Today a president is being impeached because of You. He could have invaded a nation with mercenaries, lied about the reasons and gotten away with it. But as soon as You had him by the balls, he was finished, a guilty man, gripping his bible in apology before a gossip hungry nation. The Goddess rules.
Some say You’ve been reborn out of the blue desktops of the computer, an Aphrodite of the internet. Forget about the old guys jacking off on magazines, the young men are hooked. And the young women have thrown all caution to the wind, using every device You conceived to turn us on. Among all ages the market for erection pills has swollen and pornography has risen to nearly respectable levels. You still rule. But as I look into your eyes I ask You, for how long?
My wife, Beatrice and I live on the eighth-floor of a once elegant building on the north corner of 158th Street and Morgan in New York City. Our three daughters now have homes of their own but at the time Agatha, the youngest, was still living here. One morning I woke from a dream in a sweat. The blinds were down but the bedroom was already bright. Up on Broadway trucks were grinding to a halt at the stoplight. In a panic I reached for the phone. I wanted to confirm the day’s deliveries with the dispatcher at Blue Freight. I’m a teamster with a pension. I had a responsibility.
Now I’m no fool. I went to college, if for a short time. I studied philosophy with a neo-Platonist. And in those realms where philosophers have sought evidence of either the personal or the archetypal, I became aware, again, both physically and mentally of a female image whose face I couldn’t distinguish, but whose figure and apparel I certainly and unmistakably knew. At forty-five I’d known Her longer than Beatrice, who was asleep beside me. I didn’t know Her name and Beatrice knew nothing of Her, even though for years Bea had been Her embodiment, instinctively employing many of Her attributes to woo me. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Until recently lust and love had been one.
My wife teaches English in junior high school. Her work with adolescents is lauded by parents and faculty alike. Her interest in literature runs deep. Her favorite literary hero is not a character out of Jane Austen, but Dimitri Karamazov. As for film, any movie issued after 1975, flounders in a pyrotechnical decadence of sex and violence. Unlike my parents, who knew nothing of Doctor Spock, Bea’s parents had strictly followed the doctor’s parental guides. As an undergraduate at Hunter she was reading Piaget and Erickson. She is as beautiful today as the day I first met her. But I’d become aware of two entities when we made love. One was Bea, the other this Goddess. If Bea didn’t spend time coaxing me into life by applying the blatant attributes of the goddess, attributes, which Bea has come to believe are needless, often comical, I fell victim to Bea’s more commercial rival.
“Oh my god,” she said, just then, sleepily, “you are ready to go . . ..”
Then I recalled it was Good Friday. I didn’t have to go to work.
She rolled over and took hold of me while I gently stroked her hair. The paragon moved off. I realize now the Goddess never cared one way or the other if I made love with Beatrice, as long as she was in my mind’s eye. But I was sure Bea would care if she knew about the initiating powers of this Nameless One. I held onto her. In the warm spring air, shot through with the ever-brightening light of the coming equinox, I sensed the goddess flitting in the wings, like Circe in Ovid’s tales of transformation. Although Beatrice was happy, my own feelings of accomplishment were marred. Had I known where I was going from the very beginning, and I mean the very beginning back at the woodpile, I would have fought stubbornly. But fought stubbornly against whom? Nature?
Thirty-four years ago I was still a child when the Nameless One entered my dreams in the form of rain. The cells of my sleeping body filled with the lancet-like explosions of Her enigmatic force. Later She was the sea, enveloping me as I lay on a colorless beach. With Her liquid embrace I melted into the greater world, its arteries and currents always promising new adventures.
It was not until my friend Thomas Vellum and I discovered the stack of damp magazines behind the neighbor’s woodpile that She revealed Herself in Her more familiar earthly forms. We had been rooting about in the litter of the adjoining woods looking for the early appearance of skunk cabbages. Even on the coolest days of April, the warm, conical temples draw in early spawned flies to their alluring statuary. Now you may question whether a nearly naked woman lying on a bed of pink nylon, circa 1963, is anything but earthly; certainly She lacks the purity of water, but to us She was earthly and pure.
The magazines had suffered from the elements. They were on the verge of becoming part of the forest debris that pushes verdant landscapes into maturity. We removed them from the process of decay and consigned them to a sacred wooden chest we kept in a small fort nearby. Our fort lay on the cliffside overlooking a small harbor on the north shore of Long Island –West Egg, if you will. It was partially buried within the roots of an enormous locust tree. In this hollowed-out area, which looked out on the rock strewn shore, we studied our newly found cache as if they were ancient Celtic documents. Where the pages were matted together, we carefully and with the most intense delicacy separated page from page. Such astute care would have shocked our mothers, who were used to us wreaking havoc wherever we set foot. Not in their wildest dreams would they have imagined their twelve-year-olds manifesting the traits of archaeologists. Like archaeologists we sought answers to age-old questions.
Some of the pages had become translucent, the images on one side merging with those on the other, mutant palimpsests that contorted the natural world. On the other hand even the straight-forward images of women with enormous breasts as firm as the bark bolls of the black locust above us, and with waists narrowed to an unbelievable circumference in tight-fitting slacks, like no slacks we had ever noticed on anyone, were not standard. Here was the nameless mystery I sought, Her appearance from the sea distilled from my countless sleeps, not like the Venus of Botticelli but rather a temptress with no hints of virginal purity, composing Herself for me from the endless pages of the sacred manuscripts. She bore a different mien depending on Her cover story, and names of banal content, like Pamela and Patti. For an elemental force that was ushering me into a new era, Playmate of the Month seemed grossly inappropriate. So for lack of a better name, I began thinking of Her as the Nameless One. How else could I describe something that first came to me as an element of the Earth?
By this accidental discovery of the sacred manuscripts, a standard of beauty had established the form of the goddess as perfect. But was it accidental? After all, how can an accident have so dramatically affected my entire life, shaping it in every way, including my relationship with Beatrice? Believe me, I’ve studied this in detail. I noticed that the temporal manifestations of the standard differed from place to place and from time to time. Only the Ideal was steadfast. To whom did the Dutch painter, Rubens, owe his standard? To the Paleolithic sculptors of Gagarino and Willendorf? To a chance meeting when She surfaced for Rubens in a haywain or even, perhaps, behind a woodpile? Did Rubens then establish the paragon for entire generations to follow who then sought out their own rotund beauties beneath the sheets? What became of the painter’s standard?
One day in the seventh grade my lanky friend, Ned Still, whose hair was always perfectly parted, showed me a textbook from his father’s medical library. His father was a family doctor. His office was attached to their house, a few blocks from the school. On page after page naked people displayed the lumpy anatomy of Homo sapiens. Unlike the images of near nakedness found in the sacred manuscripts, these pictures from the doctor’s book showed the clitoris, unadorned and the penis too. The subjects looked common and everyday, not like the Olympian beauties of the woodpile with their suggestive attire. I still ask myself, what if I had found this heavy leather-bound medical book first? Would I have latched onto a different standard of beauty, one more in tune with everyday people? Was Ned Still, who I haven’t seen in twenty-three years, a votary of the Nameless One? If so, does She resemble mine? I don’t know. But I do know that my standard differs from Rubens’s. The antecedents for mine seemed more like those drawn by artists in ancient Crete and Egypt. I also know that Beatrice and I were changing, imperceptibly but inevitably. Our bodies were slipping into the realm displayed by those pictures in Doctor Still’s library.
Her laughing brought me back. I was slowly circling her belly button with my index finger. I was staring into the narrowing depression where the knotted remnants of her umbilical cord were neatly packed.
“Enough, enough,” she said. “What are you thinking about?”
I looked up.
“Nothing really. I was thinking of Ned Still and the woodpile.”
“I was chosen at the woodpile.”
“Is this a guy kind of thing?”
“Sort of. At the woodpile I was introduced to a fare of visual pastries.”
“I love pastries. You used to bring me cannolis from Arthur Avenue. And flowers from 28th Street, don’t forget the flowers.”
“If you had a choice between a salad and a pastry…”
“Is this a trick question,” she asked, her hands resting around the nape of my neck, “remind me to trim your hair.”
“It’s a question regarding perfection,” I replied.
“There is no perfection,” she countered seriously. “Except…maybe in Love, and Love can’t be defined as this or that.”
In that moment her voice could have filled the universe with its importance. On Broadway the stoplights had brought the traffic to a halt. Nothing moved.
“Bea, you are talking about pure Love; all I was talking about was pastry.”
I couldn’t visualize this abstract enormity. The goddess was a visual idea but Love. . . Even Christianity, the religion of Love, had failed to realize its goal.
“I know what you’re talking about,” she said, “the come on. . . the stage gear. I like that, sometimes. But you know, the Love that comes after you know someone a long time, the way I know you, and you me, the look on your face, the way you walk, you’re good for me, and good for the kids. . .”
“You are my best friend, if that’s what you mean. . .”
“But I don’t know anything about the woodpile.”
Rolling over onto my back, I stretched my arms out above me as if I could snatch an answer from the air. She went on.
“Besides, we’ve two daughters already in college. Agatha is going to be a senior in high school. . .”
I shuddered. My own daughters beneath the lustful gaze of old men. I withdrew my arms from the void and stepped back from the precipice. I reached over and kissed her, then excused myself, promising her two fried eggs over easy with toast and coffee. But I sensed that my first free day, though only just begun, was over, thanks to the perturbations caused by Bea’s rival. I was angry. I popped the toast with fury; jabbed at the eggs, flipping them aggressively. My comments on sitting down to eat were no better. I camouflaged the truth by complaining of the small amount of free time allotted to me. Driving for Blue Freight was lucrative, but left me intellectually dry at the end of the day. Beatrice was sympathetic but wanted no more of my outbursts. She asked me if we wouldn’t be better off if I went out for a walk.
I did. On Morgan I turned left on 158th Street and began a slow amble up the incline toward Broadway. The appearance of the Goddess had left fragmentary shreds of desire in me, like lingerie left behind to remind a lover of a sacred encounter. Sacred was hardly the right word. On this particular weekend of universal suffering and salvation, as I passed Catalina’s Unisex Beauty Salon I found the Virgin Mother and child set on a small plastic dais in one corner and by the door, like an ascending Venus, a life-size mannequin of a woman dressed in stretch jeans and a blouse cut to the navel. The contrast polarized my own needs. I’m not religious, in spite of my parochial school upbringing. Still I couldn’t help but see my conflict in epic form as a battle between the forces of good and evil. This irrational vision was like a cleaver dividing me in two.
“I am the Earth,” said the mannequin, looking me straight in the eye
“Come on,” said the Virgin hugging the baby Jesus to her bosom, “that stuff went out with the Romans.”
“Apparently not, I mean look at my antecedents, they’re ancient, four thousand years.”
“The Word changed all that.”
“All I’m saying is that I’ve always resembled my worshipers. The makeup and the gowns have always led successfully to children.”
“Not in my case.”
“Get off it. Tell me the color of your lips are natural!”
“What did you expect from representational art?”
“I am Earth. I’m covered with wondrous colors, a green mantle in summer; my vestments shine with golden grain in autumn; and wondrous jewels are embedded in my dark skin. My followers wear jewels in their ears and color their faces with the hues of the field. A beautiful Earth is a bounteous Earth.”
“Look around you, Harlot, the farms have became factories, Earth’s a kicked mule. If they can kick the mule, then we can do without makeup!”
“He’s known me since the beginning,” she said, smiling at me. “I am the indelible lettering on tablets dedicated to Inanna and my honey men, the farmers and the shepherds of Sumer. In the beginning was Me. I am the melody in the Song of Songs. My breath still fills the universe to capacity.”
“Don’t listen to her,” said the Virgin, adjusting her robe modestly. “She’s from pagan times after all. There’s no single way of liberating yourself from Her protean power. She can inhabit so many beings, appear in so many forms. . .”
“And you talk about me being pagan, you who gave birth to a god. . .”
“Unless. . . unless you squeeze her like a used tube of toothpaste; fling her like an old, discarded sock. In other words reduce her to her most banal denominator.”
She stared hard at me for emphasis.
“You think he’s innocent? He set you up to protect his interests. He uses you as much as he uses Me. And what better way than to create a rivalry between the good girl and the bad girl. Nameless One, my ass! That’s just a name he uses because he can’t tell a good Linda from a bad Linda!”
She just smiled at me.
“Me, I just love those petty nominations.”
“I see your point,” the Virgin said, looking at her son. “Still his life would be simpler without you.”
I sensed the eyes of the nearest beautician staring at me. I blushed and nodded.
“And a lot less fun. Besides, getting rid of me would mean the end of you.”
From out of the dim reaches of the shop where women in smocks were having their nails done, their heads disappearing into the hair dryers, appeared a young woman who, amid much discussion with the patrons, removed the mannequin’s head. She handed the head to one of the small boys playing underfoot who took it and shook it like a balloon. His mother sitting in one of the salon chairs yelled at him. He threw the head at his friend and ran out the door past me carrying the wig. The young woman picked up the head, as she threw out a rapid volley of reprimands, which made the other women laugh. She set the head on the window sill beside an old man patiently reading the newspaper. In one of the drawers she found a new wig. Much fussing went into Catalina’s appearance, for this is what I imagined Catalina looked like. The phone rang and the woman left the head with its tangled mess of colorful extensions transforming Catalina into a Gorgon.
My father was Cuban. In his quest for an American identity he failed to impart in his kids a lasting memory of Spanish. As a result I remained a tourist in the neighborhood, which is predominately Dominican. I was brought up on the north shore of Long Island, a product of a thoroughly American suburban upbringing. My mother was every bit American, a renegade Baptist from Texas of pioneer stock, whose aspirations were the opposite of my father’s. She met him in Corpus Christi near the end of the Second World War where he was stationed at the Naval base as part of a special pilot training program for Latin Americans. After the Cuban lieutenant married my mother, he began flying commercially for a Venezuelan airlines. To my mother’s satisfaction they lived several years in Caracas. I was born there. Later to my mother’s great disappointment we moved back to the states where my old man flew out of Idyllwild, later renamed J.F.K Airport to commemorate the assassinated president. My parents became a hit in the neighborhood. The luxurious life style they brought back from Venezuela helped them stand out and be appreciated. My mother was beautiful by any standard and used to etch her almond shaped eyes with eyeliner like Sophia Loren. My pubescent male friends used to help her carry in her groceries from the car to the house, using every means possible to touch her. My father with his elegant manners and impeccable dress was as popular among the neighborhood wives, as my mother with their husbands. He always smelled of cologne. But it was my mother who brought us up, since he was away for weeks at a time. Because the doors of advancement seemed to open up easily after the Second World War for everyone of my parents’ generation, it was a great disappointment to my mother when I dropped out of college in my freshman year to pursue a different kind of life. My mother, thinking back on her ancestry, must have thought this an unfavorable regression.
The following Monday, I was leaning against the wall on the northbound side of the Broadway subway station when I actually saw the Goddess standing on the southbound platform, a young Persephone, who repeatedly straightened her tight skirt, adjusted her open blouse, heedless of those who looked on. She was there the next morning and the morning after, standing opposite me on the far side of the tracks, unaware of me. Furtively I followed her self-absorbed antics of beautification. Staring into a compact mirror she fussed with her lipstick, her lashes, the color of her cheeks. The fluorescent lighting illuminated her hair. The unseasonably hot temperatures had no effect on her at all. She paced between the tiled columns and the statue-like poses of the other commuters. If she stood behind a column, I moved to view her better. I began to think of her while I was making my deliveries. Then one day after work I began making love to Her in the shower.
On the first day of summer I abruptly went into the back office to request a week’s vacation from my boss, Benny Crankcase. He consented. During this hot and sultry week Beatrice and I went out to Jones Beach several times. We had the beach to ourselves. Then Agatha, our youngest daughter, thought it would be nice to have a family outing. But on the appointed Saturday she grew sullen and refused to bring a friend along on a family trip. She wondered loudly why her sisters, Susana and Isabella had been given a reprieve. On the crowded beach with my wife and daughter present, I saw the Nameless One many times over in wanton display. Agatha could have been Her avatar. Thankfully her icy stare numbed all but the most fervent eyes of her admirers. Only my fatherly instinct and the ancient taboos prevented my free associations. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me.
Then on Sunday morning, the last precious and most melancholy day of my vacation, I was aroused again. This time, instead of the usual mental evocation, I awoke actually rubbing myself as if I was the Goddess; as if She had filled me from the inside out and not from the outside in as when She took hold of me from some projected image in the street. Somehow She had become entangled in my manliness and we were one. My legs tingled, the hairs on my inner thighs rose up, and for a moment just after waking, I was scared to death I had been groaning. I looked over in a panic to see if Bea had heard me. Had I been dreaming? My skin felt sensitive, my lower body strange, as if it belonged to someone else. When I moved my legs beneath the sheets it felt sensual, the way I imagined a woman’s legs felt, or at least the way the Nameless One made women look like they felt. Embarrassed and frightened by this pleasure, I leaped from bed an hour before my intended rising. It was Sunday. My last opportunity to sleep in! I had just lost an hour.
“Why are you getting up so early,” whispered Beatrice, half sleep.
“Oh, I don’t know, you know, Sunday, ready to roll. . .”
“Roll where, and why are you shouting?”
Going into the bathroom I rubbed myself as if what was mine belonged to someone else; no, I rubbed it as if it were mine but that I was someone else, no! I was confused. Still, I liked it. Beatrice was on her summer break. She didn’t sense the seconds nibbling away at my last day of vacation. She roused me from my self-pity by encouraging me to join her on a trip to the supermarket. I spent part of the time standing outside the market in the hot sun, ostensibly shopping for nectarines and peaches, or was it bananas and cucumbers? In reality, I was involuntarily seeking out among the pedestrians some means of recapturing the events of the morning. After lunch, we cleaned the house and did the laundry. By that time Agatha was up, sighing with great intensity at the constancy of the heat. She complained she was an only child.
“What’s the point of having sisters if they are always sleeping at other people’s houses.”
By evening Isabella had returned from her boyfriend’s apartment. After dinner I wanted to read. Instead, at Isabella’s suggestion, we rented Blake Edwards’ Switch and sat in front of the TV, eating chips with a bean dip. Later, unable to fall asleep, I thought about the film. Why had we chosen that film? It was weird. Then I recalled a Taoist phrase: “Can you play the role of the female in the opening and closing of the gates of Heaven?”
The next morning before work I searched for my battered translation of Chan’s Lao Tzu which I found in a box of books in the back of the bedroom closet. I was reading it during my momentous courtship of Beatrice twenty-five years ago. At the time the phrase had carried no meaning, so why I should remember it now alarmed me. Back then I had relished my manhood. My looks and strength, like my love for the young Beatrice, were eternal and unchanging.
A week later, with the reports of firecrackers fragmenting the stillness somewhere over by Webster Avenue, the Nameless One sauntered out of the Fordham University administration building in the Bronx. I had parked the truck behind Millennium Hall, after delivering a Xerox copy machine that had been given priority delivery status. Sitting on one of the granite benches I was eating my sandwich, in the shade of the giant elm and chestnut trees on the elevated walk near the statue of Archbishop John Hughes. The leaves of the dogwoods were limp. It was my subway goddess, coming out of the back door, her red hair glossy. I recognized Her. She passed in front of me, moving in a way that indicated a complete understanding of what her body was doing. It was whispering private things to all the grounds men patching the asphalt paths leading down to Martyr Hall. Not until I was in the shower that evening did She uncoil within me, stretching Her legs inside mine which I rubbed tentatively, recharging that electric sensation I had felt in bed a week before. Instinctively I reached for Her nipples and felt them sensitively respond. I was afraid my breasts were growing. Whose breasts? I became afraid, but was overcome. Was I cheating? Or was I simply turning myself on, this time more elaborately? Still the question arose, who was I? In that moment, as I rubbed Her legs, I felt I was both me and She. Slowly She moved this way, that way, that is, my legs and my ass moved as if She was a dancer, that is, I was dancing like Her, that is, the way I imagined She would dance. No, She was dancing. Did I mean the woman walking toward Martyr Hall? For an instant the face of Agatha appeared, superimposed on the inchoate features of that student’s body. A brief moment of terror followed as I erased the face, even while feeling the strange drunken carelessness of the queen as She drove the innocent things that were Her vehicles. In the following moment I was ecstatic, as if I had actually had sex with a stranger. But I hadn’t, had I? I had simply had sex with myself. If one thought of masturbating as sex, good and fine, but now that She had entered me, I felt this not to be the case. As I grabbed myself, I was also physically, or so it seemed, grabbing Her. If that was the case, wasn’t this infidelity? A moot question from an outsider’s point of view. But the brief appearance of Agatha distressed me, as if she had been watching. As I left the bathroom, I couldn’t look Bea in the eyes.
I was under siege. Every day whenever I was alone I could feel the woodpile goddess filling me with Herself as I became the predator. I moved the way She moved and I moved the way a man moved. I was both at once and for a week or so it was indeed like having an affair, but an affair where no one is caught, no one is hurt, no one becomes pregnant or contracts AIDS. But Beatrice noticed the difference.
“How many showers do you need, I mean, like you’re taking two or three showers a day now. Are you that dirty?”
“I hadn’t noticed. . . Well, I guess it’s the heat. It’s the hottest July I can remember.”
To stop the Goddess by proving my love for Beatrice I wanted to make love with Beatrice. The last time had been that morning on Good Friday, almost three months ago. That was when the Goddess began Her campaign. I waited for the right moment when Agatha was out, which was the first Saturday afternoon of August. Outside the omniscient hum of air conditioners filled the still air. I sat in the living room moving my legs in and out, knees touching. In grade school I would do the same thing while sitting nervously at my desk, ill-prepared for the important exam before me. Once aroused, I sauntered into our bedroom only to find Beatrice preparing to leave for school.
“Hey where are you going?”
“Hey,” she said looking at the front of my shorts.
She smiled before continuing.
“I was going to drop off these summer reading assignments some kids already sent me. And where are you going? I hope not out to the fire escape to sun yourself.”
“I wasn’t considering that,” I said; “but I was considering something, a little assignment of our own.”
She cocked her head as I approached her. I found myself turning her on using the techniques of a woman. I behaved the way Bea once did when she had embodied the Nameless One. I aroused in her the things she used to arouse in herself when she prepared for me, or so I thought. What a turn of events. Afterward she was ecstatic and I was relieved. I had feared that my addiction would sterilize my real love of Bea, or at least ruin my prospects of proving my love for her.
But instead of relief, the Goddess upped the ante. Second week in August Beatrice was back at school working on projects that would become impossible to complete once the school year began. Having used up all my vacation time I was back at work. The streets were hot and empty. My air conditioner made life more bearable in the truck cab than at home where we didn’t have any. A passing beauty could ignite my internal woman or the internal woman could project herself upon any woman on the street whether she had all the characteristics of the Nameless One or not. I had never imagined back at the woodpile that my rain-soaked cloud would one day fill me with all the thunderous aspects of the opposite sex no matter who she might be. Like old king Midas, whatever I looked upon became gold for my loins. The Goddess made me feel the very things I wanted desperately to feel whenever I reached across and touched Bea. Not the Bea of today but Bea when she herself was a young avatar of the Goddess.
On walks with Beatrice, I couldn’t concentrate on our conversation. My eyes flitted from the newsstand fashion magazines to the figurines in lingerie shops. Under the guise of watching the cute kids in Catalina’s I often lingered too long, philosophizing on abstruse realities existing outside of everyday reality, all while staring at the mannequin. Beatrice wasn’t fooled. A bus pasted with advertising posters might pass displaying a teenager in low-cut jeans and my eyes followed it down to the next light, like a fly stuck to sticky paper. My train of thought would linger on Bea’s last spoken word, while my eyes followed one woman after another as they passed me. Even the botanica on Broadway with its multicolored statuary of St. Lazarus and St. Anthony and the cardboard signs posting rare herb formulas carried meanings regarding potency. Only the very oldest women and the very youngest girls passed beneath my radar.
“What the fuck are you doing?” she finally shouted one afternoon. “It’s enough to make me want to scream.”
“I don’t understand,” I said weakly, my face reddening.
“You’re watching tail, every tail! You’re acting like a dirty old man!”
“Come on, you know I’m not that way.”
“Then you must be seeing someone, or want to see someone and are just looking for the right one!”
I denied it. But the subject came up again and again, generally after dinner which passed awkwardly for us with Susanna and Isabella home now, both of them talking about their summer experiences, subjects Agatha found offensive. Beatrice and I dove into them with the yearning of middle-aged adults remembering our own youthful escapades. Only Agatha seemed to notice how her parents avoided each other with the exception of asking the other to pass the rolls or the salad dressing. Finally left alone, neither of us knew where to begin. Beatrice admitted that here in the apartment I seemed interested in her, in what she was doing. And she knew me well enough to trust my avowals. But it was hopeless once we left the apartment for a movie or a coffee house. She told me she had made up her mind not to go out with me until she knew what was going on.
“What about the last time we made love?” I asserted. “Didn’t that tell you how I feel about you?”
“Oh yeah,” she admitted, even smiling; “but even then you were different, like you had learned some new tricks or something.”
“I’m just doing research. . , because I want to turn you on. . , you know, since we don’t always do it any more. Life’s different.”
“What do you mean, research? You mean like outside research, I mean that’s where you lose it, Anthony, completely lose it. Are you seeing somebody?”
“God no, Bea.”
“Then what are you talking about? Are you simply revisiting your youthful fantasies by watching all the young things, and not so young things, I might add – that’s what gets me, you’re even watching older women. You know I’m even throwing out those Victoria’s Secret catalogues before they reach the front door.”
“I know, I see them in the hallway by the garbage. Because of Agatha.”
“No, because of you!”
I remember not long after my revelation at the woodpile I would peruse the women’s section in the Sears Roebuck catalogue. Nothing had changed. I was still a pubescent kid.
“What research,” she asked emphatically.
Frantically I searched through my memories. I passed over the Tao-te ching.
“I’m reading The Karma Sutra.”
“Get out,” she said, “I thought that book went out of here, along with The Joy Of Sex when Susanna was born.”
“Well yeah, and I haven’t brought it back either, because of the kids. I’ve been reading it. . . during lunch whenever I’m making a stop up at Fordham University. I sit in the library.”
She actually burst into laughter, suddenly, like a gunshot report. At which point I apologized for my behavior on the street. But if she could recall we had never really read The Kama Sutra, only looked at the pictures, and now I was reading it, needing more information to spur my love for her, and the book suggested (I couldn’t believe I was digging this hole for myself) that visual stimulus was a condiment for affairs with one’s consort. I was over the hump and we were talking again.
I remembered the evening I first met Beatrice. I didn’t understand the Goddess the way I do now. Although I can see that if Bea hadn’t personified the Goddess I might never have been attracted. A mutual friend of ours, George Menter was hosting a small party. We were all living in the East Village. She was sitting on a worn brown couch, her long legs, glazed in glittery stockings protruding from a dark blue miniskirt. Her white lacy top was just as brief. Several guys were talking to her. I stood in the corner watching her cherry red lips move in response as well as her long eye lashes, edged in liner, sweeping slowly up and down. Her blond hair was tightly curled like a doll’s. I spoke to her briefly, as I handed her a joint. When she moved into another room I followed her. The next day I asked George who she was and where she lived. With that information I literally stalked her, using Menter as a foil.
“Beatrice, hi, actually we’re here to see if Kathy was home, but what a surprise to find you here. Do you remember my friend, Anthony, Anthony Morales. . ?”
With Menter’s introduction I returned a second time. This time I stayed for dinner and watched her bring canned soup to a boil, watched her intently move about, her back to me. I could see the fault line of her ass where the waist of her bell bottoms began. As we talked I showered great affection on her Siamese cat who reciprocated with noisy appreciation. After dinner we spent an hour or so maneuvering with words, staring during moments of silence into a half-burnt candle that needed assistance from time to time if it was to continue its romantic illumination. She found it incredible I had returned for her, when it was Kathy we had come to see the first time. Kathy was the outgoing one. Beatrice had several boyfriends at the time, none of them of consequence.
“You dropped out of school?”
“Yeah. No point in staying in school just to avoid the draft.”
“What if they draft you?”
“That’s another story.”
“No other interests?”
“You mean besides you?”
“Yeah, well no, I like history, reading, mainly traveling. I want to see the world.”
It was her impatience with this ritual that lead to the first kiss which ended with both of us in the back room on a guest bed. I pulled her tight bellbottoms off, and to my delight discovered she was wearing French underwear. This was something then. I began to pull my own pants down when she stopped me at my crotch and forced me over, my legs pinned by the constricting fabric, my penis the only liberated feature of my lower body. She played the pipe until in a frenzy I reached forward to her legs and forced reciprocation, each of us entangled in each other’s knees, each lost in feelings that seemed to belong to the other. Now I wanted to conjure up that winter scene. But what remained of that evening was still the sum of many years, a real person. Yeah, twenty-five years ago Bea had been hot. As time passed she transcended. So for me, despite my pavlovian response to standards of beauty, my ethical code demanded I remain loyal to her.
A few days later I stopped the truck right in the middle of the intersection on Webster at the ramp leading down from the Cross Bronx Expressway. It must have been for a moment too long. A cop pulled me over and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was lost. What I didn’t tell the officer was that I had stopped in precisely this spot during the past week on my way back to Blue Freight because here I could inspect an enormous billboard on which a scantily clad woman was advertising soap. The following day I even went out of my way to follow a bus which had an advertisement on the back of a woman in high heels, black lingerie and stockings who stood at least eight feet tall before a luminous desert city, no doubt the City Of Angels. She was staring right back at me, eye to eye, until a red light divorced further contact. I tucked her away inside of me, along with all the other billboard queens I was beginning to stare at with unforgiving intensity, bringing all these representatives of the protean Goddess home after work for my now ritual one-night stands.
When I learned that Bea and the girls were going to take the train mid-week, out to Long Island to visit her mother for a few days, I panicked.
“For a few days!”
“So you’re going to miss me,” she laughed. “Well, I forbid you to make any deliveries to Fordham. You’ll just have to wait.”
On Monday, two days before they left, my route took me to the East Village where I was delivering a shipment of scanners to a computer store. I passed a lingerie shop. That’s all I did. But after work I looked through Bea’s drawers and found her silk underwear. To mock Beatrice, which mocked me as well, the Nameless One slowly slipped one on. It seemed to mark my wife’s loss of power over me. Wednesday, the day she and the girls left for Grandma’s, I drove past the same shop in the East Village. I double parked, ran inside and bought a tube skirt, which my woodpile Goddess could wear during our acts of love.
I arrived home and hurriedly undressed, though I knew I had all the time in the world now. Excitedly I squeezed into it in the flush of erotic thickness. The Nameless One danced with me, each of us holding the other. The moment the act was complete, I began thinking of the tube skirt as evidence. I could simply replace Bea’s underwear in her drawer. But the skirt was not hers, I had bought it for the Goddess. Even if I told Beatrice I had bought it for her, she would have looked at me suspiciously since she knew I knew she wasn’t interested in that stuff any more. Besides, if The Nameless One had the power to make me go out and buy Her things, what extravagant items would She demand next to maintain my interest? Would She require makeup and net stockings? This was becoming far too complicated. It seemed to me I was working as hard as any woman did for her man. I had never seen Bea’s earlier efforts to please me in this light. As I could see for myself, the effort to play the part was excruciating.
As fate would have it, this was the moment when the Nameless One again upped the ante. I was working overtime on Saturday, because no one was home. After work I was in the shower rubbing Her ass, my eyes closed, feeling the rhythm of Her motions against one hand, while pulling my penis with the other. She was pushing against my hand with Her ass while pulling on my penis when my middle finger penetrated Her hole, kick starting a plunge and pull motion that automatically gained momentum like a chugging diesel engine when the throttle is applied. I cried out in joy. The ensuing silence frightened me. Had anyone heard me? Had She cried out, I mean, had I cried out? This was the high point of my affair with the Nameless One. How could I claim innocence now when talking to Beatrice? Guilt flooded every pore, but wasn’t enough to staunch my desire. I vowed never again. But the sight of the subway goddess on my way to work once again kick started my internal motor. Alone with Her again, I went all the way.
The Monday after my tautological, for lack of a better word, fling with the Nameless One, I was standing outside the Blue Freight dispatch office, along with the other drivers, waiting for the dispatcher to enter the garage and begin the ritual of calling out our names and assigning us routes. Until that morning I had looked upon my fellow teamsters as equals. So what if I jerked off to a fantasy, who hadn’t? But finger fuck myself ? I was clear- headed enough to know what that was, even though I euphemistically called it a Dream fuck. It felt like it anyway!
“Samson!” cried Louis Sleeve, the dispatcher, an overweight guy whose belt rode the crest of an abdominal swell.
Jay Samson happened to be standing beside me.
“Fucking better not be going out to Riverhead again.”
“Son of a bitch! The LIE and the Cross Bronx should be double time.”
Jay had twin tattoos, one on each arm. The left arm bore a heart pierced through with a sword, drops of blood dripped onto a banderol underneath, where the name ‘Mildred’ was etched. The right arm bore the figure of a woman in a bikini riding a seashell, her hair flowing, her hands on her thighs, ‘Mildred’ again etched on a banderole, this one bearing drops of saltwater. These guys had never stooped to my level. I was alone. Still I couldn’t wait to get home.
Like any affair that is based totally on lust, the subsequent meetings with the Nameless One became routine, and the routine needed the support of more extravagant means of enticement. My relationship with Beatrice began very much on the same principles of lust but had matured over many years to include a wider universe of possibilities, as well as an affection based on the memories of those many years of mutual experience. I couldn’t imagine spending an entire day with the Goddess! What would we talk about? Her unvarying approach hadn’t changed much since my initiation into Her rites back at the woodpile. All this was essentially based on the body, the perfect body as established by the sacred manuscripts. What changed were the means of penetration, the tricks involved. On Sunday, the fifth day of my bachelorhood, with Beatrice and the girls still out at Grandma’s, I started applying Vaseline. On Monday after work I bought Trojans.
“Have fun,” said the Hispanic woman at the pharmacy on Broadway and 157th who rang up my purchases, raising her darkened eyebrows.
Her deadpan voice and the straight line of her bright red lips recalled Jack Benny’s expression following a remark by Rochester. Momentarily caught off guard on what was a touchy purchase anyway, I blushed, but then I thought, hey, I do have a heavy date. The last laugh was mine!
“Thank you.” I smiled brazenly.
On these ascending feelings I could rationalize my engagement: I was hurting no one, seeing no one, causing no harm. Unfortunately, my guilt echoed accusingly. What is the difference whether between an actual woman or the Nameless One? Aren’t both betrayal? Of course, wouldn’t the manly thing be to do the woman I saw daily in the subway? That is assuming she was willing, since she knew nothing about my desire. Actually, the most appealing aspect of the affair was its convenience. Whereas Bea and I would have to be on the same plane of need, which rarely happened – either I was too tired or she was too tired – I could have the goddess at any time. She lay inside of me, coiled in hibernation, waiting for the moment when the right image from outside brought Her to life. Drawn out by the miracle of beauty, She would unfold and take hold of me as I in a sense took hold of Her. On Tuesday night I worked my protected finger deep into Her hole. After dinner I couldn’t wait to do Her again. Until now I had been using discretion, not overdoing a good thing; but knowing this was my last night alone, I couldn’t resist another tryst. A bottle of beer did me in. The entanglement of feelings and the physical sensations were excruciatingly delicious. Two had to be the limit or I’d sink into an orgy. Naturally my mindset worked to deny me the innocence I had early rationalized. On top of that I was sore. By the time everyone got home on Wednesday evening, I had thrown out the last Trojan and the tube skirt fearing discovery. But already I was thinking of buying another one.
One day was like another, hot and sultry, the sky always white with humidity. When I talked to the groundskeepers at Queen’s College they told me the drought was damaging the roots of trees and shrubs. I had noticed that the grass had turned the color of straw back at the end of July.
“It’s Mother Earth’s revenge,” said one gardener, striking the dry soil with the toe of his work boot.
That afternoon I was returning from La Guardia along Ditmars Boulevard after dropping off ten fifty-gallon drums of floor wax. I stopped off at a favorite Greek takeout in Astoria to buy a souvlaki, with extra lamb and onions, lathered in yogurt. The pita was wrapped tightly in wax paper and aluminum foil to prevent the contents from leaking out. I folded back the foil and paper so I could eat while I drove. The streets were congested. Delivery trucks were double parked, off-loading supplies to vendors. No one had patience in this heat, horns blared. But I was content; the day was over for me. I was making my way slowly down the crowded street toward 29th Street where I turn south for the Hoyt Avenue entrance to the Triborough Bridge. I had one hand gripping the wheel, the other holding the souvlaki, when the Nameless One stepped out of the Venus Jewelry store near the corner. Was she the same young woman I saw every morning on the opposite platform while I waited for the uptown Broadway local? Was she Greek? Perhaps I was already primed by all the women I’d seen in short shorts and tight jerseys on the Campus doing pre-registration. I slowed the truck to a crawl so I could feast my eyes on this young body of undulating topography. Could her blessings, or were they also skills, be attributable to DNA or social training? As I absently fumbled for my zipper, the Nameless One began squeezing Her ass reflexively. With both hands occupied that left the lamb souvlaki wedged between my teeth, the yogurt oozing down my chin. For a frightful moment I could see myself from the young woman’s vantage. I was both a dirty old man leering at a woman through a truck window and that woman. The dirty old man was pulling on himself. Something awful was in his mouth, dripping. An enraged driver, laying on his horn in a car behind the truck, brought me to my senses. The heavens had opened. An army of seraphim were descending. Horns blared in severest admonition. Just then the elevated N train from Astoria Boulevard rumbled ominously into the Ditmars terminal. The brake wheels of the local were screeching to a halt. Even the young thing in her tight jeans looked toward the street. Was she really the same woman I saw every morning? Things had gotten out of hand. In fact, they had reached a tragic dimension.
At least as a kid back at the woodpile I had imagined Her dream hole as a vaginal chamber of epic proportions, even if I hadn’t known then where Her vagina was exactly. Now in the clarity of my sexual experience I knew exactly whose cherry I was popping. Night after night the succubus of memories born in daylight were drawing me into still more foolish escapades. The dream hole had changed the ante here. The dividing line that distinguished me from Her had faded. But who was imitating whom? Were the billboard queens mimicking the teen woman who was staring at me, or were they giving credence to a fashion style that enabled the teen woman to look like a billboard queen? There was a time when my imagination was enough to enlarge her breasts; now science had provided her with protean capabilities. With money, any woman could physically become a billboard queen. But where does it end ?
In the rear view mirror I saw the guy laying on the horn. I saw myself, Anthony Morales, a dirty old man sitting in a truck, his hands sliding over her body, his mouth stuffed with something gross oozing juices. Everyone was staring at me. I had to get a hold of myself. Shit, I already had! I pulled out from behind the double parked truck to escape. Instead I collided with the asshole behind me who had decided the same thing. By this time the girl was gone.
Instead of arriving home before my wife as usual, I came in long after her. Filling out the police report had taken 30 minutes and when I got back to the garage, I had to fill out an accident report. Luckily both parties had been wrong in advancing into the oncoming traffic lane. For me this accident was a first. Of course, the truck was ok. The only damage was that idiot’s smashed right headlight.
“What happened?” Bea asked innocently, more as a greeting than anything else.
“What do you mean?” I shot back, on the defensive, seeing the innocence in her words but overpowered by the shame of my own actions.
“Usually I get here after you. Must have been a long day.”
“I want to buy an air conditioner, just an inexpensive one, for the bedroom window.”
“Jesus, that’s a lot of juice, and if you buy one for our room, what about the girls?”
“They’re just about out of here.”
“Not quite, Agatha is still living here.”
“But not for long,” she countered. Then looking at me with a meaningful eye, “maybe we’ll have some time for ourselves.”
I nodded with bravado, but it was more as if an anvil had landed on my head.
Surely my humble ancestors had raised their arms in profound awe of the Goddess. So why was I subsumed by these meaningless but derivative pleasures? Instead of the great mother of creation providing me with the staff of life, she cluttered my life with images of vanity and seduction. The corporate monograms of DKNY, Klein, Fendi and Guess were sutured to my brain lobes; their sultry, all knowing models peopled my thoughts. I could throw out the TV, terminate the mail, lock myself in the apartment and refuse to go out. The world outside was dangerous, temptations lurking everywhere. Within the desert-like severity of an empty apartment I could live like an anchorite. Naturally this was impossible. Bea lived here too, not to mention the rest of the family. Bea paid half the rent.
“What are you talking about,” she’d laugh. “We just bought the TV. You were the one who wanted the big, giant screen!”
The next morning I was running late. The harpies of the ad-world had played havoc in my dreams. I walked quickly over to Broadway, my eyes nearly shut to block out the wide detestable world. I heard the sound of the train and began running across the street.
“Watch it, man,” shouted a tall homeless man standing on the corner.
The downtown bus missed me. In his heavy overcoat he reminded me of a Moorish king in a painting by Albrecht Durer. All the king’s possessions were in a plastic bag at his feet.
“You don’t look so hot,” said he in his oracular voice.
I nodded, my eyes opened wide with appreciation. And who should be approaching me from the other side of the street, but my Persephone.
She was walking toward me on her way to the downtown entrance. I’d never been this close to her before. She was morphing through a series of seductive versions. But when we were side by side, an arm’s length away, her blond hair in disarray, the Goddess was nowhere to be seen. An older, swarthy woman passed by. Was this my underworld queen or her mother? My god! Her makeup couldn’t hide the wrinkles under her eyes, the worries etched across her face. I recognized the dress, tight and revealing. But it was poorly made, the fabric, illustrated with peonies, was faded. It had all the innocence of a homey tablecloth one might find on a picnic table in Riverside Park. If she had once been a temple for the Goddess, she was now deserted.
In the sultry air below ground the commuters stood in agonizing stillness waiting for an air-conditioned train to arrive. When I took up my regular position on the platform opposite her, it was not the same. Other aspects of her life were prominent now, which had nothing to do with the Nameless One. I imagined her suffering from a serious disease, saw her struggling to keep her marriage intact. I was ashamed. With the authority of the sacred manuscripts, I had laid upon her delicate humanity the imprimatur of the Nameless One. Not far from her stood an older man, dressed impeccably in a gray suit. With his short beard he looked like Sigmund Freud. He held a brown leather briefcase at arm’s length in front of his legs. He too was intently watching the woman, who at this moment was busy straightening out her dress. She wore no stockings. When she bent over to work on the hem, which I now knew to be wrinkled, we both could see her black underpants. Was he a votary of the Nameless One, a celebrant of the woodpile? In the distance I heard the downtown train approaching. Why hadn’t I noticed him before? My shirt with the Blue Freight emblem on the shirt pocket was soaking wet. Could the old man have reached the innermost sanctum of the dream hole? I ran back to the turnstile and up the stairs. I rushed across the street, with the street light against me, wove between gypsy cabs and vans, heard a horn blaring. I saw the king watching me on the far corner. But there was no time to think, I could hear the incoming number one. As I passed him, he nodded disapprovingly. I swung around the post of the entry railing and nearly fell down the stairs. The train was entering the station as I popped the token into the slot and pushed through the turnstile. The train stopped. I nearly killed a woman on the crowded platform as I squeezed through the closing doors of the very car in which the man in gray and my former Goddess stood.
Her perfume was nauseating. The man in gray was standing behind her, reading his folded newspaper. He must have lived in the expensive Grinnell, across the street from us. Whenever the train jolted, he rubbed against her with more than sloppy innocence. His crisply quartered Times never needed refolding. But at 50th St when she got out, he didn’t pursue. Neither did I. He got out at Times Square. I followed him up the stairs to the street and along the north side as he walked west on 42nd. The theater district was slated for remodeling. The few remaining X-rated movie houses were closed. This is crazy, I thought, I’ll be late for work. He headed north on 8th Avenue. Then I lost him because at 48th Street I stopped short in front of a long cart table on the sidewalk, opposite a store with a whitewashed window. A woman in loose jeans and a cotton jersey was setting up a Barbie doll display. Her companion was a large man wearing a black leather vest with the teamster logo sewn on the back.
“Interested in buying?” he growled menacingly as he handed her pink boxes from a van
parked alongside the table.
“No, not really. I was. . . was on my way to work – what a setup.”
“We come into the city on our days off,” she said, her dulcet voice contrasting the teamster’s.
Inside each box, behind a glassine window, stood Barbie. Each doll was wearing a different costume, although several were wearing the same outfit. I asked the big guy if he was indeed a union member. He nodded yes.
“Me, too,” I told him.
Finally the woman placed on the table a cardboard cut out of Barbie stenciled: Teaneck Chapter. I was amazed. While I was looking at the literature, Bill took out a cigarette and lit up. He looked at me and held out his pack. I declined.
“Bill hates coming into town, even in the van, but he comes along anyway.”
“Why here, Wendy?” Bill asked, looking at me for sympathy.
He nodded toward the white-washed window.
“He helps me screen the clients. Some of these Barbies are expensive, especially the early dolls. . . You know, this is mid-town, near Port Authority.”
“How much is this one?” I asked pointing to a crumpled box where Barbie stood on her inflexible heels in a fringed mini with her unflagging smile.
She wore round pink glasses and her hair was braided with flowers.
“The flower child? I’m asking seventy-five dollars. Though the box is crumpled it’s Mint in the Box.”
“Wow. . ! And this one,” I asked drawn like an iron filing to a magnet by an illustrated Barbie in one of the pamphlets.
She was the raw image of the Nameless One, stunning in her simplicity, a stock straight doll with long face, black eye lashes and petite red lips, standing on heels, wearing a striped swim suit. She lacked all personality. She bore a feral look, like a Minoan snake goddess. Like Rudi Guernich’s topless bathing suit model. I remembered seeing her in Life magazine, not long after I met the Goddess at the woodpile.
“That’s the Montgomery Ward 100th Anniversary Barbie. #3210.”
I had to see it.
“Ready? Eight hundred bucks. Mint No Box. I don’t bring that one. It’s by appointment only.”
“Eight hundred dollars!”
She saw the look in my eyes.
“Actually she’s just a copy of the very first models made in ’59. . .”
The year opened up like the window in my boyhood room. I was nine. The earth was still the earth to me, the trees still trees, the water still water. A few years later the Nameless One came to me in Her most elemental form; but here her transubstantiation had already occurred!
“. . . some of them go for nine thousand dollars.”
“Incredible! My youngest daughter would get a big kick out of it, but eight hundred is way, way over my head.”
“Crazy, isn’t it?” said Bill.
Some women on their way to work stopped. They were in their late thirties, wore dark suits and carried briefcases. They ooohed and aaahed.
“I haven’t seen one of these in years.”
She was looking at one Barbie entitled ‘Twist & Turn’.
“I had one just like her.”
“My aunt gave me Barbie the Cheerleader when I was ten. She knew how to drive my mother crazy because my mom hated Barbie. Do you sell accessories too?”
“Yeah,” said the dealer, who gave each of the women her card.
“Those kind of women are my biggest customers,” Wendy explained.
“They spend that kind of money?”
“Oh, yeah, big time. And you should see the girls dress up when we host the Tri-State Look-Like-Barbie contest at Palisades Mall. I mean, these women are lawyers and CEOs. One of them is a judge.”
“She’s the president of the Teaneck chapter,” said Bill, shaking his head.
“We hold most of our meetings in our homes but the bigger symposiums are held at various malls. . . There are collectors all over the country.”
“That mall’s sinking,” said Bill, “because they disrupted an Indian burial ground.”
“I see what you mean,” I agreed, without really knowing what he meant.
“This is like a full-time job,” I added.
“She’s a cop,” said Bill, for the first time smiling.
“Yeah,” she agreed, “I work the front desk at Woodbridge, up by the Garden State.”
“Can I pick one up?”
“Go ahead,” said Bill, rubbing his cigarette into the pavement.
I picked up the one unboxed doll. She was still wrapped in plastic. She was dressed in flowery patterns with tights that had lace edges. I turned her upside down pretending to study the details – actually I was looking for her dream hole. The doll squeaked: “Math class is tough.” I was startled. Wendy laughed.
“That’s model # 5745, recent vintage, ’92.”
When I thanked them for their time, she gave me her card.
The Goddess was ruthless. She had poured Herself into the once youthful contours of my Persephone. Then She abandoned her as She eventually did all Her youthful protégées when Persephone could no longer fit into the contours of Model #3210. Only in Hollywood could cinema queens spend fortunes maintaining their bodies for Her. These nubile priestesses squeezed and bolstered their dimensions into the contours of The Doll. As long as they stayed young the Goddess stayed powerful. Imagine a rebellion among the beauty caste? “Hollywood Beauties Throw Off the Reins of The Nameless One” reads the headline in the Entertainment Section of The New York Times. But they were no better off than I was. The same idea moved inside them. They were in love with Her, loving Her as long as She continued to grace them with the favors of men, in particular men with power.
Around noon, throwing all common sense out the window, I decided to go to Teaneck, New Jersey. Clouds of gray were mounting on that side of the river. I had to have #3210, no matter what She cost. It was irrational, this desire to possess a doll, a relic, something shaped in a Paleolithic cave, perfected fifteen thousand years later on Madison Avenue. But when the traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway came to a standstill, I slipped off the highway at Jerome and continued on to my last delivery. Why couldn’t I caste Her out of me and imprison Her voluptuous motion in plastic. My golden idol, stored neatly in a box, like an effigy in ice. Benny Crankcase walked out to meet me, when I brought the truck back to the garage.
“Anthony, you’re late. It’s not like you. Late this morning, late this evening. What’s going on, problems at home?”
Benny wasn’t the kind of guy who sympathized with his drivers. It was all fair and square. You drive and I pay, and I pay this amount and you’re right, I don’t like the union, but do I got a choice?
So when I saw Benny coming over to me with his heavy jowls and dark eyes showing worry, his hands in the jacket pockets of his wrinkled olive green suit, I thought the guy was going to ask me to take a leave of absence based on some hidden clause in my union contract, what with the accident and the police report and being late this morning.
“Nothing, Benny, nothing, it’s…it’s just this heat. You know, I can’t sleep at night. When I get up in the morning, it’s like I’ve been working all night.”
“What, you got no air conditioning?”
“No, my wife is democratic. Either we all get it or none of us.”
“You don’t have something on the side, do you?”
I was shocked and must have looked it.
“You know, a chippy, something on the side?”
He couldn’t know about Her.
“You remember what happened to Hapless? He started with something casual, then began to see her during working hours. Even the union couldn’t save his ass. Anyway I didn’t think so.”
“Bea would kill me.”
“You been driving with us for years. I don’t want to see that relationship jeopardized. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah. Well, you don’t have to worry, me with three daughters and a wife.”
“Looks like all hell is going to break out soon,” said Benny looking west.
Thunder broke overhead as I climbed out of the station at 157th Street. A few rain drops followed. I was going to run for it, but a cool breeze blowing up from the river changed my mind. I walked along Broadway past El Mundo. The grocery vendors were securing the awning. Some shoppers, oblivious to the weather, were testing the honeydews on sale. A young girl came out through the aisle with her mother. She was sucking the juices from a mango, a smile on her sticky face. New Yorkers were strolling on the streets as if on a sunny day. The teenagers were calling out to each other with rash enthusiasm. Their exuberant voices were carried away on the up-surging gusts like the tattered confetti from a windy New Year’s Eve celebration. Masses of dark clouds roiled overhead then moved on, leaving the higher gray above. Grandmothers were leaning out the windows, elbows on pillows. They calmly warned the kids of the approaching storm. The large drops falling in spurts were delicious. The stately King was standing beneath the awning of the botanica, in front of a windows full of statues of saints. I noticed a red flower in the label of his overcoat. I dropped a dollar in his hand. The King returned it. He pointed to the flower shop on the corner. I bought bright red dahlias with dark leaves. I had them wrapped completely like a tube, nothing showing. As I walked past Catalina’s, I stopped. The fluorescent lights were on, an aproned woman was seated in the raised chair closest to the window, her hair tousled while her young attendant, back to the window, gently applied shampoo and worked it into a lather on her scalp. Small kids were playing around the legs of an old woman who was seated waiting in one of the faux leather chairs with metal tube arms. The headless mannequin was standing in her usual place by the door. The Virgin and the baby Jesus were nowhere to be seen. The young woman who was washing the hair of the nearest patron turned and looked at me. She said something to the old woman, who in turn looked at me. They laughed. Unabashed I stepped in.
“Are you Catalina?”
Everyone broke out into conversation. I understood none of it. Fervid in his patriotism, my father had never enforced the use of Spanish in the house, even though among Cubans, he’d been eloquent.
“Is this Catalina?” I asked, pointing to the mannequin.
The young woman, who had smiled at me, whose impossibly long fingernails seemed too lethal for the work she was doing, looked at me uncomprehendingly.
“Is this Catalina?” I repeated, touching the blouse of the mannequin and widening my smile to encourage a response.
“I think she is an old woman who lives in the Dominican Republic. She is retired.”
“Si, si,” nodded the old woman in the chair, lifting her cloaked arm and pointing with an exposed hand at the mannequin. “Este es Santa Catalina con su cabeza, por que su cabeza era muy linda. Donde la cabeza,” she asked looking at her attendant.
The young woman still didn’t understand until a look from the old woman explained it all and she began nodding her head repeatedly. She pointed to the mannequin’s head sitting on a pedestal between two separate panels of walled mirror. The head wore a blond wig and had long eyelashes.
“She says this is St. Catalina, who lost her head because of her beauty.”
The old woman was nodding with a big smile on her face. A flash of lightning in the darkened street and the ensuing thunderclap overhead brought a gasp from everyone. The kids ran outside onto the sidewalk to look. Grandmothers shouted worried invectives to bring them back. After a moment, I gently unraveled the work of the florist. From the bouquet I drew a single stem which I placed in the stiff arms of the headless Catalina. Everyone laughed. I bowed and left.
Passing our apartment building I headed north toward Riverside Park where the elm canopies increased the premature dusk. The rain had stalled despite the darkness and lightning. Still people were strolling with dogs along the broken asphalt walkways without a care in the world. When lightning broke right overhead I winced. I was afraid. But the wind, gusting erratically, was strangely soothing, baffled by the dense foliage. Large drops fell again, one by one all around me. The experts say that standing under the trees is dangerous during lightning storms, and here I was under an allee. But out on the elevated highway it seemed exposed. A woman ran past me in her jogging gear wearing a Walkman, totally tuned out. I laughed. But with the next clash the darkness descended with finality. A driving rain began penetrating the canopy. Another sharp crack made me duck. I must have looked like Ichabod Crane walking with bended knees passed a graveyard. By the time I had reached the safety of my building doorway, I was soaked. But I enjoyed the cool wetness. In the glow of the street lamp the silver drops exploded on the pavement. Setting the bouquet down in the building foyer I returned to the street, feeling safe in the building’s proximity. Up on Broadway the gypsy cabs passed one after the other in a solemn procession, an occasional horn blew. A yellow cab turned west and pulled up across the street at the Grinnell. Someone bolted from the vehicle into the tall archway.
When I entered the apartment, carrying my rolled floral treasure, I tripped over a stack of Cosmopolitan Magazines sending the cloned images of women across the foyer floor. Both Agatha and Beatrice stared at me.
“Where have you been?” asked Bea. “We were worried.”
“I was outside watching the storm come. . . It’s wonderful!”
“I’m throwing away all these magazines,” said Agatha, coming over to restack the scattered pile. “But not all of them are mine, you know.”
“As if any of them were mine,” said Isabella, coming into the living room from the hallway.
With a haughty air she turned the face of one magazine around with the extended toe of her left foot.
“I guess I do recognize that issue. My, how the years have passed!”
“Yes,” laughed Beatrice, ‘your many years have caught up with you!”
“Daddy,” continued Isabella, “where have you been? Mama was biting her nails.”
Susanna entered the room.
“Oh, god, Agie’s throwing out her horrid copies of Cosmopolitan. Good-bye Britney.”
She paced around the coffee table dramatically, carrying a clipboard and paper on which she was making a list of items she needed at Sarah Lawrence this coming semester.
“I’m throwing yours away too,” replied Agatha, sure of herself in the face of her sisters’ blatant denials.
“Man, daddy, you are soaked.” Susanna had walked over and was offering to take the package. “What were you doing, driving a convertible?”
“I was just walking, enjoying the cool air. What a relief! Thank you, Sue. Could you just open that up and set them in a vase?”
“A vase?” asked Beatrice, her interest piqued. “Did you buy us flowers?”
“Weren’t you scared?” asked Agatha. “Even the windows rattled!”
“Well, yeah, but the beauty of it, you know, I wanted to appreciate it. . . Yes, flowers.”
Beatrice stood in baggy shorts and jersey, her mouth open in disbelief.
“This is the first rain we’ve had in months, momma,” said Agatha.
“No, Aggie,” said Isabella, “mama is shocked because Daddy has come home with flowers.”
“Why, what’s the big deal,” replied Agatha. “Even though they are used to each other, they’re still in love.”
The third or fourth wave of thunder and lightning crossed over the city after everyone had gone to bed. In my sleepy ruminations, I heard grumbling, angry voices, saw the slicing bars of light. After all, Beatrice had thrown the Goddess out. Beatrice had asserted full control of her life, of her aging, of her intellect. So the Nameless One had revenged Herself on me.
“Yes, my honey-man, you do prefer my hollow but exquisite features, my painted eyes, my amber lips and the way I make you feel, deep inside. Talk to your wife, the bitch, whenever you want, but dear boy, come back to Me when you want to feel young, the sweet, young man you were when I first came to you at the woodpile.”
In anguish I rolled over in bed and felt Beatrice. She moved imperceptibly. I found her less than perfect breasts, the quietness of those fruits that didn’t strive for the illusions. These were not the sweet canned fruits of my youth. She giggled in her sleep.
Ardently the Goddess whispered, “Pay attention!”
I held onto Bea’s breast with ever tightening grip.
“NO! my sweet thing here, I am here inside you!”
“Ouch,” cried Beatrice, waking suddenly. “What are you doing?”
“Oh god, I’m sorry, I was just holding on, afraid to let you go. I must have been
She reached sleepily around and held me in her arms. I held onto her, as onto a raft, my head leaning against her chest. Her breathing resumed its deep and regular rhythm. The night air smelled sweet with rain. A gentle, susurrus melody stripped of any malicious content, helped to quiet the eternal city. On it we were floating in a sea of gentle motion. Around me stretched the endless surface of the sea broken by the steady cadence of drops. The sound comforted me the way rain falling steadily on the surface of a wooden roof comforts. I loosened my grip, but didn’t relinquish my hold. A gentle propelling breeze cooled us. Her stomach rose and fell to the gentle rhythm of her breathing. She was asleep again. The moment had passed. Ahead still lay the rich lands of the imagination. At last the two of us were alone.