I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Rolanda has a different movie running now. On the VCR it’s Houseboat, a continual background to undepress her. In life, she’s shed her bus trip lies. She’s Roz again, in this Silverlake Spanish style apartment occluded by trees. The kitchen green and dark under black branches meeting in dense entanglements, she’s painting the linoleum on the floor blue. She’s getting stoned and chain smoking cigarettes. Any minute, she’ll be up on the phone. The wires that connect telephones are like mist to Roz in some Zen lithograph, an atmosphere which should just always be there, free of charge. There’s a picture of Roz up on the walls of the phone company, ambivalent like a Most Wanted ad: she’s paid and not paid, paid and not paid so many times, service flipping on and off like Christmas lights. Any day, she’s 27.
You could pass for 16, says the other end of the phone, which is true, and so she does, pass as 16, 21, 23, whatever age best suits her mood, although 27 doesn’t. Why would it, when she can still model Junior Miss? She lets the complement sink in, like a vitamin, before she begins.
It was so ridiculous, she’s saying now, You know how Nana is, all stubborn and muttering against everything, and cheap. You should see her garage. Toilet paper for years, canned foods nobody’ll eat and those Depend plastic panty things? For Gert, because she can’t resist a sale. She packed up all my clothes and sent them ahead, I was grateful she did that much, thought for sure she’d have me dragging bags bigger than my own body on and off buses so as not to pay anyone a dime. Thing is, she sent it on ahead, forgetting the fact that she’d left me without a thread. I woke up naked and all my clothes halfway cross the country. Uh uh. First off, Nana’s trying to fit me into some old rag of hers, you know she’s not going to buy me any new clothes when there’s perfectly good rags laying around. But anything that fits Nana is about ten times too big for me, only thing she came up with is this old wedding dress Aunt Doll got married in, before she went insane, it’s this beautiful faded cream chiffon dress with all this lace and ruffles? Fits me just right. I mean I’d love to own the dress, and I know there’s no way she’d ever give it to me without a practical reason, and I can’t argue with the woman, can’t bear to hear her old I seen a man so hungry he’d climb a tree for a grape speech. So here I am riding the Greyhound cross the country in this 1940s wedding dress … Perfectly good dress, Nana muttering, Ain’t nothing wrong with it, perfectly good dress …
Mmmm hmm, from the other end of the phone, feminine, stretched into several syllables. Cigarette smoke twisting through the green kitchen light, objects loom and vanish in the shaping of a story. The myth could fork in an infinite number of directions. Aunt Doll’s dress: Married that winter, she began to fall prey to nightmares. Historical contexts: At the age of 15, Grandma Hattie had to bring in the crop all on her own … picture this hardening dark skinned girl in the middle of a Mississippi field, doing some sort of vague farmwork, pulling the crops screaming from the Earth. This was after they slaughtered her pet pig. And that’s why she’s the most insanely practical woman on the face of the Earth … . Hattie’s father, always “Daddy,” deified by the old woman, the strong handsome whatever who no other man could ever live up to, picture him stylish, in a vest and hat, sitting on a southern porch swing, attended … . Hattie’s sister Gert years later at a family dinner, Hattie going on and on and on about Daddy this Daddy that, Gert chewing her food, pausing, the body language shifting in preparation for the one line, nobody could deliver the one line like Gert, she was bad, she’d run off to Chicago with a handsome, illiterate man, she’d been a blues woman, now, years later, chewing her chicken leg, pausing, leaning forward, signaling her need for attention, her need for Hattie to shut up about Daddy, a puzzled look around Gert’s eyes, she says: You mean George? George Johnson? Gert could wait all half a lifetime for the one line. At the deathbed scene her father’d given her a watch, and she handed it right back. That’s a men’swatch, she said. The way she got her lips around the word men’s contained all the tangled mess of animosity and love and spite of a lifetime.
Roz couldn’t even guess what had really gone down between all those people, all those years. Myths of origin, all the dubious paternities and conversions are too ancient, leave Roz out of the picture. The amorous adventures should be her own. Smokeshapes lead her down other paths, perfume sets off ardorous thoughts about strangers. All the men and boys, cute and not so cute, flat butted, pouty lipped, chunky waisted, she spoke to or glimpsed on and off the bus. Condensation is required: the egg split up, the world was created out of the no-sign, the formlessness before anything was signified, the signs multiplied, and one of those signs was Roz. Meanwhile, her one true love was tearing himself out of the darkness of the womb before h gestation was finished, ripping out part of the placenta to take along, to remind himself of her, to carry with him into the world … . This is the Myth of the Bus Trip.
The bus pulls up, she says, You know how that works in those teeny towns, she says, I’m the only one there waiting, in a wedding dress and a carry-on bag, except for the replacement driver, he’s freckled and indifferent looking, like those southern whitemen can be? Sun’s going down. Hot and sticky, flies buzzing, the bus is never there and you hear this long distance wheezing that goes on forever and the bus is just there, like it’s always been there, like it’s always been fucked up. The driver steps out and he’s the identical twin, I swear identical, to the replacement driver that’s been standing there with me. Something wrong with the bus, already, it’s missing an engine or a carburetor, I don’t know. So these two start fighting, right in the middle of this hot empty street and before you know it one of them’s stabbed in the butt and bleeding, the law’s all over the place and everybody assumes I’m more implicated in this whole mess than I ever was.
You have to picture it: two twins, face each other in the sleepy street of a Southern town, knives burning metal in the sun. They’re not homely, but they have those sort of white trashy bad teeth and freckles. One lunges, one ducks, one lunges, gets the other in the fleshy part of the ass. Everyone on the bus just fanning themselves with newspapers and church programs. The cop looks like a barber, not like a cop. The cop looks like you want to smack his silly face.
Anyway, after waiting until almost the middle of the night, we finally get going with the wounded driver, but he seems different to me now, this guy looks like, I swear, Keanu Reeves. Or like that guy that steals Robert Mitchum’s wife in Ryan’s Daughter? I never saw a cute Greyhound driver in all my life, but I swear. He brushed up against my leg when he came down the aisle and smiled at me.
In a different myth, the ideal mate is the son of a paternal aunt. In a different myth, love’s an outmoded concept. In this myth love is inevitable, but postponed indefinitely, just beyond the horizon.
The bus weaves through the night, sputtering. The highway a snake: fires appear by the roadsides like small encampments, towns arise out of fields, cities. The narrative twists this way, the other, incorporating everything within view. There are close calls, near accidents. The window, and the insane, wounded driver reflect those who have on occasion held her close—so close she could feel the weight and angle of him; the true to life beard hair on him, his thing. At a rest stop, the driver sacrifices a mule, to appease the bloodthirsty gods of journeys and roads. The passengers stand in a circle around the fire, discussing thought that’s erroneous and therefore prohibited. A good looking lad plays a music so sweet on his flute, this little hippie boy with his other little hippie boyfriend. She’s chewing roasted meat.
Listen, she says to the other end of the phone, I followed him, a little way behind, toward the trees? His back to me, he unzipped his pants, took it out, to pee. When he shook the drops off, I could sense the weight of it. He turned as he was zipping back up, like he didn’t know I was there and I could see it, like a thick marble statue.
The other end of the phone draws in her breath. Imagining what? A thick yellow stream drenching the front of the wedding dress. She kneels before him, paralyzed by the friar, the warrior, priest, bus driver, whatever the fuck. Rolanda, for she’s Rolanda then, a false name, a false history, a series of veils, a moving pagan image used as a memory, walks back into the trees, to the lake. Colder and darker under the trees, black branches meeting in dense entanglements. Mist like phonewires from a Zen lithograph … Continuous, edgeless … . A blindfolded Japanese woman stares up at her from under the water, still alive, but imprisoned by the transparent. Rippling water passes over and Rolanda gazes, transfixed, as if by a distorted reflection of herself. When she returns, the driver’s aged. Wrinkle-headed, he’s made himself of more importance in the no-sign, more and more important, but he’s still not immortal. They’re all edgy, waiting for her to get back on the bus.
Only, she says, as I opened the door, a funny little sound escaped from his lips, like a secret sign from when we were young, and I remembered.
The only man she’d ever love, yet he was dying. Because she’s immortal and he’s not, and in his drawn out decay all he can offer her is the procurement of young flesh for her delectation. It’s like that vampire movie with David Bowie, The Hunger, except she’s less cold hearted than Catherine Deneuve. He knows however desire stirs her heart, she could never love another, could never desert him. The bus proceeds, the other end of the phone lost in the sound of the words, the rhythm, spiraling around what one would like to think is the center of the story or of Roz or desire or time, a festival of humming Zen telephone wires, the coalescence between conscious and unconscious image, she finds a lower level and a more rapid tempo, skating through history, dreams, VCR images, fathers, ex-lovers, the industrious heroine of the modern horror film, surviving all the usual ordeals: alone with an insane, bare chested man on a sailboat in the ocean; battling shapeshifting aliens in the arctic; pursued by all manner of rabid dogs, natural disasters and homicidal maniacs in every conceivable landscape. These landscapes are imperfectly translucent, with sections entirely dark, where what goes on isn’t known, and other sections whose irregularity seems destined to add up to something no more than the sum of the parts. A perfect memory would be a different way of sucking out what was really there. She has the right to protest against memory, the memory of things or the memory of words, she has the right to revise and conquer. Somewhere along this endless bus trip she’s trudging down a hot sidewalk toward the abortion clinic, waiting for a bus that never comes, because her boyfriend, this pretentious white artist wannabe who works at an espresso shop won’t drive her, even though it’s a car her father gave him. He’s a pig, they fought for seven years, she didn’t leave him even after, she cared about him, true, still does care, sleeps with him nights when she’s lonely, but she’s getting her life together, she’s moving upward and on, getting her modeling career going.
Roz snaps Queen Latifah into her stereo, How do I Love Thee? to pick up the tempo of this story. She changes Houseboat to Boy on a Dolphin.
From the beginning of the trip it’s like they’re leaving the tropics, the highway growing colder and colder, until by the time they arrive in Los Angeles it’ll be the middle of a blizzard, an icestorm covering the hills and valleys and lights. Everything white and frozen far as the eye can see. Miragelike, arctic splendor. Icicle towers, and she, Roz, hovering above the city in a helicopter, lowering down over the stalled and whitened traffic, in pursuit of her prince, her one true love, a man from a cold northern country. Shifting helicopter gears, rising, descending through the mountains of the landscape which are towers, cold people trapped behind glass gazing out at her, black figures darting through drifts of ice below … Oh, she’s getting ahead of herself.
Then this cute little drugged up boy got in the bus so I waited for the perfect chance to move in the empty seat next to him, she says, He was light skinned and pretty and tore back. He was scared like the guy in what was that movie? You know the one, that cute guy being chased by demonic forces who ends up in that house full of daughters? Oh, never mind.
She pretends to read his palm, all cocky and brash, but loses it as an image of her mother’s friend, an old voodoo woman from New Orleans, pops into her head. Her mother doesn’t really have any such friends, this is from a movie. She wonders if Reggie might be her prince, twin riders projected onward in parallel visions under all the milky or chalky constellations, or at least a love to give her passion while the mortal driver looks on. She’s been alive forever, she was probably a Greek, an Egyptian, a Roman, all the typical civilizations to be reincarnated from. Not even the Romans could have imagined eyes like hers, fixed on the sex of this boy. Halley’s comet woman, she keeps streaking back across the sky. Pregnant every year, including the year she first moved to LA, least that’s what it felt like. Actually it was only twice, the previously mentioned abortion and another one, same father, but that time he at least drove her to the clinic. She doesn’t want a baby with him, he’s too neurotic, although he does have pretty eyes … . This reminds her of all the fat, ugly people on the bus, whom she describes in hideous detail. Body odors, etc. When Roz says “fat,” what she’s really thinking is “evil.” The passengers are like a strange cult—her description of their wretched bodies a rite of exorcism, to remove these traits from herself, to clean off the putrid bus air from her body, as well as to clarify to which of the myth’s personages the rite is addressed: to make the amorous strangers more beautiful, the driver, Reggie, that hippie boy with his flute, and to delay: the flawed spiral of the story, as well as what’s going on in the world. Even if there’s no joy in the ending, relief maybe, if you’re lucky, but to delay a kind of pretend, a play at happiness, which gets confused with the real thing. The silence on the other end of the phone leaves Roz to wonder whether the story is instructive, entertaining, or too self-absorbed to be what it wants to be, part of a conversation that’s creating the only art there is: the art of love. Does her wild, flawed beauty vibrate through the telephone wires, a subtle corrosion of any idea of a planned beauty, of ethereality and math? Before she knows it she’ll be on cigarette and liquor billboards in South Central and Watts, in Bayview and the Tenderloin, East Oakland, Harlem, the Bronx. They’ve always said of Roz, Hattie and Gert always said, all those women always said: pretty, real pretty girl, but black … as coal, as dirt, as Snow White’s hair. The bus trip gets colder and colder. The road is tight, passing over a ledge both narrow and bleak. Reggie hides in the bathroom and never comes out, choosing a space both confining and absolutely free, for the solitude: he’s fucked up, she gave him up as a lost cause almost from the start. Because he’s cute, everything is forgiven. She wakes up from a nap and the driver’s gone, replaced by a sad, hostile imitation. The hippie boy’s thrown off the bus, deserted in this starry Arizona town. Nothing left to do but sleep. Dream of the approaching blizzard, the descent of the helicopter, toward the glow of streetlights and ice, lost people shouting from behind glassed windows, the one true love rushing past a flaming garbage can, black smoke billowing through the whiteness, she lowers the rope ladder, he leaps … . He sinks into the seat next to her, stunned, exhausted. They ascend into the stratosphere. He reads his monologue from a crumpled piece of paper.
He’s been at sea. Glaciers floated through this sea, blue and full of imprisoned light. Endless cruel adventures, confusions, misfortunes. Out of it all, it’s a wonder he, or any of the boat-full of insane passengers, can recall or say a thing. Insane passengers who, like him, had been forced to play all manner of games which were imitations of love, forced to lock the doors to keep out imaginary monsters while reciting a fable to the real monsters—toothless heads that watched with eyes on their knuckles, eyes on their knees, eyes and more eyes, a perpetual surveillance designed to deliver every thought and action to the daylight, the growing store of knowledge. Just because the heads were toothless did not mean they weren’t frightening. They were instigators of snow, of every sort of crystallization. The fable the passengers were forced to recite was the fable of himself and Lady Moon.
Lord Sun puts the letter away. More lame excuses for not having taken proper care of me, thinks Roz and pushes him out into a different landscape, so this story never ends. His mouth forms an O, silky hair flies upward. The body tumbles through the darkness, gets smaller and smaller until it disappears and a brief puff of snow. Roz realizes why there’s no place for her in this world … and where we are? Is there a place in dreams, drug-addled fantasy lives, phone conversations? The windows of her Spanish style apartment open all the way and snow blowing through, the other end of the phone saying: Mmmm hmmmmm. She gave up trying to paint the floor some time ago, when was that? Boy on a Dolphin is continuing without her, she missed the scene with Sofia Loren’s cleavage sucking in all of life, Roz loves big breasted women, big breasted women will never be her prince, but in the meantime, out of sisterhood and lust, and since all the provisional men are pigs, she likes to diddle with her girlfriends from time to time … . She presses rewind on her remote, searching for the scene in question.
The bus pulled into the station, she says, And the ice covered the sky, and I descended through the frosted over streets of Los Angeles in my wedding dress, like Cinderella, just as the maid responsible for the cleanliness of her evil stepmother’s whatever (Sofia stepping from the water now, dripping and slick) arose from a crumbling reef, cleavage shining in the sun … . Sheets of solid ice, layer over layer over once handsome arcades for shops … the dark figure darts into an entrance … fucker, get your white ass back here Prince what’s your face Charming dog from hell. Get your stupid assed car my own daddy gave you out of the driveway and take me to the motherfucking abortion clinic cheapassed whiny piece of wannabe artist shit … . She stops, feeling the flakes blow over her, as if on a stage, propelled by a fan.
I’ll call you back later, Roz says.
She’s exhausted from cursing like that, from truly speaking, needs some mineral water, some beauty rest, another cigarette, smoke twisting through the paint fumes and shadows of densely tangled tree branches, before she disperses, worn away by rubbing or friction; to rage or fret; to dream, again, falling asleep slow in the ice. A hot bath would be nice, keep her skin young. In the mirror, she sees herself as fat and ugly, puffy- eyed. Not even a pretty girl, beautiful even …
Lights another joint. As the hot water’s filling the tub, she’s sitting on the edge, bingeing on chocolate donettes she’ll puke out later in the afternoon. The steam moistens them. The mirror clouds up and her image is hidden from view.
Stephen Beachy is the author of a novel, The Whistling Song (W. W. Norton, 1991) and has published short fiction in High Risk 2 and Men’s Style. Tiara is an excerpt from Distortion, his second novel, in progress. He lives in San Francisco.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee