June 27, 1994
It seems like I have to be five thousand miles away from you to talk to you, to
try and explain. I know you’re wondering how I can explain . . .
I arrive in Amsterdam in the middle of a heat wave. Everywhere, I see people wearing cheap straw hats to protect themselves from the insistent sun; I see people spending whole afternoons in museums, huddling by the air-conditioning vents, looking at Van Gogh’s hallucinatory sunflowers. Drugs take the edge off the heat. The coffee shops are crowded with tourists smoking hashish. The hash burns my lungs; the sun burns my skin: to be here is to be on fire, a lit spark, incendiary. I skulk instead of walk, I feel vaguely criminal. I am at home here.
The first day, I pace the red-light district, looking for a hotel, my suitcase banging my leg. At noon, sick of carrying it, I open it. My maid-of-honor dress, midnight-blue silk, spills onto the sidewalk. A dress I spent four hundred and fifty dollars on, a dress I will never wear. I stuff it into a garbage can, where it billows out, a bloated flower.
I find a hotel at last, a youth hostel overlooking a canal. The concierge has a Mediterranean face, brown and moist. We discuss the rates in Italian: fifteen dollars a night, three hundred dollars if I rent a single room for a month. Meals included. I give him three hundred. The girl standing beside him tells me softly to have a nice stay, pushes the key across the counter. It makes a light scraping noise. I can’t tell if she is his wife or his daughter.
I pass the lounge, walking up to my room. A group of Australians clusters around the television set, passing a hookah like a peace pipe, watching MTV.
My room has a white ceiling, pale, cracked walls. Sitting in it I feel like something waiting to hatch.
My apologies for this stationery. I had to beg the concierge for it, he charges me
for each sheet. The place I’m staying is a real dump, its claim to fame is that they
have cable. The television is on constantly, I can’t get Guns N’ Roses out of my
head. Guns N’ Roses in Amsterdam: there’s an odd logic to it.
This is the seventh time I’ve begun a letter to you. I don’t seem capable of
finishing . . .
The first few days, I barely leave my room. I lie on my bed, hands folded on my chest, like the Lady of Shalott, floating down the river to Camelot. I occupy myself by counting things: the water stains on the wall, the number of times I blink, intakes of breath. I had not thought a nervous breakdown could be so peaceful, or so boring.
My brain feels stir-fried. I think in snatches, not complete sentences. Strung out. That is me, unraveling. Tangled hair. A kite string in knots.
Even going downstairs for meals demands effort. Coffee and croissants for breakfast, miniature boxes of cornflakes and Sugar Pops to appease the Americans. Soup and sandwiches for lunch. For dinner, thin slices of brown meat, defrosted vegetables: corn niblets, peas, garish diced carrots. I can’t eat anything so colorful. I push them around my plate, make patterns.
Meals are noisy, sociable. It’s hard to isolate myself. At first, the Americans single me out, make overtures. They sit at my table, wearing pastel clothes, peach, yellow, lavender, Easter-egg colors. They try to talk to me. Americans want to connect with everyone. I shake my head, mumble back to them in French. The French are self-sufficient; they leave you alone. One American woman, fuzzy haired and persistent, clicks her fingers together, looking for words. “Aimez-vous Amsterdam?” she asks. I shrug, pretending not to understand. She gives up; her group debates the merits of different breweries; they leave me alone.
Once again, I am beginning a letter to you, this impossible letter I can’t seem to
finish. You probably think that I simply don’t care enough to try to explain. There
goes Heather, I imagine you thinking, bouncing through Europe, not even bothering
to justify herself.
That’s not the case. (Case: it sounds like I’m on trial—apt enough, don’t you
think?) I just don’t know where to start. Saying “I’m sorry” seems inadequate.
Can you tell me, please tell me, what words to use?
Nine days after coming to Amsterdam, I make a friend. She’s an Indian girl who sleeps down the hall. I first see her in the dining room, a tiny girl, barely five feet tall, with long hair so black it has blue in it. She holds her tray of food waist level and looks around the room for a place to sit. Her jacket, green and gold, is embroidered with sundials. It’s impossible to tell how old she is. Perhaps fifteen or sixteen. She has a child’s profile, the smooth, round forehead, wide-set eyes, upturned nose. She walks over and sits at my table. I flinch, a reflex action. After nine days I have established myself as a loner; I resent this encroachment on my space. But she smiles, a sweet and patient smile, and points to herself.
“Lakshmi,” she says.
Lakshmi. It is the prettiest word I’ve heard in Amsterdam. I tell her my name: “Heather.”
I watch her, trying to figure out what she’s doing here. A runaway, I think. She should be carrying a pole with a polka-dotted handkerchief knotted to it over her shoulder; she looks that childlike. I bolt the rest of my dinner and stand up to bus my tray. “Bye,” I tell her, and she smiles and waves.
The next morning she follows me out of the hostel. I do not notice her at first. Down the street from the hostel is a row of buildings, like shabby boutiques, where prostitutes sit on stools behind plate glass windows. I identify the prostitutes by the color of the lingerie they wear: the purple prostitute, with her merry widow and garter belt and lace stockings, the silver prostitute in her shiny metallic teddy. Although it is not yet noon, the silver prostitute has pulled apart the curtains of her window, signaling that she is now open, ready to receive customers. I watch her for a minute. She scratches her leg, yawns. Two men walking down the street stop in front of her window, and she smiles at them, a practiced smile. Even her lipstick is metallic. I turn my head to look away and see Lakshmi coming toward me. I wait for her to catch up. She does not increase her pace, so it takes her a minute to reach me. We smile at each other. She follows me to the coffee shop on the corner.
I buy her a hot chocolate, and while she sips it, I try my languages on her. She shakes her head, smiling, murmurs in Hindi. When I light a cigarette, she extends her fingers. I hand her a cigarette.
All I know about Lakshmi is what I observe. She eats by compartmentalizing her food. She picks the mushrooms out of her salad, gathers them on one side of her plate. Tomato wedges on another. A soggy handful of croutons at the top, lettuce and red cabbage at the bottom. She eats one section at a time, working around the plate counterclockwise.
She likes to sing. Since she never speaks and hardly makes a sound—even her footsteps are light; she picks up her feet like a cat, never shuffling—I was taken aback when I first heard her sing. Her voice is low and sweet. It reminded me of something that at first I could not place. Later I remember: Julie’s laugh.
I once heard a theory about how language was invented. Early man wanted to preserve tribal secrets. So they used words as veils, to keep neighboring tribes from understanding and learning their mysteries. Language was not intended to communicate, but to dissemble, to conceal.
Because Lakshmi and I do not attempt to understand each other, we never misunderstand each other. We speak no words, so we leave no words out. She can’t interfere with the identity I create for her. She is a smooth stone goddess with a shattered nose and eight arms. She is a child swimming in the river Ganges, black hair floating like leaves. She is sandalwood incense and curry and myrrh. She is soft gold in my hands, to model and shape. She is whatever I want her to be.
I left the States because I wasn’t brave enough to see you, but I think you’ve
followed me here. I see you everywhere—I see you on posters and in museums, I
see women with long red hair walking down the street and follow them thinking
she might be you. And even when I try to sleep . . .
Amsterdam is a city of voyeurs. The prostitutes are hierarchized, three tiered. The prettiest ones work in whorehouses. I pass one brothel on the way to my coffee shop. It is next to a newsstand, a redbrick building with lavender curtains, printed with small yellow flowers, sedate and prim. One morning, as I buy a Herald Tribune, a woman comes out of the house. She is wearing jeans, mirrored sunglasses, her hair is rolled in curlers like sausages, bound up with a yellow bandana. She buys Gitanes and a pack of Hollywood gum and turns to face me. Her sunglasses bounce off a double picture of me, two shiny, pale faces, two mouths thin and straight as hyphens.
The second tier of prostitutes is the window girls. At night they turn on the lightbulbs above their stools. Tourists gather around them, cajoling, gesturing for them to unhook their bras, show their breasts. They are skillful at differentiating potential customers from onlookers. When they get a customer, they close the heavy red curtains for ten or fifteen minutes. His friends wait outside, laughing. When he leaves, the prostitutes open the curtains again, reapply their makeup. You can see the sweat shine on their chests in the light.
The lowest class of prostitutes is mostly heroin addicts. They hang out at the docks and canals, smoking. They look older and plainer, with ragged faces. I don’t know where they take their customers: in the shadows of the houseboats, possibly, or underneath the bridges. One morning I saw two policemen rolling one into a body bag. I couldn’t see her face, but her feet were unmistakable, worn pumps poking from the gray plastic bag.
The red-light district is crowded with dark doorways where men stand, promising in French, German, English that for a few guilders you can have a conversation with a naked woman. I hear one of these solicitors exhorting a Japanese man in a light-gray suit to come inside. He speaks in English, the international language of business. “You can talk to her for a minute,” he cajoles. “Very pretty girl. Very pretty tits. No touching.”
I wonder what he could do with a naked woman in a minute. No time to masturbate, even. What would they talk about? The heat wave, Rembrandt, the value of the guilder? “Conversation” has to be a code word; it seems too unlikely.
The Japanese man hesitates. Two cameras loop around his neck, one with a long, thick lens like a throat. His face, ringed with round glasses, seems calm and bland. This is the kind of tourist you see in Disneyland, taking pictures of his children standing next to Snow White. Focusing and refocusing his camera, while his children stand perfectly still, and Snow White smiles, fixedly, her lips as red as blood. This is not a sex-shop customer. But the Japanese man surprises me; he pays and walks in.
There is another place, deep in the red-light district, that I heard the American women in their pink-and-yellow clothes discussing at dinner. Here, for a larger price, you pay to strip while people watch you. Apparently you strip before a one-way mirror, sealed from the onlookers. They can see you, but all you can see is your own body reflected.
On my first trip to Amsterdam, when I was nine, my mother took me to the house of Anne Frank. A line of people climbed up the steep staircase to look at the rooms a dead girl lived in, the chairs she sat in, the table where she did her homework. We looked at Anne Frank through a one-way mirror of time. We peered through the window with shutters she could never open to look at the outside world, the pretzel vendors, the streets, the canals she could never see. The world seemed so bright and clamorous and enticing, pictured through the eyes of a prisoner.
After two weeks in Amsterdam, I borrow a telephone from the concierge and track down my mother, in a hotel at Marseilles. The connection to France is bad, crackly with static. Her boyfriend answers the phone.
“Nicolo, it’s Heather. Can I please speak to my mother?”
He calls for her. I never have much to say to Nicolo. He’s thirty-four, only ten years older than me. My mother picked him up last winter in Naples.
“Sweetie. Where are you?” she says. “I’ve been trying to reach you in New York—at least, I’ve been meaning to, but things have been so insane—”
“Amsterdam? But honey, I thought you were going to spend the summer in the States. Amsterdam is so awful.” She sighs. “Well, tell me, how was Julie’s wedding?”
I pause, then say, “Fine. But Mom, I need you to wire me some money.”
She catches the hesitation. “Did anything go wrong?”
“No, I told you, it was fine. Listen, I’d love to talk, but I have to pay for this, and I’m completely broke. Can you wire me some money?”
She sighs again. “You know, I went to an art-supply store yesterday, and I saw this gorgeous set of paints that I was thinking about getting Julie for a wedding present. But then I looked at them, and there was a tube of paint called ‘flesh color.’ A sort of pinkish beige. And I thought, that’s really offensive, people are all different colors, you know, brown and yellow and red, to call pinkish beige ‘flesh color’—well, it seemed disingenuous at the very least.”
I picture my mother, holding the phone, lapsing into some meditation on the wrongs of the world. In the last few years, she has begun to get fat. She was always beautiful; she still looks much younger than her age, but the weight drives her to extremes. She dyes her hair black; she wears low-cut blouses; she does everything in her power to counteract the baffling onset of age.
“Julie doesn’t paint,” I tell her.
“Heather,” she replies, her voice wintry, “I hope you aren’t asking me for money to buy drugs. Don’t think I’m naive about Amsterdam. I know what goes on there, all those derelicts, punching needles in their arms and putting garbage up their noses—”
I stare at the wall. In a red plastic frame hangs a poster of a Van Gogh, the bowl of irises that look like curled hands. “Mom. Will you wire me the money or not?”
“It’s Bastille Day,” she says. “I’m looking out the window, and I can see tanks coming down the street.” She pauses. “I just realized, it’s your birthday next week. What do you want for a present?”
“Money. About six hundred dollars. You can send me a check if it’s easier.” I give her the address of the hostel.
“I know you think you can take care of yourself,” she says. “But I worry about you. It’s a sign of strength to ask for help, honey.” She waits, but I have nothing to say. “I’ll give your love to Nicolo.”
I tell her good-bye and hang up. Then I go to my room, take two pain killers, and lie on my bed. The bedspread is white and nubbly. It feels like braille.
When I was ten, my father, an alcoholic, prone to falling into rabbit holes of depression, lost his job and shot himself in the head. But he didn’t die, at least not immediately, if you could call what was left of him alive. My mother and I found him sitting in the room that we called his once, his head on the desk. The gun was still in his hand. We had been out shopping for shoes. My mother dropped the shopping bag and ran over to him while I stood in the door. She lifted him up and put her face against his chest, then she looked at me with horrified eyes. “Oh God,” she said, “his heart is still beating.”
My mother hired a nurse, a middle-aged Canadian with red hands, who sang my father show tunes. For just over a year, she spoon fed him, washed him, gave him medication. He sat in a chair by the window, blinking. If he had a mind left, it was not a responsive one. It drove my mother crazy that there was no plug to pull. He died a month before I turned twelve, and my mother and I never really forgave each other for feeling relieved.
My mother was born in Louisiana and met my father when she was eighteen, skiing in Switzerland. They married that summer. When he died she was thirty-three and lovely. She plucks her eyebrows and draws them over slightly higher than they naturally grow, which makes her seem constantly surprised. She is credulous and sweet and vain and more like me than I want to believe. When I was thirteen, my mother called me a slut, and I told her that it took one to know one. We were standing at opposite sides of the living room yelling at each other. The furniture was covered in plastic sheets because the house was for sale. I was taller than her by then, and I remember how she looked. She was wearing a red cashmere jacket, and her pretty, shocked face looked like a porcelain doll’s. I imagined her falling on the floor and cracking down the middle.
After that she decided I was unmanageable and sent me to boarding school in the States. The first three months there, I was miserable. I missed Switzerland, my friends, crepes with butter and sugar. I missed sitting in cafés drinking espresso or sweet red wine and flirting with the waiters. The school had more rules than I could keep track of, dress codes and curfews and chapel attendance, and so I even missed my mother’s lazy negligence. It was hard to make friends. My clothes were wrong. I didn’t have the requisite monogrammed sweaters or Lanz nightgowns or James Taylor records.
And then Julie started to be friends with me, and the pieces my life had splintered into fused together again. Julie, that is the terrible secret of you: you stick me together. Without you I scatter; without you I disappear.
I wake up one morning with the sun on my face. I get up to close the shutters and look out the window. Across the street I see a woman holding a bouquet of purple-and-white dahlias. She lifts them to her face. The gesture is so pretty that I smile.
My watch stopped days ago, and I wonder absently what time it is. Early: the sun is still low in the sky; the city is not yet stiflingly hot. At some point, in Amsterdam, I have lost track of time, of the progression of days.
I stop at Lakshmi’s room on my way out and knock on her door. She is still in bed, mummy wrapped in sheets. “I’m going to the coffee shop,” I tell her. “I am going to write a letter.” I pantomime writing, make loops in the air. Lakshmi nods, as if she has understood me perfectly, and gives me the best smile.
The coffee shop I always go to is at the corner. Like everything in Amsterdam, its hours are random. It’s supposed to open at six, but although the clock on the wall says half past seven, the waitress is only now removing the stools from the tables and sponging off the counters. She hands me a menu with the kinds of hash listed on the left-hand column, the marijuana listed on the right. I hand it back to her and say, “Just coffee, please.” She pours a cup without looking at me.
She is a beautiful young woman with a sullen, Slavic face. Over the past weeks I have invented a history for her. She is the daughter of the couple who own the coffee shop, and she is angry because she wants to be with her lover, a sidewalk artist, but her parents make her work. They disapprove of the artist; they call him sacrilegious. He draws chalk pietas who all have the broad, stony face of the waitress. It is her long-lashed, blue eyes that gaze tearlessly down at the naked body of Jesus, the dead son. The waitress’s parents pressure her to go out with someone more stable, perhaps the anemic young man in a suit who comes here frequently and sits in the back, looking humbly at her. Lately I’ve been unable to stop myself from doing this, stop my mind from clicking and connecting to other people; it makes me feel raw, as if my nerves are too close to the surface of my skin.
I take stationery from my bag and smooth it out on the table, then realize that I don’t know what day it is. It seems very important to write the date on this letter. If I start it correctly, maybe I will finally be able to finish it. I try to get the waitress’s attention, but she is sitting at a table in the back, holding a magazine in front of her face. When I walk over to her and say, “Excuse me,” she flinches.
“Do you know what the date is?” I speak slowly, but she looks at me blankly. “The date, what is the date?” I repeat.
“The date, I understand,” she says. “July twenty.”
I want to laugh: July twentieth, my twenty-fifth birthday. I can’t believe I forgot my own birthday. I feel a sudden surge, which catches me off guard, a child’s excitement for presents and cake. But of course there are no presents; there is no cake except for the frosted hash brownies they sell at the coffee shop. My feeling of happy surprise dissipates. There were so many things I was planning to do by the time I turned twenty-five: quit taking drugs, find a job I could stand, settle down. Settle down: a strange expression. It makes me picture sediment in water, falling slowly to the bottom.
I walk back to my table, date my letter, and begin to write.
You probably know that I’ve begun this letter fifty times. I think the reason I
haven’t been able to write it, the reason I start it over and over again, is that as
long as I don’t finish it, the letter is in my hands. But as soon as I send it, it’s yours,
yours to read or not read, and that scares me.
I stop and stare at the paper. I remember when Julie and I were about fourteen, we were talking about which of Superman’s powers we would most like to have. I said invulnerability. I liked the idea of deflecting bullets, of being safe, impenetrable. Julie said heat-ray vision—the ability to burn things into ashes with her eyes.
Every time I try to write this letter, I am blocked by the same image, the same memory: that night in June when Porter and I were screwing on the floor of the pool house, and Julie walked in on us. I remember the way she stood in the door, her hand on the wall as if she were holding herself upright, her mouth open, not saying anything, and I remember most of all the way she looked at me. Her eyes were like lasers, that sharp and precise. I remember how I sat up and pulled Porter’s T-shirt to my chest; I remember saying, “Julie,” and the way that seemed to snap her out of it. She said, “Don’t,” that was all; not “Don’t talk,” just “Don’t.” Then she shut the door behind her, almost calmly, lightly, as if she were making a point of not slamming it. I could hear the sound her feet made on the gravel, running away. I didn’t follow her. I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t; I keep waiting for the words to come, the right, persuasive words that will make her understand that I crumple up letter after letter because the words aren’t there. Since that night, I haven’t been the same; my bones feel loose in my skin.
I’m sure you know how hard a letter this is to write.
But it was always hard to write Julie. Even when I first knew her. The summer after freshman year of high school, I spent an afternoon sitting on the beach writing a letter to Julie. I can’t even remember what it said, but I know it must have implied, too often, that I missed her. Or perhaps it was just that I missed her in the wrong way: too acutely. When I got her letter a few weeks later, I realized right away that the tone of mine was wrong. Hers was light, newsy. She had met a boy in Maine she liked but thought might be too old for her; he was in college. She asked me if I thought that mattered, if he would expect too much from her. She asked me if I’d met any boys in California. She asked me, also, if anything was wrong, if I was having a bad time; I’d sounded “weird” in my letter. It was signed, “Lotsa love.” I read her letters so carefully, as if they were in code, trying to peel the skin away from their sunny banality. Not that Julie’s letters were boring. They were simply—chatty; not intimate. They were confiding, but about things I didn’t want to hear. There were no submerged meanings.
So I wrote her back in the same vein: cheerful, chatty letters about boys. The first month of the summer, when I wasn’t playing Hearts with my mother and her boyfriend of the moment, a German lawyer named Andreas, I had spent most of my time alone. Now I started going out at night with my cousin Sean. Sean was a freshman at Trinity then and a minor drug dealer, which was his passport to instant popularity in California. After dinner with my mother and Andreas, Sean and I would walk to the beach to meet our new friends, smoke pot, do lines, flirt. By August I had made out with half a dozen of the better looking boys.
I don’t recall liking any of them much. California boys seemed so young to me, fumbling and sweaty, trying to act mature but fearful of proving it. I remember writing Julie about a boy named David’s eyes, how they were green with yellow dots, like a leaf with sunlight on it. The funny thing is I can’t picture David’s eyes themselves—their shape or size. I remember my mother telling me that young ladies don’t spend forty-five minutes kissing boys good night, and I remember reporting that good-night kiss in another letter to Julie. But as for the name of the kisser, or the texture and taste of his lips, I have no memory of it. It was text, to annoy my mother, to relate to Julie: nothing more.
Of course I played down the sexual aspect of these encounters, knowing Julie would disapprove. I remember freshman year of high school, sitting on Julie’s bed, describing making out with a junior named Owen. Julie was sitting at her desk holding Moe, her stuffed platypus, in her lap. Her eyes suddenly widened. “You mean you went to second base with him?” she asked.
I had no idea what Julie was talking about. I had a very sketchy understanding of American sports. Julie, blushing, explained the choreography. First base was kissing. Second, up the shirt. Third, down the pants. Fourth was doing it.
In fact, Owen and I had “gone” to somewhere between third and fourth base. That is, we’d attempted to “do it,” but Owen, in a pivotal moment, had lost his nerve. I had lain on the ground, while he tried unsuccessfully to force his much-too-soft penis inside of me. Finally, he turned his back to me, zipped his fly, and mumbled that he wouldn’t tell anyone we did it if I didn’t tell anyone that we hadn’t. There were obvious logical flaws with this line, but I didn’t bother to point them out. I didn’t care if he told people or not. The only time the word “slut” had ever hurt me was when my mother had flung it across that plastic-sheeted room. So it wasn’t any loyalty to Owen, any desire to protect his pride, that kept me from telling Julie the details. It was the fact that second base seemed shocking enough to her.
Owen’s body was a source of derision; Julie’s was a detailed and complicated road map. She seemed to envision her body crisscrossed with dotted lines indicating places that she allowed boys to touch, places that were off limits. I looked covertly at her breasts (she was just beginning to have them) and imagined them bounded with No Trespassing signs.
I saw my body as skin without boundaries.
Julie knew I wasn’t a virgin. In Switzerland, most of my friends lost their virginity when they were barely teenagers. We took the pill while American girls my age were still taking Flintstone vitamins. I think in a funny way Julie was intrigued by my “experience,” as if it gave me some special way of looking at the world.
But she thought sex without love was wrong. She wasn’t exactly a prude, but she connected sex with romance in a way I never had. She told me once how she wanted to lose her virginity, and the scenario was a developed one that she embellished over time. She wanted it to be in a hotel, with a soft bed and flowers. Preferably in Venice, which she thought was the most romantic city in the world. Though any hotel would do. The boy would be someone who adored her, someone, she said, whom she could trust. Someone discreet. It would be best if he was a virgin too, not inept, but innocent and sweet. They would be each other’s first lovers. And the strange thing was that her fantasy more or less came true. Or maybe it’s not so strange; Julie usually gets what she wants.
Julie seemed to see virginity as a game that she could win or lose. Winning it involved champagne, a picturesque setting, and a lover in the true sense of the word: someone who loved her. Losing it was having sex in the backseat of a car or the floor of a deserted classroom, with a guy who talked about her to everyone but never talked to her again. I had sex for the first time when I was twelve, a year to the day after my father died. My “deflowerer” was an eighteen-year-old Belgian named Jean-Charles, and all I clearly remember about him are the moles on his hands. We had sex on my bed while my mother was on a date. It took me ten minutes to remove the blood stains from the bedspread with cold water. Afterward, we walked to a park where a movable fairground, complete with a small Ferris wheel and carousel, had been imported from France. Jean-Charles bought me cotton candy in a paper cone. It was the first time I had ever tasted cotton candy, and I remember liking how the fluffy pink sugar dissolved to nothing in my mouth.
I know what you’re expecting. You want me to explain about Porter, what happened
with Porter. Well, I don’t know what he told you, but it wasn’t a one night
stand. I wish it was. I wish I could just say I was drunk, that it was a meaningless
drunken encounter. Although it was meaningless. We slept together about half a
dozen times. It wasn’t serious, it wasn’t important. To tell the truth, Julie, I don’t
even like him very much. Now I know you’re wondering, well then, why did I do it?
You must have your guesses, your speculations. You know me pretty well. And I
know you pretty well too—I bet I can guess what your guesses are. How Henry
James-ish our—what should I say? friendship?—has become: deciphering each
other’s thoughts. And we’re not bad at it, either, though I bet a lot gets lost in
translation. But back to guessing your guesses: Attraction—well, slightly, of course.
But you know he’s not really my type: too preppie. Boredom. Wanting to shake
things up. Even you know that those “reasons” are pretty thin, motive-less. Jealousy.
Now you’re closer, Julie, now you’re getting warm. But what do you mean by
jealousy? Do you think I wish it were me instead of you, me marrying Porter, me
wearing the champagne or eggshell or whatever the color your off-white dress was,
me with the perfect life and perfect husband and boxes of crystal I would never use?
I first met Porter the summer before my junior year in high school, when I was visiting Julie in Rhode Island. He grew up in Newport too, a mile up the beach from her, but she didn’t really know him. Porter was five years older than us, so for a long time Julie must have been invisible to him.
Which is why both of us were surprised when Porter and his friend Tim asked us out. We were at the Newport Beach Club, ordering the fanciest drinks we could think of, because Felipe, the Puerto Rican bartender, had also known Julie all her life and would never think to card her: banana daiquiris, mint juleps, sea breezes, tequila sunrises. Julie was getting loaded; I remember her trying to do the samba. She was wearing a white cotton tank top, and her arms were bare, pink at the insides of her elbows where she had a sunburn. She looked happy and pretty: not pretty in her usual all-American girl way, but seductively pretty. She tipped her head back and clicked her fingers in the air. I could see the stubble of her arm pits. Her hair had all the incredible colors that red hair in the sunlight does, violet and scarlet and gold.
She opened her eyes and looked at me and laughed, and I felt a sharp rush of tenderness for her; I remember thinking that despite all the crap she put me through, I loved her. There’s so much pressure in our society to scrutinize and dissect love, to label it: this is “love”; this is “in love”; this is an acceptable feeling; this is not. I love Julie, simple as that; the contortions I had to put my love through are what screwed everything up.
After Julie’s impromptu samba solo, Porter and Tim walked over and had a drink with us. Tim barely spoke, but Porter was being very suave, flirting with both of us. I knew right away he was after Julie, and I could tell by the way she looked at him that she was interested. Julie has a very specific type: clean-cut, dark hair, white teeth, nice hands. When he asked us if we wanted to go out with them, Julie gave me a look that I won’t forget: a nervous, pleading look. I said, “Okay.” So Porter asked us out for both of them, and I said yes for both of us.
It was a car date. We drove to a cliff overlooking the beach. Porter and Julie were in the front, Tim and I in the back. I remember Porter unbuttoning Julie’s shirt; I remember how she let him do it. He unbuttoned her shirt so gently. She was wearing some kind of black push-up bra that I had never seen before. I didn’t know what to do with my eyes; I couldn’t look at them, and I couldn’t take my eyes off them either. So I started kissing Tim as passionately as I could; I let him do anything to me. Skin without boundaries. He pushed my skirt up and started kissing my stomach, then he pulled my underwear down and kissed my thighs. By then I could tell that Porter and Julie had stopped being lost in each other. They were both watching me and Tim, at first surreptitiously, then overtly, watching us put on a show. So that’s what I remember: not Tim—who I had sex with that night, in the backseat of a car, in front of Julie and Porter, whose face has slipped into so deep a crevice in my memory that I will never be able to fish it out—but Julie, the way she caught her lip with her teeth, and Porter, his hands lightly holding Julie’s shoulders. The way they looked at me.
I left the next day. I think Julie saw Porter two or three times more before she came back to school, no more. But he stuck in her mind. She wrote him a couple of letters, and I could tell she was hurt that he didn’t write back. She would talk about him at odd times, long after she had started seeing other guys. So, though that night was nine years ago, I wasn’t that shocked when I heard she was going to marry him.
I had been out of the country for a while, traveling. I went to Spain last fall with a guy, and I woke up one morning and found him gone and my traveler’s checks missing. I wired for more money and kept traveling, going southeast, following the sand, until one day in March, I picked up my mail in an American Express office in Tunisia, and there was a letter from Julie saying she was engaged to Porter. And the first thing I thought was, Ten years later and Julie’s letters are the same, still all about boys.
So I flew back to the States, spending too much on a ticket to get there more quickly, talking to myself to get rid of the heavy, panicky feeling in my stomach. Beth had a dinner party in New York the weekend I got home, and Julie and Porter were there, and I took one look at him and thought, It can’t be this easy. He remembered me, I could tell. He was sitting across from me at dinner, and all through the evening, I saw his eyes sliding down to look at my breasts. That easy, until I wasn’t sure, in the end, who seduced whom. To Porter I was always the girl he watched having sex in the back of his car; to me he was the boy who had half forgotten about Julie and her push-up bra to watch me. And when Porter and I were screwing in the pool house that night, the night before he and Julie were supposed to get married, and Julie walked in and saw us, I had an almost heady sense of déjà vu: she, too, was watching me again.
But that’s too simple, too simple to say that I slept with Porter in order for Julie to catch me. It wasn’t just to hurt her; it was to connect with her too. I think Porter got that. Perhaps our motivations were the same: I slept with him because he was Julie’s fiancé he might have slept with me because I was her best friend. So in a funny way, we might have slept together out of love after all. But it was never love for each other.
Oh, I admit that there’s been plenty of times when I’ve wanted your life, I’ve
wanted to have parents who spoil me, who are nosy and over-involved and watch
my lacrosse games. There are many things you have that I want: I would like your
security, your solidity, the way you, like most well-loved people, take everyone for
granted. But Porter is not one of those things, Julie. If I had him, what would I do
Forgive me if I sound flippant. This letter is not intended to be an apology.
Apologies are for putting a cigarette burn in a sweater I borrowed; not for sleeping
with your fiancé.
I can picture your face, the way you frown when someone is telling you something
you don’t want to hear. That frown has stopped me from telling you things
so many times. But I have to tell you, don’t you see? I don’t love Porter, Julie. I love
you. I always have. You can take that in whatever way you want. But you know
how I mean it.
I stop writing, submerged in memory. A memory treasured, hurtful, overplayed, frayed at the seams, like Julie’s stuffed platypus, falling to pieces from too much handling. There was a time, fall of junior year, when Julie and I were roommates. Julie was kneeling in front of the mirror wrapped in a towel, blow-drying her hair, and I was sitting on my bed watching her. I said something like, “Let me do that.” She hesitated, then handed me the blow-dryer. We caught each other’s eyes in the mirror.
I remember this as being both distant and larger than life, as if on a movie screen. I see myself sitting cross-legged behind Julie, holding the blow-dryer with my left hand; I see Julie’s damp red hair flying with hot wind; I see my right hand on the side of Julie’s neck. After a few minutes I turned off the blow-dryer and started rubbing Julie’s shoulders. She closed her eyes. Her eyelids were blue, as thin as silk. Her towel was knotted in front of her, and when I loosened it, it fell to her waist. I have seen Julie naked so many times—she was my roommate for three years—but this time I could barely look at her. I moved my hands so lightly up and down her sides that I could hardly feel her pale pink and blue skin. I kissed her neck.
And I want to say this; I want to make this clear: Julie kissed me back. She was not passive, inert; she kissed me back. She did not pull up her towel, and she kissed me back. She cupped my cheek in her hand, and she kissed me.
There were other times too. Julie always kept her eyes closed when I touched her. She never talked, either. If I spoke to her then, she wouldn’t answer, as if when she shut her eyes, she shut off sound. I stroked Julie’s back while she lay face down on her bed; I stroked her legs, her shoulders, her ribs. I kissed her neck, her hair, her shoulders, the bottoms of her feet. The corner of her mouth, if she was sitting up and allowed me to, though she kept her face averted.
I never touched those parts of her body, however, which were partitioned off by the invisible dotted lines. Because of this, there was no neat category for my caresses to fall into. That was the most frustrating thing about whatever was going on between me and Julie. I could handle not kissing her breasts, the breasts I saw almost daily as she dressed and undressed; I could handle not making love to her, but I hated the fact that Julie could so easily escape self-awareness. Because we weren’t going to second base, or third base, Julie’s distinct islands in a vague sea of physical contact, my touches fell into a no-man’s zone. They couldn’t be categorized, so they didn’t exist. And fourth base was impossible; how could fourth base even occur between women, when Julie defined “doing it” by penetration? There was no way for two women to do it; there was nothing, therefore, for them to do.
Julie behaved as if the Heather that she saw every day, the Heather that was her best friend, was not the same person who touched and kissed her. After that first time, she would undress in front of me as unself-consciously as ever; she would talk about her boyfriends without a flicker of awkwardness. When I tried to get her to talk about “it,” she would get angry and defensive, tell me I made her claustrophobic, avoid me for a few days. Julie knows how I feel about her; she’s not stupid. But as long as we don’t talk about it, it’s not real to her. And I was such a coward, so afraid of chasing Julie away, that I capitulated. She was, is, my best friend. I was, am, in love with her. But I have had to separate these two things—love for a friend, love for a lover—as one is a love that Julie will accept, and one is a love that she won’t.
I remember Estelle, my first “official” girlfriend, the only person I have confided to about Julie, saying to me, “I just don’t get it. I mean, she’s pretty, I guess, in that wholesome I-eat-lots-of-nutrients way. But she’s such a denial case, so superficial. What do you see in her?”
Can anyone explain, ever, why they love someone? I love her because she pours maple syrup on cottage cheese. I love the way she speaks French in a voice an octave higher than her English. She loves to dance but can’t keep a beat. She buys balloons so she can let them go. She is afraid of the soft thorny part of artichokes. She likes movies where all of the main characters die. Sometimes when she goes to bars, she tells strangers her name is Siobhan O’ Mingus and speaks in an Irish brogue. She is like ice cream: sweet and cold. She doesn’t try to be fascinating, or brilliant, or dazzling. She is like a favorite restaurant that no one knows about, an extra fortune in a cookie. I love her because I do—how else can I put it?
I’ve been trying to understand why I slept with Porter. I think it was because he
was something I could share with you. I know you will probably have trouble
believing this, I know you think that the reason I hooked up with Porter was to
hurt you. That isn’t true, Julie. I never wanted to hurt you, at least never consciously.
But you have to remember, you hurt me too . . .
This is a memory I have tried to forget, and even now, with all the cushioning distance of time and space, thinking of it makes me stop writing and press the flats of my hands to my eyes. It was my senior year at Barnard, and Julie had taken the train from Princeton to visit. We were at the salad bar of the dining hall when Estelle came over. She was wearing hoop earrings wide enough to fit a hand through, which swung back and forth as she said hello. After Estelle left and we sat down, I asked Julie, “So, do you like her?”
Julie shrugged. “Do you?”
“I’m trying to figure that out.” I took a bite of salad, watching her. “I’m sleeping with her.”
“You heard me.”
I don’t think I will forget Julie’s expression. She looked at me, then looked away.
“What’s the matter with you?” I asked.
“Listen, Heather, I do not want to get into a conversation about your sex life. Let’s drop it.”
“No, I want to know.” I don’t know what was making me so confrontational, so pushy. She was right; I should have dropped it. “Are you jealous?”
Julie snorted, pushed her tray away. “Come off it, Heather.”
“What is it, then?”
“All right, if you really want to know, I don’t understand why you want to throw your life away like that. I mean, you like guys. Obviously. And you want to have children, don’t you, don’t you want to have a family? I’m telling you this as a friend, okay? You like being the rebel, you like shocking people, but you’re not a lesbian, and I don’t see what you’re trying to prove.”
“I can’t believe you’re saying this.”
“I’m saying it because you’re my friend and I’m concerned about you, okay? Look, I know how it is. You go to a women’s college, and they feed you all this ideology, like if you kiss a guy, you’re caving into a patriarchal society or whatever. They make you think it’s antifeminist to be normal. Stop looking at me like that, Heather. I just want you to be happy.”
I think what got to me the most is that I could see Julie really meant it, really believed what she was saying. She had on that pained but composed look of someone who knows they’re right and is trying to explain something self-evident to a person who inexplicably doesn’t get the point. She meant it; not only did she think that being a lesbian was an aberration, not only did she see it as having nothing to do with her, she also saw it as having nothing to do with me. She saw it as another theatrical and insincere pose that she could logically, rationally, talk me out of.
The fact that you’ve hurt me isn’t an excuse. You and I are not fractions; our
injuries don’t just cancel each other out. But I want you to understand. Porter
didn’t happen because I hated you, he happened because I loved you, and I was
frustrated and hurt and, yes, maybe angry, maybe bitter, if I’m being absolutely
honest, that you gave me no way to express that love. That is, no way except
I don’t mean to devalue our friendship; it’s the most important thing in the
world to me. But sometimes I wish I could talk to my best friend about the person I
love, and she won’t let me. And sometimes all those feelings I swallow and have
swallowed, Julie, for years, come out in perverse and terrible and hurtful ways.
First I hoped I would change, that I could shut off the way I felt about you. Then,
for a long time, I hoped you would change. I’ve finally not just realized but
accepted that you simply don’t feel the same way about me that I do about you. I’d
be lying if I said that I no longer want you to love me “that way,” but I don’t
believe it will ever happen.
So Julie, you have my permission to love any beautiful brown-eyed men you
meet; but please, please, be my friend again. I need you, I rely on you, I want to see
you on any terms. I promise, Julie: I will ingratiate myself to any boyfriend or
(God forbid) husband you have; I will shop for shoes with you, I will go to Lamaze
classes with you, I will be your middle-aged chain-smoking fat friend whom you
can feel superior to. If you hate me too much to forgive me I will get plastic surgery
and change my name and invent a Hungarian accent. I just can’t face you
disappearing from my life.
A feather-light touch on my arm makes me stop writing and look up. Lakshmi is standing beside me, looking at me with her big dark eyes. I smile hello and move my chair to give her room to sit down. Lakshmi arranges herself at the table. She is wearing a thin, red cotton dress with gold thread in it, and her hair is pulled into a long fish-bone braid down her back. Lakshmi holds two fingers to her lips, pretending to inhale, and I nod and grab a package of cigarettes out of my bag. I strike a match, light a cigarette for her, and pass it to her. One thing I have learned about Lakshmi is that she is afraid of fire. She takes the cigarette, closes her eyes, and exhales a ribbon of smoke. The expression on her face is one of such pure pleasure I laugh.
I turn back to my letter.
Did you see that it’s my birthday today? My mother once said to me that the only
way to give a gift is to lose all interest in it once you give it. So I’m going to try to do
that. Just as this letter, once I send it, is yours to read or not to read as you wish, my
love for you once I’ve given it is yours to accept or reject. And if you do accept it, it’s
yours to accept in whatever way you want. It belongs to you.
I’ll be back in the States in September, or when I run out of money, whichever
comes first. I’d like to see you then, and talk.
My pen slips from my fingers and rolls across the table. I sit very still. My body feels like it has turned to water. If I move, I might just flow away.
Lakshmi taps my wrist, very lightly, and I raise my eyes and look at her. The expression on her face, intent and kind, reminds me of how my cousin Lucie once plunged herself into my lap when I was crying—some argument with my mother, the topic long forgotten—and with round, four-year-old fists batted the tears on my face, willing me to smile. I hold Lakshmi’s gaze, and for a dizzy moment, I can no longer differentiate whether I am the eyes looking or the object seen. I am both.
The waitress comes over and asks Lakshmi, in Dutch, what she wants. Lakshmi points to my coffee. Even the waitress cannot resist her smile. She pours Lakshmi a cup of coffee and gives her a space cake free of charge. I watch Lakshmi lick the silky icing. Then I finish writing.
Or not talk. Maybe we can just forget about words for awhile.
I love you. Heather
Kim Magowan teaches in the English Department at Mills College and lives in San Francisco with her partner and their two daughters. She has published fiction in the Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, and River City. She is presently working on a set of linked short stories about a group of friends from high school. These stories (a bit like tenacious historical friends who will not take the hint) are becoming increasingly difficult to extricate from each other. “Nothing in My Mouth” is the first of the series.
“Nothing in My Mouth” appears in our Winter 2012 issue.