Did she know I might be in love with her husband? She did, I was certain. The love usually lasted for only twenty-four hours in succession, enough for me to dream of him the night after I’d just seen him. Each time I saw him again, however, the dream lengthened.
As Kirsten looked at me, glimpsing all the erotic visions I’d had and soon forgotten, her eyes could hardly have been browner, the same as my own color. Only mine felt blue in comparison, because love or something approximate forever alters your appearance, leaving marks on your face and reconfiguring your fingerprint patterns. Without me looking in a mirror, I knew my irises had dissolved into pellucid water. She had clearly seen the abalone shells so many mollusks had abandoned shining throughout my interior.
The wife of my gamelan teacher, Kirsten came to class because today was Alex’s birthday and this was her present to him, though someone else brought cupcakes she couldn’t eat because she was allergic to gluten. He was, I later learned, allergic as well and turning thirty-seven.
At first, I thought she was older than I was when I saw her from across the carpet, woven into a mandala long faded by no sun within this room inside this basement. It was only when I came home and washed my face free of makeup that I realized I was likely the older woman. So much longing has overstretched my epidermis, while her forehead was smooth as marble with real blue veins holding real red blood that kept far from the surface. Had she not looked at me with such lapidary focus, I would have thought her oblivious to the desire of another woman. I would have taken her skin’s tautness as confirmation.
Logically too, I see no reason for my face to fulfill an aesthetic function. Unless I’m trying to pull other human beings closer, men only to be honest, despite the fact I have a husband. Were this face better at attracting men to examine it, I’d likely never have studied Buddhism. Were I only beautiful enough, I’d have no need for Eastern wisdom.
Yet when I first wake up, I don’t know that I’m a person. I have no memory of any pain or problems but am effortlessly enlightened. The space around my body’s edges clings to me with the warmth of a cocoon before cooling like a cake taken from the oven. My breathing feels so much like flying as yet that I do nothing except lie in bed and wait for my ribs to open, to unburden themselves of heart and lungs and other internal organs. I close my eyes to the sunlight filtering through the curtains, waiting for my lungs to leave me breathless. That they will fly blind without the eyes in my head they intend to abandon I let them forget during these moments.
This is the way, I think, to live with an emptiness filled by only the one phallus. Keeping the mind all but empty, breathing all but lungless. Keeping memory something consciously summoned. Because you cannot love someone without carrying the weight of his image behind your retinas and making them burn on occasion. Not while you’re lying in bed beneath a blanket feeling the warmth between your legs begin to moisten from the light of a face your mind has almost but not quite forgotten.
Yet not all of life is an eroticism. And after my night’s dreaming of Alex was done with, I returned to deeper emotions, preferring to see the two faces of my parents before they stopped breathing once I fell unconscious, more than my teacher of Indonesian music. Even in dreams now, though, their faces look hazy, and I believe in no afterlife, at least one with no bodies. Belief alone too guarantees nothing. It is only the ego’s wishing.
Kirsten told me Alex hated being wished happy birthday but that she liked to say it anyway. “Me too,” I started chirping. Then, “Happy birthday, Alex! Happy, happy birthday!” I said laughing. The only thing worse than having someone repeat something so inane, I told him once he hushed me, is having no one to say it in the first place.
He looked at me a little sadly, when I admitted I’d once wanted someone to wish me happy birthday so badly that first I told my bus driver in the morning then a woman I’d never met before in my apartment building doing her laundry later that evening. Both wished me happy birthday reluctantly, when I felt I’d made them say it to me, as of course I’d done all but intentionally. Whereas I would have leapt naked into Alex’s arms as a present if he’d have let me. I’d have arched my back while licking the salt from his neck begun to lengthen. Even without him touching me, I was a burning candle with its bottom half steeped in icing.
There is no one left now who remembers me as a baby, no one who still in her mind’s eye can see when mine were blue as the ocean over which my lungs will soon go flying. No one is alive who looked into my eyes before melanin seeped in and made them dark as cow paddies, which a farm girl a farm girl no longer knows all too intimately. I slipped on more than can be worth telling while herding cattle with my father, a farmer no one now remembers except for myself and my sister.
I’m a little tired, however, of the same memories, even if they have begun fading. So rather than trying to see them more clearly, I’m trying to live more like a person just waking, a person whose sex dreams of no one worth recalling are all she knows of reality. I’m trying to live like someone who expects nothing of life except for certain responses from her body when a beautiful man is approaching.
My husband I still find attractive, he whose eyes grow blue when he’s happy and turn greener when he’s angry, when I don’t wash dishes or do something similar about which I care nothing. He who met me an hour before my gamelan class for a hamburger and a glass of something alcoholic. He who wanted to come to class with me but whom I told, “No, leave please, honey.”
Before we begin playing a little after eight of a Wednesday evening, our teacher asks us each to share a thought we’ve had the past week related to this music. So I told Alex I was reading Two Serious Ladies, a novel in which respectable women descend into debauchery. Only I left out its central theme, instead mentioning that a Miss Gamelon—like the music but with a variant spelling—preys upon the richer of the serious ladies, who aren’t very serious at all from my perspective. Because serious people assume life means more than the passing brush of a stranger in a hallway, whereas I have always felt differently.
In the passage I’d read the previous evening, one of the serious ladies asserts she has always been a body worshipper while her acquaintance says she likes men for their brains. And reading in an armchair as my husband reminded me to vacuum the stairway, I realized I was the same. I realized with the force of a past life memory that men’s bodies are everything to me, that I wanted nothing in life except for beautiful male bodies to rub themselves against me. Instead of vacuuming, I shut the bedroom door as my husband watched TV. I lay down on our bed and started masturbating.
Neither my teacher nor his wife had read the novel, I’m guessing. And while I sat on the mandala rug expatiating on Miss Gamelon’s antics, I stared at my teacher as much as I had stared at another man on a barstool an hour earlier while I ate my hamburger and listened to my husband analyze stock market vagaries. I listened while nothing could mean less to me than money so long as male arms were outstretched in front of me.
During class, Kirsten played the instrument I normally prefer playing, the gong and a series of mini gongs tied along a truss like a swing to a tree. It was her first time, Alex told us, but she played better than me already. And my voice sounds sweet, more than a few people have told me, but hers sounded like bubbles full to bursting. All her movements were graceful as a giraffe’s on the verge of dying, an animal separating itself from the herd and walking regally into the savannah where lions lay in wait.
Her body looked so lissome too I wondered whether she ever ate anything. Meanwhile, my husband had just complained I’d eaten half his hamburger when he left the table to pee, when I’d already eaten mine along with his mashed potatoes because he ate too slowly. He should have known better, I told him, than to leave his plate with me half empty, because he knows better than anyone that I’m always hungry. I could have eaten two hamburgers easily. Some ketchup had stained my teeth, he only said in response to me.
Kirsten, though, was a bath of a woman with no meat on her bones that anyone could eat. She was a bath that would clean your fingernails of dirt beneath while wrinkling the pads of your fingers so they deadened your nerve endings, because there is such a thing as being too clean. Watching Alex’s face watch hers as she played my favorite instrument flawlessly, it was clear she bathed him regularly.
Had she dried him, though? I wondered. Did she stand with her own clothes on the rug in a heap while wiping his back with a towel the color of butter just warm from the dryer? Were she naked, all her ribs would be visible, arranged in perfect symmetry, sealed so her lungs would not escape her body. She would have never eaten another person’s hamburger, would never have eaten anything so red and thick. Then if you were a bath pretending to be a person thin as a flute with only a few holes punched inside it, you wouldn’t.
And while Kirsten adjusted her legs in preparation to play the gong I would have banged harder had I only the option, while she folded her skirt over knees looking like door knobs I wanted to twist off her so the door would close completely, I felt myself begin to cry then tried to make myself sneeze, as if I were allergic too to something. Because my own husband was a boulder and I was a grain of sand in comparison, because he stood still always while I tried wriggling free of him. Yet wind kept whipping me against him. For the weather between us, I tried not to blame him, as every fresh abrasion pained me yet also eroded some of my corners. The wind rounded me, I told myself by way of consolation, smoothening me so someday I would be the softest of sand. Only by then I’d be an old woman.
When I first walked inside the basement where we practice, Alex, Kirsten, and a Vietnam veteran who lived in Java for several years, he once mentioned, were arranging the instruments. Kirsten looked at me at first, I thought, as I would another woman I sensed my husband wanted to have sex with. I saw her face register some shock when I unzipped my coat, perhaps seeing I was not as fat as she had thought when wearing it.
Then she walked toward me and introduced herself while holding out her hand. I told her Alex had spoken about her often, though he hadn’t. Her face relaxed at once, I noticed, perhaps because she also saw the weather-beaten marks on my face from being flung up against a much larger rock than she could imagine.
Her hair was darker than mine, her face a clamshell with its ridges still in formation. I was shorter and had twenty pounds on her, because she was as thin as Alex, maybe thinner. She was less of a person altogether than someone who ate so much hamburger.
And were my head swept clean of memory either by some car accident or enlightenment reached through meditation, I would remember her now no more than my husband. I would no more see Alex’s eyes sparkle either when I reached for my mallets, when I began to play my thigh to no particular rhythm.
Kirsten emitted a smell of stale lavender as she replied to Alex’s questions regarding theories of music in Java while I stayed silent. Her laugh’s high timbre also made me hold my breath a moment, because it was so delicate and I didn’t want to break it. And because I had also begun to love her a little by then, I wanted nothing more than for her to be a happy person, though she was happier already than I could fathom. Of all things to pray for, Kirsten’s happiness would be most redundant. Better to beg the gods for amnesia. Forget all thoughts of Alex giving her orgasms.
To think the gods liked her better, however, making her life easier as a reward for being a person already closer to a bird with lungs for feathers, was only my ego growing stronger. I was only making myself larger by feeling smaller rather than nothing altogether. I told myself this over and over.
And after class while Kirsten checked her phone for messages, I asked Alex what he was doing for his birthday by way of celebration. He said he was spending the weekend at a cabin Kirsten’s parents loaned them. So Kirsten also had parents, a man and a woman she resembles who may have hunted animals and hung their heads above their mantle, parents who considered her beautiful when she was in truth only thin with a voice I’d want soak in when reading a novel. The only real thing I had on her was sadness. A faux fur scarf also.
When I put it on before I zipped my coat on again, she told me how elegant I looked then reached out to stroke as it as if to tame it and me in the process. “This squirrel I slaughtered?” I said. Then, “I’m joking,” I told her as her jaw dropped wide as a drain pipe funneling rain water. “This,” I add, “I bought in the gift shop of the National Portrait Gallery in London instead of a biography of the Bronte sisters.” Anne, Emily, and Charlotte all had gray-green eyes that might have been bluer too when they were younger.
Then looking into Kirsten’s eyes for the final time that night and likely ever, I palpated the seam of my scarf, sewn into a circle so I could slip it over my head as if it were a fallen, fuzzy halo. Were this fake piece of fur more natural, it would lie across my shoulders like a small, flayed animal. As it was, I fingered the thread tying one end to the other into something whole.
Had Kirsten’s eyes been blue when she was born also? Very possible. If so, they had darkened by the time she turned one or two years old. That had been, I told myself, all the darkness she had known.
Most parents with blue-eyed babies never want them to change color. It’s something you don’t realize as a brown-eyed child until later, discovering that an essential part of human nature doesn’t like things growing darker. It’s the same part, I suppose, as finds older women uglier. My husband says my own eyes are golden as an eagle’s, less brown than yellow, that the right one squints when I smile or giggle. Sometimes he asks me if I can see out of them—they’re so pretty when they’re wider open, usually when I’m sad or frightened—but that’s only when his own eyes are blue as the ocean becoming frozen. When the wind picks up and he’s bristling with irritation, they look more like algae overspreading water starved of oxygen.
Eye color can also alter with age. My eyes are lighter now than they were a couple years ago, though my parents are likely the only people who would have noticed the difference. “Are you going through the change of life too early, perhaps because you had no children?” they may have wondered. “Nothing’s wrong,” I would have had to tell them. It’s the only way I can become less of a person. To keep from loving men besides my husband.
Had I not seen the woman Alex makes love to most often and to whom I imagine he’s faithful, I would have left class happier if less enlightened, feeling myself more of a woman. Because however much I try to empty my mind of all memory, of times when my irises were bluer, however much I may try to eat less hamburger, the lower half of my body remains a phallus glutton. It grows hungrier and hungrier.
I have a friend I meet every few weeks at a coffee shop where the barista makes conversation, particularly with me, my friend observes often. One day while we sat there sharing a scone and I admitted I was feeling weepy from some argument I’d had with my husband, she told me that coming here should be good for my ego. In response, I stared out the window and watched a winter bird attempt to extract a snail from its carapace.
As a way of shifting her to a new subject, as a way of trying to become less of a person and more enlightened, I told her the organs of mollusks each serve several functions. The heart and kidneys aid in reproduction while the gills assist excretion. The brain neatly encircles the esophagus.
But in this she had no interest. She only pointed to the barista now circling us with a broom, saying this was for my benefit. The bird, meanwhile, was eating all the snail’s softness, digesting the brain woven around its windpipe like a nerve-ending necklace. Then I wanted to leave, I told her, because I was growing cold sitting so close to the window, which was leaking coldness.
I live in Chicago, where the river’s ice is melting in a mild late January. Only it doesn’t melt evenly but in patches. It shatters like a windshield broken by a bat, and the ice is melting all across the planet. This world is growing hotter, and there’s little we can do to keep it from thawing altogether, because the gods prefer the tropics. The gods make love among the palm fronds and don’t bother dressing afterward. They keep those of us less than beautiful living in northern climates from spending as much time naked in our beds as we would were we warmer. Desire heats all bodies, though. Someday my desire is sure to cool like a tree in snow, or so I’m told by those who are older.
Given the right conditions, ice contracts into lily pads scientists call pancakes, for obvious reason given their shape when you see them. It dissolves into shards of wholeness. But to me they look more like eyes stricken with blindness. They are evidence of the ice aging into colorless irises.
Pancake ice on a Scottish river made headlines when scientists photographed round discs normally observed exclusively in the Arctic. Only the pancakes with raised edges, abutting each other like checkers on a board of water, don’t form on their own. It is the waves that flow against an icy abrasion that create them, waves uncommonly gentle if also cold. Waves that jostle the edges of what were once pointed arrows.
Yet even pancakes filling rivers melt sometime. Even pancakes on ice are eventually eaten. Not by the frogs who might sleep on them but by the water that made them. And however peaceful, this dying should surprise no one who is not entirely beautiful. I am aware I am dying little by little more often than most, and at times almost feel I am one of the few people alive who can say so. At the moment, I am dying a hot death, though.
The Vietnam veteran asked me to help lift him from the carpet at the end of the song we had been playing for well over an hour, at a faster and faster tempo. All the songs we play tell stories indigenous to Indonesia, and at the beginning of class Alex typically relays some sense of the song’s narrative so we can envision some human imbroglio. Yet this time he told us nothing of the lyrics. The Vietnam veteran sang them softly regardless.
When Alex saw me supporting him beneath his shoulder, he came and helped me heft him higher, when I asked the veteran for a translation of what he had been singing. “The lyrics are erotic. I’m not sure I should tell you,” he murmured. I felt my face and neck flush, as if a dragon were winding its tail around my esophagus like the brain of a mollusk while Alex turned his head toward Kirsten. “Love among the birds,” the veteran clarified, as if to calm us. The coitus was in flight and lasted no longer than a few seconds.
The body cannot distinguish between truth and its opposite. You cannot expect it to decipher reality among mirages and not to cry at movies, for instance. So you should expect it to love every beautiful body you witness. And if you still have parents, expect ungodly tolerance, knowing it’s no reflection of your attractiveness. Know the barista at the coffee shop would sleep with you if only you gave him encouragement. Know he would tell you you’re beautiful as he undressed a body that hardly knows reality from illusion.
Remember too that when Kirsten asked you how long you’d been taking gamelan lessons, you responded, “Three times or more with your husband.” When she said, “Really?” and you nodded then asked how long she and Alex had been married. You cannot remember the number but asked only to hear her voice once more, to feel her waves wash over all your body’s contours, cleaning and smoothing all your edges as if you were no more than rocks piled inside a bathtub, kept clean and protected from all the winds outdoors.
About the Author: Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in literary magazines including DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, PANK, Prick of the Spindle, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Poydras Review, Gravel, Pinball, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Midway Journal, Pithead Chapel, Great Lakes Review, and pioneertown. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit.