Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
When the UPS man climbed the steps, tapped on the door, propped his foot up on the teak threshold, I signed on line 39 although the package was crumpled, although I suspected the shells were cracked inside. I had to accept them because they came from you, Robert, but not only that, because the delivery man offered my favorite pen, narrow BIC with black ink. But when I unwrapped them, I wondered. I wandered, Robert, through the shells of the lower Pacific, the middle Pacific, the North and South Pacific. I traced my fingers over the stubborn swirls of the Garter cone, the rough curves of the Folded Scallop (the Pectin Plica). When I turned in my hands the rare Carnelian cowrie, examined its orange bands, the purple teeth, the ribbed lavender edge of the slit, I saw the symbol of wealth, the symbol of sex. I wondered what you were thinking of to send me these shells. Were they intended to make me hungry, or homesick? I removed them one by one from their bubble wrap, bagged them in plastic and laid them on tissue paper flat in the cupboard, snug on the shelves like macaroni, waiting only for your bodily liquids to be swollen and nourished. And to nourish me. When I see them, I always envision my island. The shells of the dead coral are mounded there, on my island, their fragile beauty is shattered into thousands of fragments which make up that smooth slope of the beach where we lay last summer, or sifting at last to the floor of the ocean where when I die I would wish my body to rest. The destination is always water, Robert. Such peace and passion combined, I had with you, but no matter how hard I think, I can’t imagine why before you arrived you had the nerve to transport that girl to me. I asked myself what was she for? What was she for, I asked myself? While I furiously swept the only answer I could conceive of under the coconut tree.
This morning the bed appeared. It was huge, Robert. It took two men to unload it out of the brown van, UPS in gold on the side. Holding that beautifully smooth BIC pen, I signed on line 17, ecstatic to see that the boss on the job was the same man, the only one willing to ride the ferry. Then you arrived, and I discovered your idea of ecstasy was three in a bed. It was crowded, Robert, tinged a deep blue by the cruelty of my unexpected initiation. You tried to convince me that it was good to share the touch of your hands, but I don’t like to share, I will not be happy unless I can be eternally first. Her hair a veil, the light glinting off a single pearl on her arm bracelet. Possession is nine-tenths of the sin, you whispered into my ear, grooming the hairs there as if I were part of a litter of kittens. You said I could learn to love that girl, but I was so jealous I tore up the blankets, knowing that when push came to shove, I was the one who could stand the cold. Watching you moisten her skin with your tongue from her wrist to her elbow, from her eyebrows down to the chaste curve of her slender ankles. Watching you fill her with fluids while I lay separate. It was inevitable that I bite a chunk from the firm flesh of your ass although perhaps you were right, perhaps I should have settled for a morsel of shoulder. You were delicious, Robert. But it was no use. The emptiness I promised never to mention surfaced then. When I tried to put you out of my mind, my mind filled with smoke through which all I could see was the mole on the wrist of my loyal friend from the UPS.
I don’t quite understand the palm leaves you curled in your last package. I knew you were angry with me because you’d discovered the blankets, cut on the margins and torn into strips. You included my picture under the pillows the palm leaves were wrapped around, the one you usually carry proudly. Scratched, Robert, with burned edges. Nevertheless I like the leaves. I can dust alone with the feathers but the palm leaves pull me into the circle of women who sit on the beach weaving the baskets each day. Some days they weave the sleeping mats, some days the clothing, some days the sails, their object to sail entirely away, from here to Kili, from Kili to Kwajalein. They won’t let me into their circle because my father is chief and they think I’m standoffish. Of course, I have always been set apart. As a child I sat cross-legged beneath the Palmyra palms watching the natives purchase sugar and cloth and like the princess I was, I decorated my father’s fans. Weaving the handles from palm fronds, sipping the coconut milk, peeling the thin sheets from the mottled tortoise shell, tying the feathers together to fan his brow. When my father touched me, the tropical air rose out of the sand as warm as your breath—he never touched me—and as the air rose, he presented the shells to me. The Triton shell he broke from the reef. The Golden Cowrie.
But enough of the goddamn shells. I’d rather speak of the moon, whose broken fragments lie scattered over the sky this morning. So sad, the moon, because it shares my features, trying not to watch while I am humiliated here, and because I am not as clever as your new possession, cast aside. Or the husks of the spring beetles curling, the skins of the ripe pecans split open so cleanly by the unavoidable turn of the earth, its seasonal rhythms. I tried not to watch you with her. I wanted only for you to heal my sadness by your immediate presence, by the synthetic tenderness you always possessed, the presence which I have always desired with such hopeless yearning, such self-destructive hope. But it was no go. You were with her.
All morning, Robert, I’ve been standing on the veranda, expectant. Not for the packages, though, because I can only suppose you’ve stopped filling the blanks in. You’ve stopped writing when you’re away. Not the slightest bit of attention have I paid to the empty mail slot, furry with dust, to the stack of unused envelopes on my mahogany desk, to the stationery printed with purple urchins and never impressed with anyone’s name. Not the slightest irritation results from your absence, I know you would want me to tell you that, no matter how active my morbid imagination. But in my mind, I have watched you slide your body into hers like a shark sliding through the reef of a perfectly clean lagoon; in my mind I have watched the water clear and muddy and clear again. Your tongue on the mole beneath her shoulder blade. And if I have a fault, it’s in telling too much, not too little, my dear. I take my tea with lemon, clear in a thin china cup, the most delicate shamrocks painted thereon. I use three grains of sugar, counted in memory of you, your cool, translucent sweetness. I want to go home to Kwajalein. In the morning I read Virginia Woolf, in the afternoon, The History of Western Philosophy, bold distortion, my body cool in the mesh hammock the UPS man strung under the sycamore trees, or I lie in my white wicker chaise longue on the veranda. At the end of the day I complete my oblations. That body smoldering always before my altar, those eyes aslant in the dusky air, the face in my memory, rising up from the floor as I kneel feeling the heat, the heat I feel when you are inside me, the oil on the floor where I spilled the lamp when my eyes were blurred.
You promised to send me a flute from Guatemala. And all that arrives is a carton of string. I have cried so much this week that my eyelids are sticking. I told the delivery man I had a cold. But nothing hurts now when I think of you, not the burns on my knees, not the scrapes from the climb last Tuesday at dawn to the top of the live oak tree. I had hoped to see my way through the forest, at least half of the way to where I thought you were. You always said you would meet me halfway. I imagined you as tall as a barracuda hung from a hook, your blue neckerchief knotted and under your feet a rug braided of Spanish moss. The surface on which, had you stayed faithful to me, I would have given my heart to recline. If my flesh swelled from the touch of your fingertips and if tracks streak face where your hands have played, so be it. I have always believed that however rough your fingers were, your fingertips were sincere. When you address my packages, Robert, you write the correct address. And you were right, I came to love that girl. When I think of her something hurts. I try not to think of her.
I spent the entire morning outside, expecting the UPS. You said in your telegram you are sorry. I am happy to hear that, but it is growing late. You should have known there is no unconditional love in this uncertain world. After 20 years or so even a young man’s mother wants him out of the house, even if he is charming, and your transgressions, Robert, Well! I’m no slouch. I’ve read Wittgenstein, I’ve read Jung, I’ve read Carl Sagan, the naughty imposter. And I’ve noticed those etchings above the bed—those morose extensions of line. You have bad taste. The way the lines scatter, the way they drive themselves pointlessly through those vague ineffectual puffs of clouds.
Tiffany, that’s what you called her. The bill of lading specified that her name was Claire. I called her Darling. But bade to the etchings, because it’s the line that matters, if I may return to the line, and you are not toeing the line. You defined the line, I placed myself smack on the line and then in spite of my pleas, you would not toe the line. You kept on moving, the line in tow. Until finally I looked down in the dust under the blooming Mimosa tree and the line was gone. And there’s dust gathering under the bed. Last night I cut my hand on her bracelet, tortoise shell trimmed with elephant hair, peeking out from under the eyelet bedspread. You’d been in our room alone with her; for god’s sake. When I found you this morning leaning against the porch with one knee cocked, your foot propped on the narrow boards, your eyes bright, and the line precisely in front of your foot I erased the line. You’re grinning to beat the band, the band of feathers is shrinking around your head, and my head is spinning, the monkey faces are popping in every direction away from the fans, and my eyes are bulging out of their shells. With a headache like this, even I can’t toe the line. In my childhood, the line was always defined and I stayed on my side. It’s my line now and I like the line but if you can’t stay on your side of the line, I won’t accept it.
The shovel arrived. What ever possessed you to wrap it so lovingly in bubble wrap? Did you think it would break? The UPS man popped the circular bubbles of air with his foot, humming a little tune and grinning at me. He asked me if there was anything he could do to help. Was the hammock working correctly, Were the garnets resting, Had the flamingos mated? Well, I said no, but I should have accepted because it took three days to bury that girl. I swear it was almost like killing myself, l loved her so, her smooth white neck caught in that perfectly good strand of coconut twine. But we were becoming each other and I couldn’t stand to lose the division. One shovel to dig that grave, and a small girl sworn to her secrets. You should never have left me out, never have had her all to yourself. It’s a cold world, even in June, and I’m as masochistic as anyone else, writing the bills of lading only for fun and falling in love with the BIC PEN. Besides, I couldn’t bear seeing her suffer so, so closely related to me, once you had her in bed with us. So intensely intoxicating, that satiny stretch of skin on her knee. I know you were hoping I would turn out the light but I’ve always preferred doing those shameful things in the fullness of day instead of playing around in darkness as if there were nothing naughty there. And the UPS man gave me an answer. I hid the shovel. They’ve stopped dropping the bombs. At Bikini the water is clear. Airplanes can land on Kwajalein. I’m heating the brie and adding the almonds. A sliver of orange peel on the side, a wisp of parsley. I slapped her hand, the pathetic child, taking too much of her share, and you might have come more often with me and I might have forgiven. Now, tired from all these views of the world, I want to hide inside and think about dying. I want to lie on the sands wearing my silver scarab.
This is the last package I’ll ever be mailing. I’ve burned your pictures, Robert, I’ve unstrung your beads, and I’ve dissolved every bar of the fragrant soap you loved. Writing your name I almost fell in love again, reading the words. We came so close, Robert, but only with horseshoes and hand grenades do nearsies matter.
Soon the man in the UPS truck will arrive. It’s been difficult filling the hours you are hiding behind, the efforts so strict and carefully drawn. I must crouch in my violet slip to keep from disappearing. During the long hours, I visualize—your face spreading across the past, or her hair shining against your skin through the muffled glow of intense orange. And that insistent smoke from the altar which follows me even behind the door. And I ask myself if I care? And do you care, I ask myself? And what does that stanza mean anyway to the woman who’s lost the line, to the string which is pulling me this very moment under the limb of the willow tree? I have filled the balloon with air; it’s lighter than any breath I can breathe, and how can I breathe when she’s not there? There was a time when I laid my body out on that plate you called your bed and let her tighten the string. But I can hardly remember now her tenderness, your discrete acts of the flattest passion. You were right to stay away although I would never have dropped your body into the grave with hers; I would never have given myself that much pleasure. Well, it’s all over. It’s all form and it’s all timing and now I’m free. I’ve dug her body up. I’m kneeling calmly under the willow branches, packing the feathers. When the UPS man arrives, we’ll seal the package, I’ll serve him tea. He’s confessed he’s consumed by a love for coral atolls and extinct volcanoes. Before we leave, we’ll mail her body. Imagine! He even knows how to sail. I’ve enclosed the string.
Elizabeth McBride is a free-lance writer living in Houston.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.