For the last two weeks I’ve humored him in these long conversations because I’m lonely, and because he reminds me of my father. But lately he’s been talking about me in the third person, saying that he loves me—or, not me, but a young woman who looks and acts just like me—and I’m beginning to worry that I’m leading him on.
I’m in the kitchen on a Tuesday, cell phone pressed between my shoulder and ear as I hunt something to eat. “She’s much younger than me,” he’s saying. “She has brown hair, and such a kind heart. She’s actually a tenant of mine.”
“But do you think she’s interested?” I say, pouring cereal into a bowl. I open the fridge: no milk.
“I don’t know,” he says. “She seems troubled. To be honest, I’m worried about her.”
“Worried?” I say, opening the cupboard to one box of instant rice and a can of lentil soup, dusty refugees from the previous tenant.
“Yes—because she’s always on the move. One place after another. Don’t you think something’s wrong, when someone can’t settle like that?”
“I think she’s OK,” I say, turning the soup can around for an expiration date. “And besides, she’s probably not interested in you anyway.”
“Oh, but I think she might be. We talk on the phone all the time, you know.”
And that’s when I get off. Because how far can you go, really, with pretending you don’t understand someone?
Though I do enjoy being described like that, as if I am someone else. I sound so concrete in his estimation, so real, when usually I feel as changeable as the weather. In the last five months I’ve lived in seven cities in six different states, and I believe, I hope and pray, that my wanderlust has finally subsided. Maybe next week I’ll get itchy feet and begin scouring Wikipedia pages for Boulder, or Olympia, or Portland, Mass., but for now I’m content to talk to the old man. If nothing else, the conversations provide good stories.
I’ve been collecting stories while I travel. The true ones are what I’m after. Like the man in Abilene, Texas, whose uncle poisoned his own well because his neighbor was stealing water. Like the one-eyed madam who ran things at El Farol, a bar in a cavernous, wood-floored adobe building toward the end of Canyon Road, which used to be a whorehouse. The madam with the eye patch, an old German lady, helped the Mexicans in 1846 by sending out her sickest girls to infect the U.S. soldiers.
“Lucy, she had syphilis,” the bartender tells me later that day. “She was the finest, smallest thing, delicate as a bluebell, but the disease was eating on her brain. She spread it all through that soldier’s camp.” He glances up from a glass he’s been working at with a rag, a smile in his shiny eyes. “If you stayed here late enough,” he says, “you’d hear her moaning.” He winks at me.
“I’m sure I would,” I say, and look pointedly at my book.
It’s midday, and I’ve been eating tapas at a table near the bar. The wooden floor slants away toward the opposite wall, the boards uneven, small dark hills and valleys of wood, the foundation having settled significantly since the 1800s, worn down by stomping boots, dainty heels. I wonder how small Lucy’s feet were. If she did it for the money, or to fill up that emptiness we all can feel, that deep and choking loneliness. And if it was for the emptiness, I wonder if it worked.
“Would you like a drink?” the bartender says. “On the house.”
He holds a bottle in one hand, two glasses in the other, and I feel an immense thirst rise in me, the exact feeling that has made me flee so many other bars, so many other cities. Because it starts with one drink, and then another comes, and then before I know it I’ve found somewhere to score and I am waking in some strange house two or three days later, in some part of the city I do not know, wondering when I last ate, wondering if I should go to a hospital, wondering if I will ever shake this. The thirst rises up as he holds that bottle in the air, smiling so innocently, and it is my other self that I am wrestling, fighting so fiercely that my hand shakes as I look at the bottle, saliva flowing in my mouth, my other self trying to grab my body and sit me down at that bar, trying to move my lips and say yes, please. Yes, I’d love a drink.
It takes all my strength to remember, to know in my blood, that it’s not just the one drink I’m saying no to but the filthy living room three days later, the bearded man with hooded eyes laughing from the shadows, the strange detritus on the floor—moving boxes that never got unpacked and discarded children’s toys, broken bottles and rusty cans—dingy windows whose sills are littered with dead flies, black stains on yellow linoleum, gaps in my memory, and choking, endless hopelessness as I grope about in the dark for a doorknob.
With a shaking hand I place a twenty beside my plate, leave without answering the bartender. Out on the street, out in the warmth of the sunshine, I jot down Lucy’s story. Collecting stories is one thing I’ve done to distract myself. Another thing is moving. Before I took off on the road I had one last scene with my father. Don’t waste your life, he kept saying. Don’t waste your life. He placed nine one hundred dollar bills in my hand. That’s all I have, he said. He grabbed my hand, and I had to look at him. Don’t be like me, he said again. Don’t waste your life.
So, in my way, I have taken his advice. I am doing what I can to stay healthy. I am collecting stories, and moving on.
But on a walk later that day my landlord says I don’t look so good.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, putting out his hand to placate the anger he expects to follow such a remark. “You’re beautiful. But you look worn down. Maybe you need—”
“I was going to say acupuncture. I know a healer, wonderful woman. Best in Santa Fe. You should see her.”
“I like your voice.”
“Uh huh. It’s got character. It’s . . . deep. You know?” I hold out my hand, reaching for a word. “Resonant.” I tilt my head to the side in a certain way so that my hair falls down the side of my face. The gesture seems appropriate for the woman he thinks I am—young and sure of herself, aware of her wiles and how to use them—and I can see that it’s working because he grows quiet, looking at me.
As we walk beside the singing acequia he puts his hand to his throat as if he might feel what I like about his voice. He is a good dresser, my landlord, wears beautiful charcoal and chestnut-brown scarves though the spring warmth has arrived in full regalia. Everything blooms along the acequia. Small pink flowers drift into the water, are carried swiftly out of sight under thin concrete crossovers laid so residents can ford the ditch in their cars. Their homes are the most magical structures I’ve seen, built of mud and tucked away just in sight, the walls a hint of salmon and orange beyond a shock of purple lavender, a tree trunk, a green bush spotted with pink bougainvillea.
When my landlord regains his voice he says that the water in the acequia is released from the Santa Fe dam, and at some point was crucial for farming. Now it’s unclear what organizational principle determines the withholding and release of the water. But the singing sound, and the now-silvery, now-clear water make nice ornaments for our walk. I wonder out loud if all beautiful things are vestigial like that, the collapsed temples in Rome, a statue with missing arms, roses found pressed in the pages of an old book, long dead and meant for someone else. He raises his thick eyebrows, dares to take my arm in his.
“I hope so,” he says. “I do hope so.”
The healer is named Nancy. My landlord makes an appointment, and I go to see her on a Wednesday. Behind the office door I find a woman in her mid-fifties, with wispy white hair and stern black glasses. She sizes me up, seated at a small metal desk.
“Hello,” I say, and tell her my name. She sits watching me, her head tilted to one side, smiling faintly without acknowledging my greeting. The walls of her office are lined with old wooden shelves on which sit myriad mason jars, each containing some kind of herb or root, witch hazel, valerian, St. John’s wort, all neatly arranged and labeled by hand. On another wall hangs a worn anatomical diagram of a human being cut open to show all the muscles and bones. The top of the poster yawns out from the rough whitewash; a yellow circle of masking tape stuck on the back has come away with some of the white paint.
Nancy follows my eyes to the poster, reaches over to push it back in place before standing. She walks straight to me, pulls me to her firm bosom in an embrace somehow clinical and comforting at the same time.
“You need that,” she says, holding me in her arms, and I realize that she is right.
“Now,” she says, leaning back from me with her hands on my shoulders, “let’s look at you.” And she does, right there, peering over her boxy glasses for a number of minutes. I look around, at my feet, unsure what to do. Her breath smells strongly of anise, and reminds me of the presents of black licorice my grandfather, who raised me, used to bring home, which I would choke down to please him. The smell makes me think of the intentionality of love, how the end of making someone feel loved might be more important than the means used to do so, and I realize that I miss being the recipient of unwanted presents, of the endless affection only loved ones can afford. She releases me abruptly and walks to a dusty green massage table in the corner of the room, and I notice that she wears no shoes, only purple stockings on her feet.
“I see that,” she says, her eyes fixed on the space above my head.
“I’m sorry. See what?”
“The orb. Very nice.” She pats the table. “Go ahead and lie down.”
She pulls on my feet, pulls them down the table until I am supine. “You must be strong,” she says, and touches me, working seriously down my body, kneading me in a professional manner. She stops on my hands, palpating them carefully with her fingers. She presses into the web at my thumb and pointer finger, and something opens in my—I would say chest, but heart feels more accurate. Something opens inside me, and I begin to cry.
I am surprised and ashamed at the tears, but she seems to have expected them.
“That happens,” she says, as if she’d merely hit my knee with a rubber mallet to make my leg kick out. She turns and walks to one of the shelves, gathering something from a container. I wipe the tears from my cheek, taste salt at the corner of my mouth, and the whole experience of having cried has passed.
“Alan told me about you,” she says, turning back to me. Silver needles bristle from her hand. I feel suddenly anxious—I’d forgotten about the acupuncture, and just the sight of them brings saliva flowing in my mouth, brings an ache into the crotch of my right elbow.
“Yes. He said you are—lovely.” She pronounces the word with care. “And unwell. Now just lie still, and you won’t even feel them go in.”
But I do. I do feel them. And I like the feeling as they lacerate my skin, arrange themselves taut in my flesh, each prick followed by a dull, pulsing warmth as she works slowly down my body, inserting the tiny needles into me.
When I get home I call my landlord to talk.
“Hey,” he says, a little out of breath.
“Are you exercising?” I ask.
“I just ran in from the yard. I was looking at this flower—”
“A little yellow one. I was thinking I should photograph it.”
“What’s it called?”
“Who knows? I have this book, but I never seem to look in it. Nancy told me about your orb, by the way. Very nice.”
“You talked to her?” This news disturbs me. I thought my time with Nancy private, as it would be with a doctor.
“No, she wrote me a message on Facebook. I asked her to, after you were done, just to see—how it went, I guess.”
“She didn’t tell you—what else did she tell you?”
“Oh, nothing! Nothing at all. She’s very serious about privacy. She was just excited. She said she hadn’t seen an orb like yours since 1983. Her exact words.”
“What does it mean, anyway, that she says I have an orb? I mean, I have trouble believing in it. Not that people have them, but that I do.”
“Oh, who knows what it means? It’s an energy thing. Atlantean energy returning to the Earth, I forget. There are so many types of energy.” He sighs into the receiver. “A crystalline orb is very auspicious, Nancy says.”
“Really? She does?”
“Mm. You are special, something like that. It just means
you can—do whatever you want, is I guess part of it. Be whatever you want. But I’m certainly no expert. You should really talk to her about it.”
“I’m moving to Seattle.” I didn’t know I was going to say this, but the words do feel true.
“You’re what? But you just got here.”
“I just need to,” I say. “I’m leaving this afternoon.”
He breathes into the phone for a moment. “Look—I’m going to come over. Is that OK?”
“Do what you feel,” I say. “It’s a free world.”
He knocks on my door not five minutes later, odd little hummingbird taps.
“Why are you leaving?” he says, coming inside.
I step back into the casita, where my few things are still stacked along the walls, little clumps of possessions that could belong to anyone, a few boxes out of which books spill onto the ground, a lacquered black incense holder, my grandfather’s silver compass, all scratched up on the back where the inscription reads, To a life-long learner.
“I want to see the Pacific Northwest,” I say, picking up a miniature Route 66 pennant. “I’d like to drive up the 101, all the way from LA. It’s always been a dream of mine,” I say, though it just now occurred to me.
“But why now? Why not rest for a while, and then go, if you must?”
He moves toward me, and I don’t move away. He smells of aftershave, of laundry detergent, of earth. I think of him squatting beside the nameless yellow flower, lying in the dirt to get the right angle for his photograph. Sunlight shines through his thinning brown hair, so close to me I could touch it if I put my fingers out. His hands are bigger than the rest of him, useless leftovers from a younger self. He sets one of them on my shoulder, peering into my eyes as if he might learn me.
“You can’t run away from yourself,” he says softly. “Trust me. I’ve tried it, and it does not work.”
“Right. And wherever you go, there you are.” I take a half step toward him. I crane my neck up to see his face, for he is a tall man.
“If it’s the rent—” he says, but before he can finish I reach up and take his rough cheeks in my hands, and kiss him.
And what he does next is wonderful, for he does not pull away nor does he kiss me back, but allows the kiss to happen and then softly, with the delicacy of a miniaturist placing his tiny boat, product of so much care and labor, finally within the bottle, with that same tender touch he removes my face from his and with my hands still upon his cheeks he pulls me to him and embraces me.
We stand holding each other for a long time. The way he holds me is not carnal, but neither is it strictly familial. After a while I laugh into his woolen armpit, a muffled croak.
“I thought you were talking about me—on the phone, I thought you meant me.”
“Oh, but I did. I did mean you.”
“I am in love with you.”
“But—what do you want from me, then?”
He squeezes my shoulders. “To have you stay,” he says. “That’s all. Just to have you stay.”
And perhaps if he had kissed me back, perhaps then I could have said yes and settled into a steady life, been the woman he believes I am, an old soul with brown hair and a kind heart, a portrait of clichés, with just a touch of wildness—worrisome, but tameable. Perhaps then I could have let myself be well.
But instead I am running out the door, trotting at first and then sprinting down the dirt drive to Canyon Road, ignoring his voice calling after me. The thirst, I can feel it coming on. The throbbing in my arm. It feels good to let go, to raise the floodgates—to know that I am going to give in, and let myself have what I want so very badly.
In a few minutes I will sit at the crooked wooden bar. The bartender will offer me a drink. When I take the first sip I will feel that glowing crystalline shape around me, and I will believe in it. And so long as I believe in it, nothing can hurt me.
“Hey,” I say, walking through the low door. The light is dark in the long, empty room. The uneven floor creaks as I walk up to the bar. The bartender smiles.
“You came back,” he says. “I was worried I scared you the other day.”
“Oh,” I say casually, “I just had somewhere to be.”
I can feel my other self taking over. Confident and smooth talking, she is a force of nature. A regular sight to behold. She knows when to smile and when to laugh. How to tilt her head so that her hair looks a certain way in the light. What she wants, and how to get it. She knows no sadness, this woman, no emptiness or uncertainty. She is my own creation: a woman who cannot hurt.
“So,” she says, spidering her hand out on the bar. “What are we drinking?”