hallways are thick with miniature jungles, sharks cruise back and forth above the reception desk. This is the final city, I think, the last worship before we are buried and the next ones can start anew, carefully patting down the soil before constructing the plow, a blade of sweet grass stuck between the teeth. The mechanically repeated designs in the carpets and upholstery are complicated enough to outdo the subtle patterns in nature. Not even the stars are lacking as they unfold in careful choreography above our heads. We need never go outside for stimuli again. We walk, amazed.

We turn another corner, stroll along a corridor, and happen on a crowd. The people are standing in front of a huge plate-glass window that looks in on a white cave. In the cave are icy blue pools, a waterfall, cliffs and ledges, and hanging plants. Lying on a large, high ledge, almost invisible against the white stone, are two white tigers, their backs turned to us. They are curled up against each other, and appear to be fake, or dead.

"No," I say.

"What?" You have not spotted them yet.

"Look." I point them out to you. "This is too much." The tigers are enormous. Even lying completely still they are larger than their own bodies. I get goose bumps. They have no place to go.

So I begin to sing my little song. It is really a prayer that I learned from a woman that I shared a cell with once, in Athens. It's a prayer for the vanishing of time. You hear it a lot in jail, but it fits all kinds of situations. If you come upon an auto wreck, for example, or someone dying in a hospital room. It is very lovely, very soft, and if you know it you must sing it should the occasion arise. It is a respect that you must pay, to yourself or anyone you might be a witness to. You must sing it then and at no other time; it may not be sung lightly, or so the woman taught me, in jail.

 

So I open my throat and find my heart and sing. When you're singing it your mouth is giving voice directly to that which is in your heart; the desire to make the time disappear. Within the perimeters of the song, which surround you as you are singing, there is nothing else. So that it doesn't matter if there are other people turning to stare at you, or beginning to walk away. You hardly notice. And besides, it just allows the song to fill more space.

When I finish the corridor is empty. You are sitting cross-legged against a wall at least fifteen feet away, staring out into the open air.

I turn away from the tigers and walk to you. Still gazing in front of you, you ask, "Are you done?" And then you get up and start walking. I hurry to catch up. Clearly we're finished gambling for the day.

Back in our room you go straight to your bag and dig up your chew, pinch a bit of it and carefully fit it between your gums and cheek. You fold yourself up into a chair and resume gazing out into nothing in front of you.

 

Have you ever noticed? You turn your eyes away and down, at something that is not moving, the floor perhaps, you turn your eyes away from the wind brushing against the earth, the sound of the night, the water pouring into the glass. Something you could so easily grasp! You could just take that glass into your hands and drink from it, your eyes following the slow sluice of the water into your mouth, your throat closing and opening on its coolness, if you could do it with respect for that water flowing into your sea of dreams. But you can never remember your dreams in the morning; you have carefully constructed very distant shores, and so you do not wish to hear me when I tell you about the puma who walked down the slope to stare at me with huge topaz eyes, through walls that had fallen, to leap smoothly into my heart: "Your dreams are so vivid," you say, unable to look at me, the life in my hair, the muted rushing beneath my skin; you punish me, you wear me out.

My grandmother says our dreams are fundamentally rational and closes her eyes with respect. Her eyes are large, dark, set deep into her head. One day she comes on my brother throwing stones at an injured bird in the little village square. Some of the men are there, sitting on their stoops, smoking, watching without words. Grabbing Stamitas by the wrist, he must be fifteen or so, she hauls him away from the bird. Stamitas is giggling, his other hand clutching his side. My grandmother yanks on his arm, hard, her eyes glassy with wet. Some of the men frown and cluck their tongues. My grandmother takes Stamitas by both shoulders and rattles him, telling him that he will never hurt anything again. One by one the men get up and disappear through their doors. Stamitas stops laughing and looks my grandmother in the eyes. I am sure I know what he sees there; that blue-black like those huge plants heaving at the bottom of the clearest sea. None of the men witness what happens then, that he begins to cry. It is a week before any of them will acknowledge my grandmother again.

You sit with your legs flung over the arm of the chair, spitting at rhythmic intervals into a glass, your feet tapping on nothing. You will not say anything, no matter how many ways I ask. I would like to tell you what I see before me now, but it would be like throwing stones into an empty well. You see, Stamitas never did stop. Perhaps he only became discreet.

About two years later I am looking for Angeliki in the early evening. Maybe she is fourteen and I'd like for her to help me cook.

We've been picking olives all day and I can imagine her lying up beneath one of the trees, taking a few minutes to dream and scratching lazily at the heat in her thick black hair. So the orchard is the first place I go. The orchard is silent, and through the trees the sky is a sheet of uninterrupted blue crumpling to meet the sea. I can tell you I am happy for this little search is taking me into the orchard without work, the stony soil breaking beneath my bare feet. But then, naturally I do hear something; it is the soft scraping of cloth back and forth across skin, and broken breathing. I listen closely and follow the sound. Although I think I already know, there is no way I could have thought of this; Stamitas straddling my sister across the chest, her gagging on his penis that is disappearing into her mouth. I think her mouth will split at the fine corners. I shout Stamitas but he is lost inside himself. So I stop him, I pick up the largest rock I can manage and heave it into his head.

Angeliki and I are not going to talk about it not now, not ever, and here you are, tap, tapping your feet at nothing, your face unmoving so what can I do but whirl in a hundred circles, the strength in every one of my days to come surging from the earth through my legs, its heat rising to my skin. So what if I toss a few things around, a cheap glass, an ashtray, the remote control, to make a song in the glass splintering against the wall?

Angeliki turns to me and says, "He left," and soon the humming begins like the drone of far machinery. There's nothing to do but come back to this four-walled chorus and listen to the hymns interrupted, sometimes, by the fleeing in the hallway, the city emptying itself.

We've been standing by the kitchen window, smoking and watching the sun cross the white porcelain of the stove. But you know, it's only yesterday that I've really seen it: oily as it slides from one edge to the other and back again.

The life is quiet as we polish our plows. This series of little deaths seeding our fields. You know my blue coffee cup? It fits perfectly into the bowl of my palms. Do you think of the cup and its places on the desk, the counter, the window sill. I doubt it: the cup flies into the sea. Everything is rushing towards the water you know, my trinket earrings, the gin and tonics, your hand at my back, the space between two bodies, your small sighs and my grandmother's voice in the graveyard, everything disappearing beneath the waves, the sun winding sideways across the caps. I do love the motion, I crave it. I have felt it, my truck a blue breeze ticking across the highway, waking up in the grass at the side of the road to the birds before dawn. I want to be in it again, the streaming, I want to go.

 

 

 

Note

1. Lyrics from "Brother John" (Sister Sweetly album) by Big Head Todd and the Monsters (Giant Records/Park Mohr Publishing, Inc. BMI, 1992).
2. Lyrics from "Star Me Kitten" (REM album/Automatic for the People) (Night Garden Music/Unichappell Music, Inc. BMI/Warner Brothers Records).

 

 

Text © 1995, 1999 by Patricia Ammann
"The Gift" first appeared in Many Mountains Moving, Volume 1, Number 2. The work appears here by permission of the author.


Original Graphic Image, "Things I Don't Tell the Neighbors" © 2000 by Emmanuela Copal de León


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