You want to tell him about the color red. That will be your opener. Wait for the party to die down a little bit and find a corner and open with a bit about the evolution of language. It was the New World, you’ll say, and the South Seas. Pumpkins and papayas and abundant citrus fruits. Split off and created the color orange. But your hair, see, will always be red. We don’t know why. I guess some things are too timeless to change. And he’ll crack a smile, maybe, and run a hand over the crest of his tightly curled hair.
You’ll want to wait for the right moment to lay it all out there. He’s sure to attract a small crowd once the readings are over for the evening. He didn’t read his poem. He recited. He performed. You could feel crisp intake of air in the room as he stood with a mic in one hand and the other flying. You were the hardestworking muscle in an overheated heart. You in the ballroom, feeling bright red. Him up there, the subject of his poem miles away from sight.
You’ve spent the last several minutes figuring out where on the bill he is for the rest of the weekend. Creative Writing, of course, but he’s into everything. Peninsular Languages, Pre-Medical Studies, and Continental Philosophy. He keeps busy, for a pulsing, flush-haired poet. Maybe you’ll glide from his hair to the breadth of his ambitions, maybe you’ll lightly wonder aloud why we call biology the study of life, as if that weren’t what art was for.
He’ll probably laugh with one eye and say that art isn’t study. It’s love play.
You imagine the parting handshake for the longest. You don’t want to have trouble meeting his eyes, and working out just what color to remember them. You hope for hazel and a firm clasp, things to recollect and interpret from fresh angles. The poem was round, but came at you like the night train, loud and ardent. The subject of the poem was nowhere to be seen, but everywhere present in the pulsing of the room. You’ll tell him you loved the poem, were glad to meet him.
He’ll smile, maybe, and you’ll see white and red and forget the other colors.
Did neither of you come to the hotel alone, will neither of you leave the city that way. You wonder how he wakes up in the morning. You flush red at the thought of him at night. More of a pink, really, but that’s almost always the last color word to be invented. A softening of associations made with ardent, rushing things. You look at your hands and think about the cello, remembering the fingerings you made on its long neck. You didn’t bring an instrument to Nashville. This is a university event.
You look for him at the edges of the party, smiling. You want to tell him about the color red.
“You utter, utter bitch!” I growl through my teeth, hesitant to let my voice echo in the cold air of the church. My left hand covers the crucifix dangling from my waist and I squeeze it until my knuckles blanche and I can feel the pain of the metal digging into my palm through the cold.
I kneel at the railing, keeping my shoulders soft and my chin down—my posture is demure and pious and the priests will not see anything amiss if they pass by. My head is veiled in black and the shadows of the lace cast by the candles on the altar will keep my wet cheeks and bright eyes shaded from questions. As the wide Salamanca sky outside dims and brightens with the passing clouds of midwinter noon, I press my knees into the cold seeping through the little kneeler on the stone, leaning my forearms on the communion rail, pressing in. Every breath I take, slowing my rhythm, is more agony that I cannot give voice to, not in this place, and I lean harder and squeeze harder and at least my knees and hand can feel some of this pain if Mary does not.
Will not. Would not.
I have prayed to her all my life and still she is silent. Her Son is bloody and at least he is a man, physical, hungry, weeping, anxious, bleeding, dying, grieving.
But not her. She does not feel this human stuff, this sort of grief. Her eyes are mellow, her cheeks slack. She is either an idiot or a stone and in this cold evening, she is a stone.
She will not feel this. She never felt this.
She let her Son give her in her old age to a crazed boy among his followers, and she did not speak. She raised Joseph’s numbers of children and her son, and she was never shaken. Stone or fortress, I do not know. I know she never rolled over to her husband in the dark and pleasured herself and him. I know she holds her child in her arms for eternity, and lets him die and holds her peace. And still we ask her: holy mother, pray for us.
What a bitch. Did she ever know love? Could she, the perpetual virgin, the sinless, know what it meant to hold your lover, to find abandon in his eyes, his touch, his openness, his heart? Did Joseph love her?
With my eyes, I trace the lines of her robe, her veil, her hands. I look at my hands, so thin, so cold. No one to take them, tangle them, warm them, squeeze them. So empty. I clutch the crucifix, my palm begins to sweat from the pressure, despite the chill. Her hands are soft, langid, and they are full of her Son.
Her eyes are flat. The Son does not look at her, nor she at him. Did Joseph love this woman, this stone?
He could have divorced her—the Jews did such things. But he didn’t. He had to have loved her. He kept her. He fed her, he raised his son and lowered his reputation. He knelt in the muck—the ass shit, her shit—with her when she birthed her baby and he lost his business and country when he fled with her and her son to Egypt in the thin hours of the night. He gave her everything and never asked for anything. No once. He knew. He must have.
I catch myself rocking into my thoughts, my jaw dripping with silent tears. I look up at the Virgin, from her bare feet to her old man baby and her slack hold on his body, and I want to dash him to the ground, to stab her sacred heart and see if she will cry out, to see if she will feel anything. The red of the glass candle holders swim in my tears and run into her blue gown and the gold of the altar wall and the white of the altar and I stand up, slowly, my knees weak and unsteady. I wobble across the stones, clutching at the wooden rails as I go past and stumble into the second pew. I ease my hips onto the wood and let my belly sink forward. I rest my arm on the back of the pew in front of me and lay my forehead on my elbow crook and I look at myself, the soft swelling under my gown, the splay of my knees, my flatly black shoe toes shaded under my skirts.
Juan loved this, loved the arc of my hips into my thighs and lowest belly when I sat. He would run his hand on the small of my back and down the crease at the top of my thigh and then he’d look at me, his eyes dark and merry with the gift he offered.
But Mary never felt that, and still we ask her to pray for us. Blessed are thou among women, for you have never known a man’s loving touch.
I wrap my wrist along that line, my fingers curling under my belly. It is not enough, though, to erase the ache of his touch, his warmth, his laughter. I would be held, but none can enter my veil of grief in this house where the mother is Queen as Mary is Queen of heaven, and here the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be his name.
Mary must have sang a song when her Son died. Did she bless the Lord’s name then, too?
My hand slips through the slit in my skirts and around my pocket and I lay my fingers, cold though they are, along the smooth curve of my skin and hold myself, pressing on the child inside. The Lord giveth.
I stroke my fur and here he is again, Juan in the sunlight from the window, laying across my thighs, his dark curls shading his eyes, his teeth flashing as he laughs, then disappearing when he kisses my fur. His mumbles from under his hair about how I smell, how he is intoxicated.
The heat from my cunt warms my fingertips and the touch cuts through my tears. I start and inhale, and then I fall into a yawn and he is back, Juan kissing my shoulder in the dark when I start and twitch as I fall asleep in his arms the first night, the feel of his smile pressing into my neck.
The baby makes me wet all the time and I think: what a waste. He is gone, but he is always here, and so I am full of his life and wet for his love. I am suddenly weak with exhaustion and the darkness under my veil and in between the pews swaddles me in my devouring want until I gasp a little and bite at my own arm when I am satisfied.
The church is darker now, and the priests are singing. I must go before the prayers; I must eat something today and think of the child. I stand again, strong and satisfied now. My fingers are rank with my own scent and damp, and I face Mary and she stares past me. I climb up the altar and over the railing and brush past the red lights at her feet and I lift my right hand and kiss my fingers.
And then I make the sign of the cross on her lips and on the head of her Child, and I light a candle at His feet.
This is my body, I say. Broken for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.
I walk out of the cathedral into the winter light of sunset, the cool blues flinty against the cold pink of the clouds. I do not look back at the main enclave, where he lies under frozen flowers and under a blanket of incense and smoke.
He is not here, but he is with me. And Mary will not pray for us.
He can see it—the exact moment it happens—the moment the skin of his lover’s face pulls back around her teeth, as if every inch of flesh is trying to creep as far away from him as possible. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, and then she’s screaming, and he can feel his own skin sloughing off around him, as easy as a skirt slipping to the ground.
She scrambles backwards until her back hits the headboard, and her hands with those long nails are brushing with repeated futile strokes at the skin that lies loose and supple across her shins, the inside still glistening with blood and pus. He winces at the touch of her ragged nails before he realizes that he can’t actually feel her, that she’s touching it and not him.
He rears back then, feeling the skin continue to split along his back like a thin layer of dough. It’s been a year, and it never dissipates—that moment of panic when he sees that skin lying open like a burst sausage casing. Once, he’d made the mistake of standing in front of the mirror when it happened. His eyes changed in the moment just before, and he stared out of his own eyeholes as they hung suspended for just a second in front of him, before his entire face slowly detached from his skull, followed by the long, stretched-out skin of his neck.
He’s scratching at himself desperately, pulling the skin off his back in ribbons, and—oh, god—why won’t she stop screaming? He bares his teeth at her, and growls, feeling the fur along his back rise, and she freezes as her screams fall away into irregular sobbing breaths, and her eyes start to lose focus. She’s going to faint. He has to get her out.
No, it’s her house. He has to get out. He leaps off the bed, and feels the loathsome skin cling to his haunches and trail behind him, fully encased around his still human feet. But not for long. He hears his nails lengthen into claws as they click against the floor. He bounds through the door and down the stairs with relief, before he remembers his torn skin lying in pieces across the floor upstairs.
The skin spills over the side of the bed, one inverted foot closest to the door. Pale except for the thick clumps of dark hair at scalp, armpits, and dick, it gleams in the moonlight shining in at the single curtainless window. It is vulnerable, repulsive, and he wants to hide it, protect it, bury it.
Any other month, he would leave the skin on the floor, and flee into the moonlight, and run pursued by euphoria until he collapsed and came to himself, naked of fur and itching in his baby-soft new skin as he stretched out across a damp carpet of leaves. But he is here in her house, with the woman he loves and will never see again, and his torn empty carcass is lying on her bedroom carpet.
He walks forward, with his tail between his legs, and he stands over the skin, and he eats it, lapping up every strip of skin from the moonlit squares on the carpet all the way up the bed skirt to the last bit on the blanket. He does not look at her again before he leaves, his belly already roiling as he runs down the stairs. He leaps through the screen door, and vanishes into the stand of trees, where he vomits at last, hidden from the relentless eye of the unsleeping moon.