Friday, January 10, 2014

Collections: Variations on a Theme with Harmonica




"Sisters!"  The Voice sails his one word across this bar where the air is hung like August.  That pitch always gets me, I have to look.  You can tell he likes his own effect:  he turns on a dangerous light in his eyes, dilates his own pupils at will.
But I'm way too slow.  Kat has already inhaled all pertinent visual information.  I see her cross her long legs and let out a low moan.  In the next second, she'll waft toward him on a trail of pheromones and I'll be left to fend for myself. She's my sister and I love her, but I have the sneaking suspicion that she knows I saw him first.  No fair, no fair!  I shriek inside my head, but the plot has already thickened in its usual way.
Ever since I got fat, this is the only kind of fun I get.  Theoretically, I should be able to sop up Kat's overflow of men.  Oh, well.  I wonder if this is what Mother means when she says you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him buy you a drink.
You know, I was always embarrassed by the bigness of my bones, but I thought I was off the hook when they finally revised the height-weight charts.  But no matter how many times I pointed out that I was not off this chart's scale, old X was not impressed.  "Gain five more, I'm gone," he growled.  I looked down to see his enormous forefinger pumping my well-upholstered belly.  And then he tried to help me, carrot-and-stick fashion.  He set the scale in front of the refrigerator door plastered with Polaroids of my cellulite sites.  He made me weigh in every morning and in only two weeks I had gained the required five pounds.  For the first time in his life, old X kept his promise. But that was then and this is now.  I should be able to forget about X, what with all the fun I'm pushed right up against.
I don't see hide nor hair of Kat for the next few days, but, not to worry, I know where she is.  When she finally fills the doorway of our apartment, she is wearing one broken high heel and the look I get after a pint of rocky road.  "We better go to the hospital again," she says. "I just can't stomach the taste of latex."  I get to be included in this little errand because Kat is terrified of needles and she always faints. But it's different this time.  Kat hasn't crashed off her love-high and she spills every detail of her tryst with the foundling.  The nurse misses her vein twice, she's so intent in her eavesdropping.  Kat barely winces and she can't seem to shut up.  My mouth begins to water.  I go from thirsty to desperate for a Gatorade.  When it's time to go, I'm the one about to faint.
Kat and I stop off at a lunch counter we like.  The waiters are so cute, all younger and taller than me, although we weigh about the same.  I'm in the mood for their Fatburgerboy and a giant coke.  I start to tell Kat this, but she's concentrating, tongue creeping out, on pulling off her band-aid.  I look at the red spot on the gauze and the puncture inside her elbow and suddenly the desire for that burger leaves me. I feel my eyes well up with tears.  "I'll just have a plain salad," I say in a voice-for-church.  Kat jerks her head up, eyes wide and stretching wider.  She mulls it over, then tells the waiter snappily, "Two plain salads, and ice water."
What's happened to me I just can't explain.  It's been weeks and weeks since then. Surely I must be hungry by now.  There's the taste of ashes in my mouth and a drawing feeling under my skin so I feel like I'm melting.  Still, I can't eat, not like before.  The lump in my throat is almost too big to swallow.
This is my new routine:  I'm sprawled on the couch, swaddled in one of X's old shirts.  It smells like him, but not enough so I'd gag or anything.  I wield the clicker like a man.  I bet I can reach the end of my youth before carpel tunnel sets in.
One night, Kat floats into the room all blonde and fluffy.  She gracefully sets a bowl of fruit at my feet, careful not to make any sudden moves.  By now, she knows better than to ask me to come along with her. After Kat leaves, on a cloud of perfume, I stretch out all my empty body parts along the couch.  I know I'll pay for this later, but I let the tears come anyway.  I cry until my ducts hurt.  Ha! Another two pounds down, I bet!
Which is worse, being fat, divorced, living with my sister on my mother's money, or this giant headache knocking at each temple?  I grope my way into the kitchen and try to unscrew the cap to the aspirin.  The effort squinches my eyes shut tighter, then the right eyebrow shoots upward as if it has to be somewhere else. I try to focus my eyes on an object.  The toaster is good, it's not so shiny anymore.  I peer into it like a mirror and see that I am crying on one side of my head.  This is the way it always is, but somehow this time I look different.  I watch the toaster more carefully, looking for my extra chins. Toaster must be really dirty.  I push it away and take another look. From another angle.  I can see a torso, but it looks only faintly familiar.  My hands wander up and down my sides, looking for old boundaries.  Part of me has been abducted, erased, amputated out all of my great big bones!
I need some more proof, so I grope my way over to the couch, pulling my clothes off as I go.  I arrange things so I'm framed inside the dark, blank TV screen, like a butterfly on a slide.  I gingerly move my limbs in various Barbie poses until I am convinced at last.  Funny how endorphins can eat up an entire migraine! And won't Kat be surprised!
I leap up at the first squeak of the door and see shock widen her eyes and redden her cheeks.  I stand there, grinning stupidly, and suddenly I'm rooted to the floor, frozen, naked.  A man has just somersaulted into the living room right behind Kat.  He jumps up, more eager than ever before in his life. "Alright!  Two of you!" he says with a show of teeth.  He rubs his hands together.  Kat gets mad and shoves the acrobat into her studio. She will not share.
Next day, I decide to go out. And see what I can find. "Got anything I can wear tonight?" I ask Kat, and watch her face dimple with every kind of delight.  She pulls clothes out of closets and drawers and floats them like clouds onto the bed.  In the end, I choose standard biker-babe stuff, despite Kat's warning that black leather makes you sweat; plus, it sticks to everything and everybody.
Kat sends me out into the night like a benevolent fairy-godmother.  First stop -- the arts bar down the street from the art school.  Even if I don't get lucky, at least I'll be entertained. The first thing I see is a pair in black clothes and corresponding nose-rings.  They slap each other's pale cheeks, politely taking turns.  They've gathered an audience, and someone presses into me from behind, nuzzling me and lifting the hair off my neck with a calloused hand.  His voice grazes my ear.  "It doesn't really hurt when you get hit, did you know that?"  He jabs the air toward the slapping couple with his fist and all the hairs on the back of my exposed neck stand up and salute.  I wheel out of his vicinity, sinking into the nearest available booth.
There is a naked girl dancing on top of the bar.  She must have undressed fast, because by now all she's got on are socks, grey ankle socks wet with spilled booze.  She's in her own little world, oblivious to the crowd until their clapping becomes the accompaniment to an obscene chant they scream until the sound penetrates her brain.  She stops abruptly, gasps, then crisscrosses her body uselessly with her arms.  Laughter erupts and she begins to cry.
I slip from my booth and follow the stream of people out the door.  I'm okay with this; some of them I think I've seen before. So it must be safe.  We stop only a few feet away at a desolate train station.  It's a ruin, especially under a cold, wintery moon.
The kids mill around a fire escape, pulling flasks and bottles from the inside of their coats.  They arrange themselves on railings and steps and all at once I see we're gradually, slowly, creeping our way toward a window with a light burning in it and scratchy radio music coming from it.
It smells like a locker room cum sauna and it's so loud I don't think anyone can hear my leather pants squeak.  I can see a real possibility of getting stuck to someone without ever making contact.  We're all moving like some high-tech gyro:  the lighter ones (me!) being jostled inside the circle of more stationary heavies around and around the room.
I can't even absorb all this before someone kind of rollers into me.  He speaks to the top of my head.  "When I'm blocked I feel the static in my third eye."
"Uh huh" I say into his collarbone.  He talks and talks and I begin to pray for some kind of wind vector that will separate us.  His hot breath seal up everyplace I try to breathe in.  Don't faint, don't faint. Something else distracts him and he whirls away quoting Italian from Dante and Virgil's Excellent Adventure.
Then my ears open like some sea anemone to the voice that narrates my best dreams.  "Yo, other sister," my foundling croons, this time directly to me.  It's what I've come here for, I can see that now.
The crowd has mashed us together so tightly I wonder if our hipbones will ever unlock.  I try to speak but he's reading only my eyes; and the air thickens suddenly into a haze that chokes off speech and makes my eyes water. He moves me toward the door, his face always toward mine, as if we're dancing.  He wants to take me to a room at the end of the hall.
I'd like to skip down this hall but that wouldn't be cool.  Instead, I unfurl my unfat body on the boy's sleeping bag and watch his cigarette glow in the dark from across the room. It takes forever for him to finish that smoke.  As he comes toward me at last, I can hear my stomach growl.
Later, first light ruffles his curls and I fancy I hear angels singing.  But it's only the little girl across the way.  She skips rope and she sings this:  I wish I had a nickel, I wish I had a dime, I wish I had a lover who'd love me all the time.  I'd make him do the dishes, I'd make him scrub the floor, and when he was all finished, I'd shove him out the door.

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