Ri7 Essed

It happened one time while I was back home visiting that I ran into an old friend from school. After some awkwardly warm exchange of greetings- warm but hesitant on her end, and on mine just plain hesitant and reserved after living so long outside Louisiana in a place where a smile passing somebody on the street can get you the stinkeye in return- we decided to continue on to a nearby park to talk since we both had time to spare.
"So...how ya been?" I started as we walked, not really knowing the best place to begin. She reached up and plucked some soft pre-bloom pods from a crepe myrtle we were passing, and began busying herself with squeezing the bottoms. Each pod popped in an explosion of fuchsia frills and folds, then squeezed out more and more and more like toothpaste from a tube as Kayla's fingers pinched harder and harder and harder against the bottom of it, until it could be pushed no more. When it got to that point it tended to lose the more brilliant aspects of its beauty and just look like a squished paper flower after the party has all finished up and everybody has gone home already, save for the decorations left overnight for somebody else to clean up, because really, that's not my job.
".....not good." Kayla said quietly.
I frowned and looked over in concern. "..Why? What's up?"
Kayla shrugged her shoulders and made a "it don't matter" face. We sat down on a rough cement bench near an ancient blooming dogwood tree, and Kayla preoccupied herself with popping more of her crepe myrtle pods.
"'s just...." The words seemed to stick in her throat. She shook her head, trying to clear them away. "I dunno, I'm just...just tired, is all. I'm so tired."
"Of what?"
Kayla shrugged and sighed, throwing aside the spent flowers she had just forced into prematurely blooming. "Life. Love. Men. E'rything. I'm tired'f relationships. Tired'f the cum an go'f men always hopin' fer more than they evah seem able t'give...tired'f...I dunno, jus' tired'f men always sayin' th' same thing, always wantin' th' same thing, an' never givin' back nearly wut it costs a woman t'give wut they ask fuh.."
I gave a small, snorting laugh, smiling a little at the familiarity of her story. "You sound like you jes' got outta a relationship."
To my surprise Kayla just shook her head. "Naw, not really. I've only really been havin' one night stands. 'N those'r useless. All you get from 'em is more lonely an' a case'f crabs."
She noticed my shock and laughed. "Well, 's true!"
I looked away from her. "Yeah, well, kinda sounds like that may be yer problem right there."
"Naw, that ain't it." She followed where I was looking and was quiet for a while. She was quiet so long that at first I thought she must have gotten lost in her thoughts or at the sight of the squirrels a ways away battling over a garbage can find, but then she added, "Naw, that ain't it at all. It's been goin' on a wile- a reel long wile." She shook her head then looked down at the oily asphalt walkway a pace in front of us, kicking her feet out towards it. "Since high school- mebbe before. Men always comin' after me, always followin' me around with 'aww, baby, yew so purrrty' an always after th' same thing. It's always th' same thing. Sex. They ne'er want nuthin' else, not e'en yer heart or yer warmth or yer care or concern or yer love or anythin' else'f value tha' you cud offer'em. They say 'aww babee, yew so purrrty' jus' fera chance to get in yer pants an' then leave off wit' sumbuddy else."
I bit my lip. This was the most honest she had ever been with me, even including our days as close friends back in high school. I was touched, but something about what she was saying seemed a little off. It didn't seem to describe any of the men I was close to, or most of the men I had known. "But Kayla-" a shock of intense closeness at using her first name shot through me and for a moment magnetized my soul to hers- "you are pretty. Yer very pretty. Maybe tha's just th' reason..."
"Pretty! Pretty?" Bitterness exploded from deep within Kayla. "Ifi could take pretty an' cut it all offa mah face, peel an' scar it all away so people could see what really is layin' underneath an' never say again 'awww, baby, yew so puuurrty' I would!" She spat out the words as if they had been stuck in her throat for ages, rotting and clogging up all attempts at communication from the inside. "D'yew know wut pretty has dun fer me? Huh?? Wut's pretty dun fer me atall bu' gimme oggle-eyed uncles, lickin'-lips boys flirtin' wit de possibility'f wearing pretty on dey dicks fer an hour or two an den leavin' in th' mornin' wit a smile an' a thank you an' a 'i'll call yew later' witout a backward glance? Wut did pretty e'er gimme but a father rubbin hands over thighs an' kissing neck an' tellin' me 'baby, yew so purrty, i love yew so much, yer mah lil honey' wile my stepmom jes' looks me straight inna eye an' then turns her head t'th' side? Wut did pretty ever do fer me but rot me from th' inside by all th' men tryin' to flaunt me, all th' people tryin' ta fuck me, an' all th' women spittin' at me, huh? Take yer goddamn pretty! I don' want it nomore! I ain' never wanted it!! Not fer wut it gave me!"
I didn't know what to say. I couldn't say anything; there was too much to and not enough words for anyone to ever say it in. So I stayed where I was, hand paused quarter-way between resting isolated on my lap and reaching out to comfort her, frozen by a fear of how much I could see of everything in her and the world now, and afraid and ashamed at how utterly incapable I was of changing any of it. And so Kayla sat there sobbing to the ongoing world, pink rimming her eyes and tears unashamedly exposing themselves to anybody that might walk by at that moment. She clutched at her own arms, nails digging in tight through her shirt as if she was trying to claw her soft flesh away, nostrils flaring wide caverns in her face and teeth gritting so hard the tendons in her neck stood out in relief like razor cliff-edges. "Take....take...take yer goddamn pretty..."
I wish I could say that I did something. I think maybe I hugged her. And we parted shortly after, with me distantly but earnestly imploring her to keep in touch and her mumbling off-handedly that yes, yes of course she would, we should see each other again before I left.
But she never did, and I never made any effort. I couldn't say why- I just pushed her out of my head.
Years later in a rush of inspiration I looked her up on Facebook. Sure enough, there she was with pictures of her holding a child and what I assumed was either her husband or her boo. Weight had been added along with years to her face, and deep dark circles cut into flabby pale cheeks beneath big green eyes that carried a look to them like they had had enough. She looked like a woman who had passed through the eye of death again and again, only to find nothing on the other side but more of the same. Even her smile never reached more than her lips now. Everything about her husband screamed redneck cracker to me, and he stood in that characteristic Louisiana stance of ownership I'd seen so many times before, identifying the person he was standing next to as his woman. And standing next to Kayla in his white cut-off t-shirt with a print of a giant marijuana leaf, a multicolored hunting cap covering a too-big head on a too-thin neck with close-cropped straw-colored hair and homemade tattoos spiderwebbing over arms and neck, I wondered if she was truly happy with him. Was he just like all the others she seemed to have gotten trapped with?
Her eyes said differently peering out from photographs of the two of them wearing matching baggy sweatshirts and hunting caps standing together in the dense autumn Louisiana underbrush, Kayla holding their pale, blondehaired baby close as her own mousey curls blew in the breeze. They said it didn't matter now. Nothing really mattered now.
I'm just....just tired. I'm so tired. Her eyes repeated this refrain, but also added that a point had been reached where it didn't matter what kind of person she was with- for better or for worse, all she could do was keep existing. Love, support, care, relationships, none of these had anything to do with it. Why she even continued to survive I could never say. Looking at those eyes I doubted that even genuine love and care could reach through past everything that had been done to her and everything that she still lived with the memories of on constant repeat. Did each night, each instance of sex, merely re-affirm what experience had already taught her of her worth? Is closeness even possible for somebody who has gone through all of that? Is it even possible for her to find happiness with any man after all of that?
I tried contacting her, sending her a friend request and a small message, but I never heard back. I had lost her number years ago, and by now it was far too late to ever go back.


Hm. 1993? I was takin' mah First Communion. Me all dressed up inna li'l white dress mah mama made fer me, all criss-crossed wit' ribbons that had these li'l white rosettes sewn inta 'em an' topped by a little gauze veil, like I was sum bridesmaid or child bride goin' to her own weddin', 'em tellin' us we waz brides of Christ now like th' nuns were. Kin you imagin' that, me all dressed up in white like a li'l cupcake, wi' this old silver cross of Christ th' King on me an' an e'en more ancient sterling silver necklace dotted wit' semi-preshus stones, sumufem missin', that'd been passed down frum mah great-great gran'mutter to mah great-granmutter- she's who put th' cross on it- to mah granmutter to mah mama to me to wear fer jes that day, an' li'l me so scared that I wud lose it'r break it'r damage itin sum way that I worried more bout dat then th' damn First Communion! Ha!
I wuz so nervous that day I started playin' basketball b'for we left to calm mah nerves- imagine that, li'l ol me lookin' like sum iced cupcake decorated wit' li'l ribbons'f rosettes an' dainty white lace gloves an' frilled perfect white shoes an' socks all ready fer mah First Communion an' I grab a basketball an' start dribblin away an' takin' shots at our basketball goal on th' carport! Man, I luvved me sum basketball, too. I felt like that piece'f round orange rubber wuz a part'f me an' that it could never leave me, e'en when dribblin' down the court or takin' a shot. It waz me an' I never wanted it t'be apart. Hahaha! I had so many dreams, dreams'f bein' a sev'n-foot-tall WNBA star.....I had so many dreams when I waz young...
I wanted t'be a dancer- act in plays- a Blues singer poet fiddler musician lightin' fire unner people's feets an' inn'ere souls....I wanted t' join th' Black Panthers n' th' Red Power movement an' fight against th' guvverment, e'en tho mah mutther tol' me it waz no use. All I cud see in th' distant or near future waz warfare spread e'rywhere else so it cud be ata distance frum us wile a hanful profitted offa it an' so much perpetual ign'ance. I waz convinced that th' only way to wake peeple up t' wat waz really goin' on in th' world waz for th' next worl' war t' take place on American soil 'stead of bein' exported an' outsourced. Then they wud know- wud know all th' pain an' suffrin' an' terror they've caused e'rywhere else-an' here, too- an' begin t'unnerstan, unnerstan' jus' y peeple'r so critical of th' U.S....
....But I waz wrong.....I had too much faith in America, an' not enuf unnerstandin' of wut war wuz about.
When th' twin towers fell, I waz glad. Not cuzuf th' peeple dyin- I din't really unnerstan death at th' time- but becuz I thot, now they'll know, now they'll unnerstan, all th' terror an' pain an' horror they've been causin' e'rywhere else, now they'll fin'ly begin t' see what it is so many uther peeple'f been livin' with b'cuz of us.
....But they didnt. Not e'en a li'l bit.
When I waz sixteen I tol' mahself, i'm puttin' away th' drinkin', th' partyin', the smokin' an' th' weed; I'm gonna get serious, gonna study an' learn b'cuz this is really wut I luv doin'. An' so I did, an' supported mahself, too, with an' afterskool job so mah mama wouldn' hafta worry so much 'bout supportin' me wit' buyin' food an' clothes an' transportashun cuz she had enuf t' worry bout as it waz- a single mutha raisin' three kids by herself on a librarian's salary, yew betta b'lieve she got 'nuf to worry bout. So I focused on skool instead, takin' all AP, Honors, an' dual enrollment classes at th' local commun'ty college, an' all I heard frum mah mom waz yew ain' nevah gonna make it, girl, yew gonna crash an' fail, yew gonna bring yo GPA down lower'n it alreddy iz, yew can' do this, y yew e'en tryin', jes focus wit' gettin' by in th' reg'lar classes an' you'll b fine. Stop doin' too much, you'll only burn y'self out.
......But I didn't. And end'f th' year, turns out I did so good in all mah exams an' in all mah classes that th' National Youth Leadership Con'frence axed me to come on up t' th' cap'tal wi' them to get a tour of th' guvverment. So I said, Y not? Mebbe see wut all this mess iz about. All this time I been talkin', I ain't nevah really seen wut th' place is really like. Mebbe I'm wrong. So I aksepted it an' left onna plane in th' middle'f Febrary t' go'on up t' ice-cold Washinton D.C. An' Lord, lemme tellya- it wuz exakkly wut I thot it wud be. At one point sum former Senator sat th' whole group'f us down frum all 'cross th' United States an' gave us a talk- now this waz rite when they were aimin' t'invade Iraq an' had alreddy invaded Afghanistan- bout how we had t'come t'gether as Americans in this time'f uncertainty an' threat. An' I jus' walked up to th' microphones they'd set up fer questions an' I sed
        Excuse me, sir, but don't you think there was a reason why we were attacked? 
       (I waz in a big assembly, then, an' waz much more self-conscious bout mah ahksent)
       They say that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and surely this is the same case here; so don't you think a much more rational, logical, and effective solution would be instead to try to understand just what exactly it is the U.S. did to prompt such a reaction? We don't exist in a vacuum- I'm certain there was some serious grievance on the part of the U.S. against those that attacked us that moved them to do this, so instead of retaliating in like manner, wouldn't it make much more sense to figure out where it is we went wrong instead and work to fix that? Because if we continue on in this manner, I guarantee that we will only cause more violence against ourselves and problems in the long run.
An' he answered wi' this long-winded response tha' completely evaded e'rey point I'd brot up, talkin' bout th' need t' strengthen national defense an' band together as a nation 'ginst th' terrorists.
I hope this answers your question, he sed, alreddy startin' t' move on t' th' next request.
I'm sorry sir, but no it doesn't. You didn't answer my question at all.
He stopped, turned back t'me after a second, an' sed:
I apologize, I didn't understand your question.
So I tol' im agin, an' his final response went sumin' like this:
It's complicated, but we're doing our best.
An' yew know wut they did after that? They tried t' kick me out! Insisted I 'pologize t' the Senator fer bein' so rude an' mouthin' off! So I told 'em t' shove it, an' walked off. One boy frum New York after this approached me an' sed:
If you were a man I would have punched you in the face for what you said.
So I told him I waz thankful fer bein' a girl then, an' axed him wut his problem waz.
My uncle and cousin were in the World Trade Center when it fell. Family members of mine died because of those terrorists, and you're up there defending them.
I'm sorry for your uncle and cousin- I replied- believe me, I am, and I don't see myself as defending terrorism either but as trying to look at the other side and find a more reasonable and effective solution. You have to consider, too, what about all the other uncles and cousins and brothers and mothers all dying at the hands of the U.S.? Who have died in the past and are dying now in numbers without having anything to do with your family's deaths?
Hiz face twisted more'n more wit' each word I sed, an' at th' end he just up an' left. That's your opinion. Thank you he sed, as if this made 'im th' more enlitened in the conversation, an' jus' left t' go rant about me b'hind mah back t' friends wi' th' same opinionz as his.
I trusted too much in America, it's true. I b'lieved that bein' attacked ourselves, peeple'd begin t'see th' similarities an' th' pains in U.S.-sponsored wars'n terrorism e'reywhere else......but like so many uther peeple in th' U.S. I didn' really unnerstan war. I didn' unnerstan th' nature of war, of personal attacks, or that'f state-sponsored ign'ance.

Cuz now mah li'l bruther's joined their ranks- goin' intuh th' military t' defend th' U.S., a White middle-class college grad wit' ties t' doctors, advertisers, an' lawyers across th' breadth an' th' width'f th' U.S., an' he's gone intu th' military t' defend th' American empire's place. He's so proud of th' U.S., so proud'f its ability t'exploit, t'destroy, t'tie strings 'round leaders an' lead 'em 'round like marrionettes an' still come out on top- jus' like a World Power shud- that he's willin' t' fight an' t'die t'help it stay that way. An' me, not unnerstandin' th' true nature of war, privilege, an' lerned ig'nance, I'm left wonderin', wonderin'
How did it come to all this?


War O'Clock

An' they sed

Jabari was a senior Hamas operative


Today we sent a clear message to Hamas and other terrorist organisations

an' thru alla this, alli cud see
wuz a sidebar calmly scrolling
to read:

Seven people killed in recent air raids, including children
Car bombings across Iraq kill 26 and injure at least 100
ECOWAS and French forces flood Mali
Syrian forces take up stations on the border of Turkey
Miners dying in South Africa
The President of Ghana's procession runs over a woman
Bodies, bodies, bodies everywhere
Oh God the little children
the mothers
where are the mothers to comfort them?
Not even mothers left to cry for
my relatives-
and yours, too-
my loved ones
our people

An' th' church next door erupts in screams an' spiritchul flames
an' I'm inside my room cryin' bcuz
all I can see is bodies,


bodies everywhere

and official press releases praisin'
that this day in history
they killed
along wit' other casualties,
as usual
but, nobody worth mentioning.


The Saddest Lines

"Paul, I wuz sittin' there waitin' in that hotel lobby bar for two hours!"
Paul sighed in agitation and twisted his head away from her as if looking at something interesting  out the taxi window. "Yes, well, my plane was late. It's not my fault." He glanced over at Tamara, his lips pressed thin together. "You should have ordered a drink, at least made your stay a little more comfortable."
 Tamara lowered her head, ashamed. "I didn't have any money on me t'do that, Paul...I told you, I don't have that much spendin' money right now. That's why we agreed to split the cost of the room, remember?"
The taxi pulled up to the Cuban restaurant they were heading to and Paul's eyebrows raised as if he just remembered something. "Oh, yeah, that's right- I almost forgot." He had taken out his wallet to pay the fare and now took out two hundred in twenties and callously threw it at her, the bills fluttering around her like so many promises. "There."
Time seemed frozen in that instant as their eyes met. The nature of their entire relationship seemed to crystallize in that moment as each bill drifted as if through water down, down, down to the taxi seat, down to her skirt, down to the floor. Tamara battled fiercely with her pride over whether to punch him and leave him sitting there in the cab or to swallow everything and pick up the money that was now scattered all over her and the floor of the taxi. Looking in his eyes she could see a hint of embarrassment- he hadn't meant for the bills to fly out like that- but more than that there was a light of amusement and curiousity at what she was going to do now.
So many bills and financial worries and pressures piled on top of her. She bent down under them and began collecting the twenties, cheeks burning and a silly embarrassed smile forcing itself onto her face like a fencing guard mask. Paul snorted and got out of the taxi, leaving her hot and ashamed to collect the rest of the money while avoiding the cabdriver's eyes in the rearview mirror as she got out.
This had been what their relationship had always been about, and now she remembered. He was a college friend from California of one of her own older friends, and she had been fascinated by him since she was a teenager. His perfect diction, his sarcastic wit, how much he was able to quote at the drop of a hat- all this tickled her intellectual fantasy, and his tall, thin figure with lily-white skin and thin black hair contrasting shocking blue eyes under glasses had embodied everything she dreamed of when reading Shakespeare, Poe, Yeats, Russell, Keats, Whitman, Donne, Graves, Shelley, or Wilde. A country chit who thought herself an intellectual she had put on airs around him while he visited her friend's house for a gumbo cook-out, trying to impress him with her mind at the age of fifteen while she blew smoke from her stolen Marlboro Red at him in disdain when she didn't like an answer of his- just like she had seen sophisticated ladies do in the old black-and-white films- and sipped at her beer as if it was a martini. Years later after she had turned legal, she finally got her chance with him at her friend's wedding. To her, it was the culmination of a years-long fantasy, to finally be with this man who embodied everything she desired in movies and English literature. And in bed it was everything she could have dreamed of, so much so that she began to hope that maybe it could be more beyond closed bedroom doors as well...
But it had taken her until now to realize: it had always been just about sex. All this time, all these flights she bought to come out to California to meet him- that they mainly spent fucking or going out somewhere to eat, she now realized- all that time texting across the continent because he didn't want to be bothered by a phone call, all these things of herself that she sent to him hoping for more of him back, all these dreams she had been holding onto of Keats' love poems coming into their own and creating a new poetry between the two of them...and all this time she had been too wrapped up in the dream to see the reality.
Paul led the way into the restaurant like the stock film caricature of a man and ordered a table for the two of them next to the flamenco stage. "On Yelp it says they're famous for their fresh mojitoes here- think we should try some?"
 Tamara had no idea what Yelp was and was still too lost in her humiliation to want to talk, so she just shrugged and nodded nonchalantly. "Sure, why not."
Paul called the waiter over and ordered water and a pitcher of mojito for them, adding to Tamara after closing the menu, "A pitcher! A whole pitcher of mojito! I mean, we could each get individual ones, but if it's really good, then we'll want more- and the cost of a pitcher of mojito isn't that much more than that of two drinks! Sounds like a deal to me!" and he laughed.
 Tamara twitched her eyebrows up and pressed her lips together in vague agreement. She picked up the menu and began looking over it. Paul picked up on her attitude and so quietly followed suit. In the meantime the waiter brought up a small table with mint, rum, lime, and sugarcane sticks and proceeded to mix the mojito. Paul watched with restrained excitement, cordially thanked the waiter when he was done, and then hurriedly handed Tamara her drink with the perfectly cut sugarcane sticking up out of it and took his own.
"So....let's see what it's like!" he took an expectant sip, then sighed in pleasure. "Mmmmm.....now that is a good mojito."
 Tamara tasted it and couldn't help but smile. It was good- you could hardly taste the rum, only sweet lime, mint, and a hint of alcoholic tang. She fiddled with the sugarcane stick in her drink, curious. "What is this...?"
Paul glanced over. "Ah, I don't really know. Probably some sort of decoration. I'm not really sure why they used a stick in there. Maybe to give it flavor of some sort?"
"Flavor? ...what flavor could it add?"
Paul shrugged uninterested. Undaunted, Tamara pulled the stick out of the drink and sucked at the bottom. Recognizing the familiar flavour she exclaimed, "Its sugarcane! But how did they get it like this? I've only had the whole cane before!" Excited, she started chewing and sucking hungrily at the end of the stick.
Paul looked over at her with a strange look on his face. "Hm." He looked down at his own drink, then glanced back at Tamara. "...how..how do you ....eat it?"
"You just chew and then suck the juice from it- like this!" Tamara demonstrated with her mouth full of sugarcane.
"Hm." Paul looked back down at his drink and then casually stirred it with the sugarcane. "I think I'll leave mine in there, wait for it to soak up more of the alcohol before I try." He took a sip at the mojito and then looked off around the dining room. "The decor in here is really nice, very quaint. Kinda reminds you of some kind of Spanish villa, you know?"
 Tamara paused in her glutting and lowered the sugarcane stick from her mouth. She suddenly felt embarrassed and too rural for her surroundings, too quaint, too country, too....different for the company at this table. To hide her shame she stuck the stick back in the drink and swirled it around. "Do you really think it'd be able t' soak up the mojito flavour if you leave it in there long enough?" she asked in mock naivete.
Paul glanced over, then, shrugging, went back to analyzing the room's decor. "Sure, why not." He nodded towards the stage. "Very well laid out. You got the whole light area in the foyer, and then dark in here, much more intimate and close without being too dark. The stage is a little oddly placed, but it's good that we got a table so close to it." He sipped again at his mojito. "Hmm. I wonder when they will have the show. They had a schedule out front....hmmm, I should have asked them. Will it be a dinner show or after dinner. Cuz me, I like some entertainment with my chile con carne. It's just not a Latin meal without skirts flying in your face, you know?"
 Tamara gave a small laugh for the benefit of his ego without really feeling it. She escaped back into her menu and began intensely examining the different dishes. Paul raised his eyebrows at her as he picked up his own menu again. "Do you know what you're getting?"
 Tamara shrugged, shaking her head. "My dad 'n I, we went to this one Cuban restaurant here once, had this amazing dish called ropa vieja- ah! It was so good! The meat was jes' fallin' apart into shreds, but it was the juciest, most succulent meat you'd ever tasted before!" She laughed. "I been lookin' fer that one, but I think I may be setting myself up for disappointment if I order it, with a memory like that!" She laughed, then changed it into a slight clearing of her throat when she looked over and realized Paul was only lightly smiling.
"Mmm, yes, good memories can sometimes kill expectations for the future."
"What are you getting?"
"Me? Oh, I'm a bean person, myself. I lived in LA for too long and got too used to Mexican food. I just can't think 'Latin' without thinking beans now, as bad as that sounds. So I think I'll get the black beans. It's not the same as refried beans, but we'll see, maybe I can handle it." He smiled and closed his menu. "So did you decide on the ropa- ropa- that whatever-its-called dish of yours?"
 Tamara bit her lip and looked back down at the menu self-consciously. "...no. No, I....I think I'll probably jes' get...something wit' plantains. Mm, see this? This dish looks good." She pointed at it for Paul to see. He glanced over then shrugged.
"Whatever, it's your food."
The dancing began mid-way through their meal. Paul had kept checking every ten minutes to see when they would start, and Tamara laughed to herself inside that the management probably sped up the schedule just so he would stop bothering them. The women marched up and arranged themselves on the stage in skin-tight black leotard tops, impossibly layered and frilled wide bottom skirts, and strikingly beautiful roses pinned to jet-black and dark brown hair slicked tightly back into buns to hide their curls. Some were average weight, some slender, some more curvacious, and one had a stomach bulging behind her leotard with rosy cheeks on a glowing face that suggested the family way for her. Tamara was enchanted with their beauty, and especially the skill and dedication of the pregnant one who seemed to shine above all the others. The music lifted her heart into her throat as she became entranced by their flow and swaying turns, her body aching to follow the lines of movement they left behind in their shadows. Only when she felt her lungs burning did she realize she had forgotten to breath while watching this flashing display take place.
Her reverence was shattered when Paul leaned in close and drily muttered, "Mmm, what is that one, pregnant? Seems a little big for her to be up there on the stage. But then again, looking at the other women up there, you can definitely tell the Latinos like their women thick."
 Tamara shot a hurt look over at him, but he had already sat back in his seat and was watching the dancers perform, not interested in any response. Her own size, her own weight, her own appearance suddenly loomed in question in front of her. If he was this critical of such beauty, what did he think about her?
She slid imperceptibly down into her seat, lightly wrapping her arms around her lean middle that now seemed as if it might be too big for California standards. Her half-eaten plate stared back at her: rice, beans, sauce, tostones with mojo sauce, fried chicken. The food hadn't even been anywhere near as good as the street corner cafes in Lake Worth, Boca Raton, or Miami where a plate of food big enough to feed two people cost six bucks at most and there's always old men in guayaberas sitting there sipping at cafecitos and arguing in Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Dominican Spanish, and the old ladies serving you like they're your mama are always gossipping about the latest telenovela and greeting you like family. But it was still food and she had struggled long enough without enough to eat to know better than to waste it.
Still, she paused as her arms felt the small soft plush of her waist. She didn't feel like eating. Even the beautiful dance had momentarily lost some of its magic for her.
With a frustrated jolt she sat up and rudely leaned forward, grabbing the sugarcane stick from her drink and deliberately started chewing and sucking on it loudly, determined to enjoy herself in spite of herself. She intentionally ignored out of the corner of her eye any look Paul gave her out of surprise and became re-absorbed in the dance, chewing and sucking on her stick. Any interruption, even to eat or drink, became sacrilege to her sense of propriety.
Thick-soled black shoes staccatoed heart rythms of life on the wooden stage, each twist and flare of colored skirt a flash of lightning. The sag and sway, the weave of bodies creating a tapestry of shoe-sole drumming and melodic sound, the perfect poise of arms held bent at sides or above head, the glow of olive to moon faces with rainbow roses and skirts all blended together like a perfect song. Tamara's heart laughed and her cheeks grew pink, breathing quick with the rhythm of their heels, her body twitching and hips aching to move, feet jumping to dance, and her soul longing to learn patterns of release that seemed to recognize her so well. It wasn't just a dance- it was Life they were creating up there.
It wasn't until the dance ended that she felt she could breath again. She leaned back in her chair, elated, face glowing from the experience and limbs still longing to embrace and twirl around each and every woman on the stage who was now bowing and curtsying in exalted but demure gratitude at their applause. She was in ecstasy, too excited to do anything but grin.
She laughed from pure exhileration, and glanced over at Paul as she clapped avidly, then back up at the stage. "That was amazing!" she exlaimed.
Paul politely clapped a few times, then settled back over his plate. "Mmm, yeah, they were pretty good," he agreed calmly. He picked at his rice some. "How do you like your food?"
 Tamara smiled and shoveled a spoonful of rice and beans into her mouth. She felt recharged with life again, like all the parts of her that had been sapped by Paul's presence had momentarily been forgotten. "Mmm, it's not as good as th' food you find in th' corner cafes, but it's pretty good. I like it." She smiled. She didn't like saying anything negative about a thing or a place up front, so she always tried to pick out a good thing to counter anything bad she might say about it.
"Oh, well, yeah if you're talking about those places of course this can never compare. The best food comes from the dirty little hole-in-the-wall places you'd never think to look."
"It's because bacteria makes food tasty." Tamara's eyes twinkled playfully at him and she grinned around her food, half-holding a hand over her mouth to hide it.
He smiled back at her and sipped some more of his mojito. "Perhaps."

"Come on, let's walk around the city for a bit. I haven't been back to New Ahwlins for so long, I want t' feel a part of it again."
They were standing outside the restaurant on the outskirts of the French Quarter now, waiting for a cab. Paul snorted. "Hm, and then go take a shower with bleach to scrub it all off."
 Tamara stopped and tugged at his arm. "You don't like th' city? How come? I love this place..." A warm smile spread itself over her. "Even when she's down, she's still beautiful to me. Like home."
"Yes, well, I, too, enjoy catching syphilis from a street sidewalk but some adventures just aren't meant to be," Paul commented drily, still eyeing the street for a taxi but giving in enough to walk a little bit.
 Tamara turned her head down to the cracked pavement beneath her feet. "You just don't understand her, is all. You don't see the Life inn'er," she stated quietly.
"Oh, is that what that smell is?"
 Tamara's pace slowed even more, and she sighed as she lifted her head up to look around her at the tall decorative buildings left over from French and Spanish colonial times. "Maybe it's like that now- and yes, it had it's putrid rotting parts an' raw sewage smells before, too, 'specially on a Saturday night day b'fore church or right after Mardi Gras. But it also had oaks- thousand-year-old oaks with heavy, thick arms twistin' and curlin' in the sky makin' sure you wuz protected from too much sunshine an' spring yellow cypress with gnarly knees sticking up from their skirts of grass like an old woman too tired to hide her legs behind aproned cloth ennymore. The jasmine makin' bushes of telephone poles and weighin' down 'lectric wires into hammocks of deep perfumed green, like they wuz the hanging gardens of Babylon or sumin'. You don' remember fourth of July nights heavy with smells like a perfum'ry gettin' stuck in yer throat- heavy wit' jasmine an' magnolia, spiced by wisteria an' lilac, sweetened by gardenia an' highlighted with rich honeysuckle, tinged with the sharp crackling smell of fireworks lit offa the levee an' the deep dark green of th' swamp mixed with car exhaust, oil, an' pollution waftin in offa the muddy Mississippi. You don' remember Creole kids tapdancin' in the street behind felt fedoras or Saints baseball caps an' milkcarton stools, the Silver or Gold Man in the park an' wonderin' what pose you were gonna find him in this time; street corner musicians playing jazz that could rend your soul into a thousand pieces like nuthin' you heard 'sept offa vinyl records of Birdland, Coltrane, or Ahmed Jamal. You can't see this place where ghost stories and pirate tales are as much a part of our history as the white-washed plaster crypts an' crumblin' marble mausoleums that make up our graveyards, or the poetry that weaves itself through our souls from Blues guitars to coffee shop snaps. Where starving artists set up shop in abandoned warehouses, gutted-out pharmacist's shops, or two-story boarded-up houses down near Bayou Saint-Jean an' still find enough to scrimp an' save together every month for a neighborhood potluck get-together with cheap Gallo wine an' Louisiana homecooked food from al over th' state. Where we still smile when we pass people on the street an' where you can still be called "nigga" if yer too dark, "cracka" if you too light, "beaner" or "Spic" for knowing Spanish, an' "chink" for visiting the Vietnamese quarter too frequently. Racism and hate here are real, but so is the love we use to cushion each other with against it. Pain is real, but so is the laughter we use to fight it. This is where we go to crawfish boils an' church to dance, sing, and let loose; to cure our demons with song, dance, an' rhythm and to find ourselves living to the beat in each others' arms because we still believe that if we wait long enough or fight hard enough, sooner or later Jesus- or maybe if he don' show up then one of them big Voodoo loa- will come down t' save us. And we kill for this; we die for this; we survive for this. How could you not- how could you not do anything but love this?"
Paul was silent for a while as they meandered. Finally he shrugged and said, "I dunno, I guess I'm just a California boy. I was here before Katrina, and I saw all that but not in the way that you do. To me, it's just dirty. And corrupt. And filled with backwards hicks obsessed with their belief in Jesus. I mean, the voodoo part's a little cool, and it's certainly a place where you can get anything you want if you have enough money to pay for it....but it's just so....poor. Rural. And dirty. God, it is so dirty. This whole state is. I just can't deal with it. I can't see it the way you do- I don't even know how you can see it that way."
"...maybe you just hafta grow up here t' love a place like this," Tamara whispered, chin tucked into her chest. "It's a home that's hell, but it's home nonetheless, for alla that."
"Maybe." Paul suddenly made a movement with his arm. "Hey, look, here's a taxi. Let's head back to the hotel room, maybe we can get something to drink in the lobby bar." Tamara said nothing, and Paul took that as consent. As they got into the cab he noticed a well-dressed woman walking alone across the street. He vaguely motioned towards her with his head and said thoughtfully, as a way of changing the conversation, "You know, I've never had sex with a Black woman before. Asian, Mexican, yeah, but never Black. I mean, there was that one accountant with the full sleeves who said she was half Black, but she was paler than me, so that doesn't really count."
Tamara felt a sickness about her and wondered what would happen if she threw up. Visions flashed before her of sitting in a corner locally-owned restaurant on the edge of the dividing line in Baton Rouge between East and West, watching two plump, well-dressed middle-aged White men come in and start laughingly addressing the owner- a matronly Black woman old enough to be their mother- as "missy" and "honey," as if they expected her to tie up her hair in a handkerchief, grin back at them, and lay down for them to walk all over. The woman's face had gotten darker and darker with bitterness, and in that moment Tamara knew only two things: she didn't want to be eating what they were about to be served, and she hoped to God to never be associated with people like that. But the glance the woman had shot at her after the men had ordered and turned away told her it was too late for that.
"Why don't you get out and try your luck, see for yourself." Tamara's mouth twisted in bitterness. Where had she got this ridiculous idea that Californians were less racist than people in the South? Had that honestly come from her own observations, or from the television and radio that they controlled?
Her amertume was lost on Paul and he smiled a little. "Eh, maybe later." He nudged at her playfully. "For right now I got my hands full....unless you're willing to try...?"
Tamara turned her face away from him into the window to hide the stab of hatred and disgust that cut across all her features right then. For once Paul got the right message from her silence and shrugged, moving away a little bit. "Suit yourself."

 Tamara drank too much, trying to forget the emptiness and loneliness she felt while around him. She drank so that instead of a hole where a warm fuzzy feeling of completion should be she could feel the blessed amnesia of sour whisky like a thick blanket around her vision, softening harsh lights of reality into glowing halos and the cold distance of an alabaster shadow's arms into an almost-tender embrace. The two of them walked back up to their hotel room in laughs and self-conscious stints of silence. She had tried her best, but she hadn't drunk nearly enough to completely forget the events of the night, nor the constant distance between them, so when they got into the room and Paul bee-lined for the bed, kicking off his shoes and loosening his shirt in mechanical fashion, Tamara trailed behind watching, half-hoping, half-dreading.
Paul propped himself in a sitting position on the bed, his shirt loosely hanging from his thin frame, long legs crossed in front of him, arms resting at his side. He took off his glasses and cocked his head at her. "Are you coming to bed?"
 Tamara pushed herself away from the wall and nodded silently.
"Turn off the light then and come on."
 She dutifully did so, and slowly made her way to the edge of the bed while her eyes adjusted to the dark. Paul was like a ghost, a hazy shade of white glowing through the black. She felt his hand reach out and pull her in to lay next to him. She gave up the struggle and let him move her, let them undress together, start moving together, breathing together, and all the while feeling like a black hole existed between them. As he began to moan, though, she began to hope that maybe, maybe it was just all in her mind- maybe it was just her. She was thinking too much and not doing enough, like always. An overwhelming feeling of care and concern flooded her and she began listening to what his movements were saying, paying careful attention to which motions she should use to make him catch his breath or cause it to come faster. That warm feeling, that fuzzy glow of completion inside- she wanted so much to feel it, and to have him feel it, too, that she stopped paying attention to what would make them both happy and began focusing instead on what would give him the most pleasure, hoping that if she could just do that her own happiness would follow as well. Her concern became just how to move her hips, just how to twist, just how to kiss until, with a vulnerable cry and a shudder like a child he came and melted back into the bedspread and pillows.
 Tamara sat back, exhausted, unfulfilled, but content enough that she had been able to give him some happiness at least. She sighed and began to untangle herself from Paul when she heard his voice rising up from the pillows.
"Did...did you come?"
 Tamara froze then sat back against his thighs, towering above him like an idol. Every man, it was always the same question in the same tone of voice after sex. Always the same thing, even if the way it was asked was different. Did I make you feel as good as I'm feeling right now? Maybe they really weren't so different, men and women, just looking for the same things in different ways. She had done all that just to make him happy, and here he was asking after the fact if he had done the same for her. After a pause she decided to tell the truth.
"Why not?" Suddenly he was all concern, and his pale hand cut through the dark to reach out to her.
 Tamara shrugged, embarrassed, looking away into the dark. "I just...mmm, I don't really...don't really feel much when I'm on top. Sometimes I feel a little bit of sumin'....but for the most part it...it doesn' really do much fer me. I feel too much like I'm bein' watched. I don' like it."
She could hear the aggravation in Paul's voice without having to see it on his face. "So why didn't you tell me? We could have changed positions!"
"I dunno, I....I just...wanted...jes' wanted t' make you happy......is all...." she felt like some simple child being scolded. The aggravated silence coming from Paul as they removed themselves from each other and he turned over so his back faced her made her feel even more like she was being reprimanded for doing something wrong. Tamara sighed and lay down next to him, staring up at the ceiling. Her knees rose in her periphery like two mountains from the Sierras and she toyed with the fantasy that she was exploring the terrain in some strange, foreign landscape.
She should just leave.
She glanced over at the shape Paul's back made in the dark.
She should. She knew, somewhere inside, that this would be their last time meeting together, their last time sleeping together. The thought had slipped into her mind several times before when they were together, especially after sex as she lay against him or watching him sleep. A part of her had whispered to her countless times before that the only reason he was there was because she had come to him; the only reason they still talked was because he knew he could get something from her. In those moments she told herself that she should leave, she should delete his number, she should never come back and put herself through this again.
She looked over at him in the dark. He was getting older- his thin jet-black hair was getting thinner and shot through with strands of white. His torso was no longer as lean as his metabolism would let it be, and had started accruing a small roundness just around his belly button. Even the sex, since that first time, had begun deteriorating after the initial thrill of matching fantasy wth reality and discovering every different position they could fit in for four hours until it stopped becoming pleasurable and just became painful. Naive little small-town she, amazed that sex could even last so long and have so much variety, infatuated with sophisticated big-city California he, so much so that she hadn't understood how each time they met the sex never went past more than a physical relationship, and thus how it had deteriorated into feeling like nothing more than mutual masturbation at best. She thought of Nerudo in the dark:
Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero tal vez la quiero.
And she had loved him.
Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.
Why had she loved him?
Porque en noches como esta la tuve entre mis brazos, mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.
She had loved him, that much was true, as much as she wanted to deny it at times like right now. But she had wanted him to love her back more, wanted him to see her as herself and love her as that more than she had ever loved or wanted him.
Aunque éste sea el último dolor que ella me causa, y éstos sean los últimos versos que yo le escribo.
She should leave.
She should have left a long, long time ago. After that first night just said "thank you" and never looked back. Her flight was leaving tomorrow morning for Chicago anyway; sleeping alone overnight in one of those hard plastic airport chairs would be more comfortable than spending the rest of the night next to a distant iceberg fantasy while longing for warmth, acceptance, and closeness.
 Tamara settled back down and turned onto her side to face Paul's back. She stayed, and felt all the pain she could have escaped from because of it. She tried to reach out a hand to wrap herself around his warm, smooth, baby-soft skin, but only felt cold emptiness where intimacy should have been. So she switched sides and curled up against herself instead, their backs facing each other as they slept.