Maria waited for the animated women to tumble out of the bedroom.
Al, the woman across the table from Maria, had asked twice, “What’s wrong?" Nothing was wrong. Maria liked to smoke marijuana but skipping this particular pot opportunity didn’t bother her one bit. Abstaining seemed like the only civil thing to do. Maria longed for a larger, less isolated life that included people and domesticated animals, fat curly terriers or blue-eyed huskies. Once she even thought about bringing home a lime-green parrot. But love seemed to necessitate chaos and certain grief and because of this, Maria spent her adult life alone.
Al had announced to the oddly-connected dinner companions that the smoke from cannabis would leave her choking for breath. Maria couldn’t imagine leaving wheezy Al in the dining-room by herself, and clearly no one else planned to stay behind with her. Maria pulled her chair up closer to the table and asked Al variations on questions she might use during office hours to draw out an awkward student. Maria imagined she looked curvy and fully present as she leaned back to listen to Al talk. The tips of Maria’s fingers pressed the sides of the table from time to time as if she were testing her own distance from the concrete world.
Maria took down details while trying to be open to what she heard. Al had a heart-shaped face and mullet haircut peppered gray at the temples. She was evasive about naming the place of her origin or discussing her daily work but Al could talk at length about subjects including toxins in marijuana, PCBs in the Hudson, and the hazardous substances contained in the wax on fruit. “Within you," Al said, “cells may be dividing in deadly ways because of the toxins on an apple skin you ate yesterday."
Al was a cow, Maria thought, and then she admonished herself for thinking such a thought. Dull, didactic, un-striking, these words would have provided more precise diction to describe Al. Al had glasses made for a retarded person and needed to floss her over-sized front teeth.
The thing was, a word like cow couldn’t even begin to catch all the ways in which Maria found a person like Al appalling. Al was the reason Maria spent her life alone. Isolation came as a result of the existence of women like Al. No, that wasn’t true. This statement would be a good example of an unkind and inaccurate hyperbole. Maria was constantly running up against inadequacies in language of observation as she used it.
Al would have tested Maria’s beliefs about sex and companionship to their breaking point, Maria thought, realizing that she was starting to exhaust herself while doing nothing but sitting here pretending to listen. Maria’s head was cocked in pain. Maria accepted the fact that she was lonely beyond description. Maria could hear the women in the bedroom giggling and coughing. One woman yelled something that ended with a hard crack on the floor. Maria jumped.
In the early mornings when Maria couldn’t sleep, there was a delicious indulgence she enjoyed while fancying herself as infinitely open to the world. The touch of any hand might be a comfort, as would the skin on any belly, the breath from any mouth. Maria liked to imagine that she was, in a word, a slut. This word, this fantasy, could keep her expectant and aroused with a kind of unspecific desire until dawn began to tumble through the dirty windows of her apartment.
The room where Al and Maria waited for the return of their dinner companions seemed smaller than it had when all the lesbians had been sitting around the table eating and drinking together. At the very moment when Al started illuminating possible ramifications of cyanide in Coke cans on subways while picking at the debris between her two front teeth, Maria heard the creak of the bedroom door, smelled a waft of sweet smoke, and saw a woman's head poking through.
It was Annabella who came out of the bedroom first. Beaming with a sense of her own gracefulness, she moved fluidly with long limbs and loose hands toward the flickering dining room table. Maria knew this walk well by now. Maria had met Annabella about sixteen months earlier and had, for a time, been enamoured of that very walk. Annabella had night-time animal eyes and a low hairline which made her appear rather masculine or mischievous. Her olive skin suggested an exotic religious heritage, but the fact was, Annabella had grown up in Macon, Georgia. A completely secular, single mother, Annabella seemed to outgrow the lives she created for herself before she ever finished imagining them.
I'll kill you dead if you tell anyone about this, is what Annabella said as she plopped down next to Maria at the dining room table smelling of pot. Annabella had taken charge and introduced herself to the table full of lesbians that evening. Hi. My name’s Annabella.I’m an avid heterosexual with aesthetic appreciation for women, she said staring around, expectant. Maria heard the woman next to her expire like a balloon letting out air as it flies out of the mouth and into a wall.
Annabella said I'll kill youdead again in a stage whisper and she threw her arms backward as if they were weighted and burdensome. Every gesture she made seemed to be suspended and in need of response.
Maria was attending this dinner party of local lesbians, some of whom she had never met before, as part of her New Year's resolution to break her cycle of isolation and live in the present.
I will kill you dead if you fuckin’ tell, Annabella said again, this time without any attempt at whispering. By now it would be fair to say Maria wished Annabella had not come along to the party. She tried to remember how she had gotten Annabella invited.
Maria raised her eyebrows and waited for the words that certainly sat right on the tip of Annabella’s pink tongue.
Annabella stared toward Maria, incredulous, and then reached out gently to take hold of Maria’s chin. Maria had the face of the Mona Lisa or some other placid woman. She had lips which concealed readable expression, a lush set of eyebrows and a sensuousness of skin. There was nothing not to like in Maria’s face. This might have been what Annabella was thinking as she held the chin in her hand and assessed Maria as if she might paint her portrait.
"You really believe you're way beyond reproach, now don't you?" is what Annabella hissed to Maria.
Annabella called Maria “the virgin," and this title was something that Maria usually embraced with good will. For some reason not fully articulated, Maria found Annabella entertaining. “Are most lesbians virgins?" Annabella had once asked.
Maria rubbed her own chin and concentrated on the knot forming between her shoulder blades and the bottom of her exposed neck. Like a ball of rubber bands, her muscles coiled until her shoulder started to lift and rise toward the peeling ceiling where colorful, pendulous balloons with pink or brown magic marker nipples floated on suspended lengths of yarn. In the dining room with the Salvation Army furniture and the distorted stained-glass goddesses, the floating breasts were the only signs of hope.
Outside the window, a siren screamed through the street and an infant started wailing in the apartment next door. On top of all that noise, a large air craft dragged its belly across the night sky with a labored sound that shook the crumbling block, making the brownstones in the buildings where the women sat with half full wine glasses and dirty dishes, shift and press into themselves. The conversations around the room froze.
"Jesus Christ, it sounds like the world is finally ending," shouted one of the hosts, the one who had run for treasurer of Poughkeepsie. She pulled another plump joint from her flannel breast pocket and bounced it lightly as a paper bird in front of everyones' eyes.
In her mind, Maria made a list of the women around the table as a way of relaxing herself. There was Annabella, of course, who was in rare form, as usual; Astrid, the horse trainer from Millbrook; an Israeli graduate student from the city whose name Maria could not pronounce; Amy, an African American administrator; Alisa-Ann, a chef with a Greek accent from the Culinary Institute; Andrea, the very verbal kick-boxing mother; two unemployed artists, the hosts, one of whom was the candidate for treasurer; and Al.
The latter had shown her disapproval of the first proposal of smoking marijuana by rolling her eyes and announcing her propensity for choking, but this latest time, she threw her hands flat down on the table with a thump and clattered the wine glasses and flickered the candles.
"Smoking again? Not in here you don't," said Al.
"Oh grand," said Annabella with a laugh that sounded like a bark. “A conscientious objection from righteous field!" Then Annabella lifted her wine glass in the approximate direction of Al and Maria felt an echo of ghostlike vibrations, jet engines in her stomach.
"A softball allusion?" said Al to Annabella, leaning across the table, as if taking in Annabella’s face and upper body. “Do you play yourself?" Al was waving her hand toward Annabella as if she wanted to slap her lightly, a fly on a lampshade.
Annabella touched her temple with her wine glass.
"Oh, too bad," said Al. " A little headache? Whenever I find someone with a gift for sparring, it always turns out they are too drunk to give me a go." Al smiled toward Annabella in that way where her nose seemed to droop over her thin lips and protruding jaw, accentuating all her enduring qualities. There was a pause that seemed to stretch out across the flickering table like a length of flammable silk.
"So, what do you do?" Al asked Annabella, as if trying to scoop the conversation up and give it legs.
Examining her cuticles, then picking up crumbs on her thumb, Annabella said, "I buy art with other people's money for the college, for Vassar. I’m trained as a curator."
"No, no, I mean what do you do for your headaches?" said Al.
Annabella's flashing black eyes darkened. Maria noticed that Annabella was settling into a posture that people who talk with their hands often hold when they are thinking. She had become perfectly, frighteningly still.
Annabella stared up at Al as if she had just noticed her for the first time. "Oh my goddess," Annabella said, enunciating each word, “who is that gifted pain in the ass?"
Al balled up her sturdy fist and shot her middle finger up and across the table in a kind of salute. Al and Annabella stared at each other for what seemed like a full minute before they both started laughing. The whole table shifted in a way that was close to a collective twitch and someone got up to find another bottle of wine. Maria heard the woman next to her quietly finish her point regarding the benefits of coffee enemas given twice daily.
Annabella would have seemed, at first, to be a gold mine for stories, Maria thought. In corners before faculty lectures, in the dining hall with students nearby, and in the common hallways where colleagues walked hurriedly, Annabella blurted, free-associated, and summarized with a sense of urgency and recklessness but the stories never really added up to much. It was as if Annabella had a pressure to talk, a fitful need to undress her own life from start to present every time she and Maria met.
Maria had been delighted to find someone so outrageous at the college's late- August opening year cocktail party. The air was humid and the festive tent outside the college president's house swarmed with the perfumed sweat of exposed nerves.
“Will you take me home with you sometime?" Annabella said as Maria gathered her resolve to flee the reception.
Maria had laughed.
“Really, will you? Tonight? Teach me everything you know?" Annabella said.
It took Maria another minute to realize that Annabella was mostly kidding. But the proposition hung and Maria felt strange for having thought about it as a possibility. Fact was, Maria had begun to wonder about her own sanity as she imagined undressing Annabella and watching her recline onto a wide velvet bed with white cotton sheets escaping from the top and edges.
At the dinner party, the lesbians were getting restless. Astrid, Amy, Alicia-Ann, the chubby lesbians, were trying to boil the water in the water-pitcher by holding their hands together over the lip of the edge in giddy communion. Andrea, the kick-boxer, and one of the hosts were yelling at each other in agreement about Legally Blond’s representation of sexism in the workplace.
"How do you two know each other?" Environmentally sensitive Al was trying to engage Annabella once again.
"Who two?" asked Annabella with her pencil thin eyebrows arched.
"You and that one who doesn't smoke pot. You and Maria," said Al. "Are you lovers?"
At this, Annabella invoked what must have been hiding inside her all along. Someplace, out of her depths, came the loudest howl Maria had ever heard. "Hell no," said Annabella. "You think Maria would take me when she could have any one of you lovelies?"
Maria watched across the table as Andrea regaled anyone who would listen to her autobiography of a single-mother-kick-boxer-body-builder. Andrea had the kind of smooth skin and distinctive feature of face that made a person want to look closer and more critically. Andrea talked out of one side of her mouth as if her face were slightly paralyzed. Andrea was an astonishingly foul-mouthed woman with perfectly straight teeth. She had grown up in Pine Plains and gotten pregnant at the age of sixteen. She told how she had reached a point in her thirties where fat would not stay in her system. Any fat cell that thinks of clinging to my ass gets burnt up faster than people from the eighty-first floor, she said. Fizz, pop, she said.
For a minute, it looked as if this analogy might be enough to stall Andrea's storytelling. The room hushed and fell. Someone groaned. Andrea held up her hand like a traffic cop toward the one who objected. Then she looked straight at Maria.
"You have kids?" she asked Maria.
Maria said she didn't.
"Maria can't tell a kid from a goat,'' yelled Annabella, who liked to brag about her own qualifications as a completely lousy mother. Annabella called herself an anti-nurturer or alternatively, “non mom." Annabella laughed out loud. Most of the lesbians across the table from Maria looked at Annabella with stony faces and cool eyes.
"I thought you seemed like you might be alone. Are you single then?"
Andrea, the kick boxer, asked Maria.
Feeling her mouth twitch the way it did when she felt she was being examined, Maria nodded yes.
"I have two girls and they are killing me," Andrea said. "They try breaking my heart about six times a day," she said. "You think about relaxing sometimes, getting a movie, going to bed early but how can you do it when they are out there and the sky is falling on their heads? Picking up STDs and driving too fast with skinny boys sounds mild compared to what’s coming. You’re lucky you don’t have to think about it. I mean, you’re really lucky you don’t have anyone."
“That’s so sweet," said Annabella pouring herself more wine and throwing her arm up over the back of Maria’s chair.
"The other bad thing about kids is the breast feeding and the saggy tits," Andrea said. "My girls are fifteen and seventeen and they’ve pretty near sucked me dry. I thought the tits might come back but once they’re gone, they’re gone. You can build all the muscle you want but the breasts, hell, they just hang there."
Someone blurted out, “no way, you have a gorgeous body, Andrea."
Andrea nodded along and said, “that, ladies, is almost true."
Suddenly Andrea was standing up. "I think you need a drink," she said to Maria. As Andrea moved closer with the wine bottle, Maria felt Annabella nudge her repeatedly with her stocking foot under the table.
“Turn up the music!" Andrea said sternly to the woman sitting closest to the stereo where something new age-ish was floating quietly as dust in the room.
Someone, maybe it was the Greek, said, “Andrea, dance for us. Come on. You have great moves and great tits, baby," and at this Andrea set the bottle down and said, "Look, show me a little respect, would you?" Everyone started laughing at that.
Button by button, Andrea undid her shirt. First she showed Maria how building muscle had defined her arms and shoulders, how it had cleaved her chest neatly in half, the way that could mean great things if you wanted to wear scooped tops or v-necks or muscle shirts. Andrea flexed and turned this way and that and the whole table cheered. Someone threw a five dollar bill at Andrea's feet. Reaching behind herself, she undid her own bra and shook herself so that her breasts hung free. Standing there, she shone as if her skin had been licked all over in honey and sunlight. She leaned toward Maria and smoothed out Maria’s cheek and neck with her fingertips. Maria took a sip from her glass and looked at the table while the room of lesbians whistled and cheered.
Then the room sort of hushed so that the music played unfettered. Andrea reached down, modestly holding her breasts in one hand, and she picked up her clothes and put the money on the table. She hunched and hurried into her bra and looked flushed as she sat down, still buttoning up.
Annabella yelled, “Come on girl! You earned that cash!" Her voice rose up louder when Andrea ignored her. “What’s wrong with you," Annabella said, “didn’t your mama teach you that it’s a dog eat dog world." Annabella crumpled the bill into a tight little ball and flicked it at Andrea. One of the hosts leaned toward Annabella said quietly, “That’s enough, you. Now, stop it."
Maria wasn’t surprised to see Annabella becoming obnoxious while drunk. The first time Maria had seen Annabella drunk was a couple weeks after meeting her. Annabella called Maria in tears later that evening saying she could not bear to watch another minute of the news. There is no news, only history now, she said as if this was somehow profound, something worth writing down.
Annabella's dramatic ways on the phone made Maria want to hang up and go back to grading papers. An hour later, despite her better judgement, Maria found herself at Annabella's campus-owned apartment taking a tour of the rooms.
The tour of the small apartment ended up focusing on the gifts from wealthy lovers, mainly New York art collectors who had come through Annabella’s life and left again, never to return. The two women slipped quietly past the door where Annabella's son was sleeping. There were cashmere throws draped over chairs in the hallway and sofas with silk batik, a bronze sculpture of an eyeball, photographs of chess players and drawings of a series of noses, a two thousand dollar vacuum cleaner tipped over next to the blinking but silent television, a string of pearls on the mantle, and finally, ending in the bedroom, a black velvet duvet covering a king-sized bed.
Annabella confided, as she pointed out a photo of herself next to her very pretty younger sister, that she had thought of herself as manly until recently meeting so many strong lesbians up in the north. As Annabella ran her hands along the plush bed and stared up at a drawing of a nude woman who had sprouted a tail, she asked Maria a question that Maria could not make out.
“Do you think I’m terribly masculine? " she said.
Annabella had lit some strange smelling candle on the table next to the bed. This smell combined with the twang of Indian music made Maria slow to speak.
“Well, do you find me even slightly attractive?" asked Annabella, spitting the words out as if they were distasteful.
It was exactly then, as she stared up at Maria asking this question, that her son, a child of about eight with protruding ears, popped into the room in his blue superman pajamas.
"Mom," he said, climbing into her lap and reaching up to hold her chin as if it were a doorknocker, “I'm hungry."
"He's supposed to be asleep," Annabella said to Maria, whispering as if this very quiet voice might be suggestive enough to return the boy to his blankets.
Annabella stiffened and sighed, and then gently tucked the boy's long hair behind his ears. She looked out the window.
"He won't take a bath," she said to Maria. "And then I keep trying to get him in the shower with me but he's stronger than I am." Annabella looked as if she might cry again.
"I'm so hungry, Mom," the boy said, pushing harder into her lap and throwing his head out to the side where she could not reach his hair. His feet had flown up on the bed and it was surprising how long he looked, all draped out like a man. Maria could hardly believe the boy was only eight. Annabella dropped her hands onto the bed heavily.
"Go see what's on T.V," she said in a louder voice. The boy just looked up at her and put his thumb into his mouth.
"Go see what's on television before I kill myself," she said.
The boy did not budge but looked off at the wall, distracted. Without speaking, Annabella stood up, rolling the boy off her lap. He landed with a soft thud on the floor. Lying there, he looked completely collapsible except for the sly smile that made a solid crack in his otherwise unreadable face.
The party lesbians started transforming into the sleepy lesbians and Maria imagined how she would finally be able to break out the door and head back to her car, where she could blast music and drive down the wind-blown blocks where garbage cans clattered forth and a grocery cart rumbled full of empties with an old man pushing it, his trench coat floating behind him like smoke. There was the problem of Annabella, who would expect a ride home. Maria could already see the final moment when Annabella would spin out of the car in her sweeping camel overcoat exclaiming how horny she was. “I’m horny," she would call up to the street lights with her mouth wide open. She might have to phone that new man in the psychology department, she would say, bending back into view in the car window so that her face loomed white as the rocky moon. “I’ll hump the pillow while he talks to me about the weather." Maria could imagine the way Annabella would look as she moved away, graceful as a queen, toward her lit door laughing.
"You really need to stretch out more," Andrea the kick boxer said to Maria, startling her from her thoughts. The kick boxer had come over as if to confront Maria from across the table in a kind of body builder’s squat. Her body seemed close even though the table divided them. And then Andrea, muscular, foul-mouthed Andrea, went on some more about being sorry for acting so crazy, for acting like such a “puta." “I’m just nuts with the wine sometimes," she said.
“Don’t let Maria snow you," Annabella said to Andrea the kick boxer, calling out to her like she thought Andrea might be deaf. “Maria can be a little whore too." Annabella winked and grabbed Maria’s thigh. “Goodbye and good luck, my love," she said. Annabella stood up, moving off with a flourish.
Andrea came over and took the free chair next to Maria. “Please listen for a minute," Andrea said. Maria was way beyond the point of trying to resist conversation. She was too tired to object, even though she had decided, someplace in the middle of Andrea’s floor show, to give up her resolution of trying to embrace humanity.
"Looking at you from down the table I can tell you must spend way too much time thinking," Andrea said sort of stiffly, as if she thought Maria might be angry, or worse, in a hurry. “After awhile," Andrea said, “ all that thinking can really build up in your neck. It sucks. Pretty soon, all the parts of your body begin to revolt. Trust me. I know about this kind of thing."
It was true that every time Maria tried to bend or turn, she felt the cords and muscles connecting her head to her body tighten and coil into a resistant column of soreness. Maria felt like a tangled puppet in the classroom. When she put her car into reverse, she often imagined she heard people’s bones being crushed under her wheels.
Then, without asking, Andrea reached up and pinched the skin at the nape of Maria's neck. When Andrea couldn't get a good angle, she stood up and moved behind Maria’s, brushing Maria’s hair out of the way. After a couple minutes, Andrea began to get fierce leverage and heat by pressing her thumbs along the cords that were pulling. Pain and crackling of muscles and tendon being moved past each other made Maria close her eyes. Inside of her, Maria could hear a scratchy sound like stiff fabric being softened into something smooth.
"You'll feel bruised tomorrow. When you wake up, you should really call me," Andrea said. “You probably won’t -- but you really should," she said.
Maria thought about the pile of papers she needed to grade. Some of them would be interesting. Maybe two of them would find their brilliance before concluding. Maria would stand up to look through the window from time to time and see ice covered trees and bundled up students moving along the sidewalks. She might think about some woman she had loved briefly, a skirt pulled up in passion or a kiss delivered while straddling distinct lives. Then, Sunday night would rise up and she would eventually fall asleep on the couch feeling a sky above her with no stars and bareness below it. Maria imagined weeks full of nights like this one spreading out, falling slowly over each other, snow still, graceful, moving steadily away from some center inside of her. Maria thought about Andrea and how when she pushed her phone number toward her on a scratch of paper napkin, it looked possible that she might just pull it back and stuff in her own pocket. This, more than anything, made Maria feel hopeful.
©1997-2004 Blithe House Quarterly : all rights reserved