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.
Not even a week after our Dumpster date, Edith Bird showed up with Nolan at Crystal’s before the band came marching on. Hand in hand, Edie and Nol walked in through the bar’s front door like they’d been a couple forever. Nol tried to play like she wasn’t waiting for my reaction.
It wasn’t like I had any right to throw a fit, I mean, Edith and I were officially broken up again, had been on and off for months, and damn if I was going to turn on Nolan just because she suddenly found her ticker going a-pitter-patter with Edith nearby. If I understood anything, it was that Edie was tempting like baker’s chocolate on the top shelf when you’re a kid and you don’t know any better and the chocolate is luscious and it must taste good, right? I hadn’t managed to detach myself from Edie’s snapdragon tickle, but that was no cause for conflict. Besides, I had other, more pressing complications to deal with. See, it was Weeping Woman, not Edith, who had me running scared that night.
For Edith I set out the gold paper doilies and my only matching teacups. For Edith I looked forward to lipstick on my collar. For Edith I left my nights open just in case she might decide to pay me a visit. All that pomp and circumstance, that was just baby play compared to how Weeping Woman demanded I behave. Both of them ladies, Edie and Weeping, they could make my nose bleed with their parched hello kisses. But unlike Edith’s come-and-go attention, Weeping’s special something ruled my everything.
Twenty-some-odd years had passed since Nana first introduced me to my old lady Weeping. It started out that Weeping only stopped by for visits when the Santa Ana desert winds moaned sharp dry hot, but over the years our affair developed to the point where I felt my girl Weeping with each breath. Her presence settled into the crevices of my body. The joints between the segments of my toes swelled and needed to be cracked. My ears hummed a high-pitched moan. My throat burned.
Having la Weeping nearby was like singing so hard it hurt.
It was Weeping I had left behind at my apartment when I fled to Crystal’s. The Crystal Room to be precise, the sign the same glowing throb it had been for centuries or decades at least, the sidewalk pulsing hot in its red-blink glow.
Crystal, now there’s a mighty fine piece of work. Crystal lived in Detroit and trucked hazardous materials across the States before she saved up enough money to open her bar. When I asked her where her family was from originally, the furthest back her answer reached was “Minnesota.” Crystal was way exotic intriguing to me. Crystal behind the bar with her intense shark eyes and Andy Warhol marshmallow skin and platinum wig, her flat-tone voice, a cigarette stuck to the corner of her lips when she answered the phone. I learned her messy baby of a bar like it was a tree house built just for me.
Originally, the tree house was a diner. Duke’s Diner. Breakfast, Lunch and Shakes. Steak-and-eggs, pass-the-ketchup kind of place. Crystal didn’t do much to change the place when she bought it. She slapped up her delicious neon sign outside and took her position behind the high-gloss brown counter punctuated with bolted-down cracked brown vinyl and rusted chrome stools. Sprinkled in the center of the room’s sticky-stain concrete floor were six Formica tables circled by blue high-backed unstable tin chairs. Honey brown and burnt mustard country floral print wallpaper peeled away from cobweb corners. A small makeshift stage propped itself up against the wall far opposite the bar counter. All in all, the place was nearly enough to convince me that Duke must have been the god of interior decorating. Only divinity has such nerve.
When Nol and Edie showed up, I took the minute Nol’s lip biting and jumping eyes allowed me, drew in a deep breath and then smiled as if seeing her with Edie was just the way I’d planned it. Nolan’s broad shoulders relaxed down from the tense spot around her ears where they’d been waiting for my signal. Smiles and kisses and hugs hello, the three of us were going to be fine.
Edith told Nol she wanted her gin and tonic. As usual on Saturday nights, it was too hectic loud at Crystal’s to have a real conversation. Our voices all false violent, jugular veins pushed up against skin, Nolan screamed she was going to buy me a beer. We huddled close to the bar, trying to hear each other. It was pointless screaming that led nowhere. We surrendered to the band.
Up onstage, the lead growled into her microphone, but she was glorious loud enough all on her own without the added benefit of sound. Shirt and pants off, tall motorcycle boots still buckled up, her thigh-length men’s underwear displayed in the cigarette air. Peeking out of the underwear’s front flap, her harnessed penis hung rather loose in its place. A placid shade of white, like condensed milk exposed to warm air too long.
After three songs, Edith started grinding into the bit of her cigarette holder each time she inhaled. Soon she was rubbing her temples and whispering to Nol. The noise was giving Bird a headache. Strange how screaming girl Edie was so sensitive and tender that way. Nolan decided to take Ms. Edith home early. When they left, I breathed for the first time since they’d walked in. It burned, breathing did, but that was more Weeping’s fault than Edie’s.
I was alone, surrounded by girls, Weeping’s insistent coarse whisper tease just behind the top layer of the bar’s loud. I didn’t want meaningless chat, and flirting was more than I could manage. I just needed to be around voices and racket to dilute some of Weeping’s scratching at my ear. I got a beer from the bar and stood next to the stage.
Just as I’d settled into the cigarette-stained wallpaper, the band’s assistant yelled at me polite to scoot so she could stand next to the spare equipment piled up at the wall. She rocked her head slow and calm and almost not at all to the music. A sharp ridge halfway between her pointed chin and angled collarbone bobbed slightly. Her shoulders were beyond broad. Hips vertical hard lines. I stared at her all night and bought myself a celebratory beer once I decided that at one point she might have been a he.
But not anymore. Rice-paper skin with no sign of a beard. Ageless face holding the hand of her boy turned girl. Polished postal uniform shoes, pressed vintage brown slacks, black turtleneck, and a poised stance kept wide. Weeping blew me a sudden gust of hot air and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention. The band’s assistant was regal. Truth be told, she was the most delightful prince I had ever seen.
The lights came on around a quarter to two. I pushed my body away from the wall and made my way outside to lean against a lamppost. I wasn’t ready to walk home just quite yet. The damp not-night not-morning air wrapped its arms tight around me.
See, for me, it’s the air Weeping sends that gets me tangled up in memory’s confusing formal-wear dance. You know, don’t scuff the shoes, this dance is fucking impossible to do without tripping up, your shoes are scuffed and you are falling on top of your date’s corsage before you even pin it to her lapel. Weeping insists I take her dancing more than I care to. That lady cannot be denied what she demands.
When I was a kid, she’d tap her knotted hair on the window next to where I slept. She was a super drama queen back in those days, just like me now, though I’m only a princess if she’s a queen. I learned how to please my girl Weeping and she became subtler in her greetings. Or maybe it’s just that my awareness of her presence grew more acute. Regardless, I listen to the air and obey her courting commands.
The color of the air. The thick of the air. The hot or cold of the air. Subatomic particle by particle, the air funnels into my pores, and once it fills me whole, there I am wherever that same air had found me before.
And so, right then outside Crystal’s in the cool crisp air, right then Weeping teased needles into the skin up the back of my neck in zigzag patterns. When inserted expertly, the needles caused no bloodshed. And my girl Weeping, she knew her tricks something good. Insisting I stand tall and quit my slouch, Weeping clamped my neck in her teeth and told me to draw a drop of my own blood.
Never one to disobey Weeping, I let the early morning chill smart me deep down past goose-bumped skin. So there I stood, at the elementary school bus stop with Nana.
Nana. My nana, whom people outside our neighborhood often mistook to be my mother. She was far too old for that. Silver no-time-for-fuss short hair and deep wrinkles from the sun, but she was the person I was with the most, so they assumed they knew. They assumed they knew so much.
My hair was always braided intricate in the style that Nana claimed was fashionable for young girls. Satin ribbon-laced weavings pinned into a loop on either side of my head. The design that the girls with bob haircuts at school tormented me for. Skin pale like theirs, but more yellow-green in the winter than their pink cream.
I was a wiggle child, always doing a dance in my seat when told to be still. Nana held my hand at the bus stop; told me to stay away from the curb. And when I asked for the 15th time in two minutes if the bus was coming yet, she taught me a song to keep me from clowning too hard. I stood at the bus stop with my grandma singing, “ABC, where’s the bus, DEF, where’s the bus, GHI, where’s the bus.”
The mornings I didn’t go to school, I walked to the old town circle with Nana, walked in the hot sun or the cool rain. The rain I loved the best because then I could hold my dark blue umbrella open on my left shoulder while I walked. The umbrella with its red apple design and green handle, it made me love rainy days the most. Or maybe I loved the warm, dry days because on those days I pushed my pale blue Holly Hobbie bouncy baby carriage with its “Love is sharing fun with someone special” decal on the side, its big open-cup mouth full with 12 meticulously arranged and tucked-in baby dolls.
On our way to town, Nana and I walked past the boys. The boys, specifically the grown-up gangster boys, from the last generation that was polite. Some of them my cousins, they were extra honey sweet when they saw us coming. They’d elbow their buddies to switch into “a lady is present” mode as they rolled down their dark plaid button-down shirtsleeves, the sleeves their mamás ironed smooth and creased for them each morning to wear. They rolled down those sleeves to cover their tattoos and they used the proper manners with my grandma like they were one of her own. “Usted,” and “doña” or “señora” when talking with my grandma. Those boys would tease me gentle about my family of a dozen.
“Where did such a young little lady get so many pretty babies?”
“Ay, but look, the mommy is so pretty too,” the leader with his two top front teeth covered in gold would say.
I would look to the other side of the street and ignore the boys who took Nana’s attention away from me. I watched the gray pigeons on the telephone wire while she scolded those smooth talkers for being bad, for acting like proud roosters up on a fence waking the whole neighborhood up with their need to show off. She told them they should be working to help pay rent and to bring home the food they gulped down without thanks. The full plates of soupy rice with tomatoes and meaty tamales, the overflowing plates their mamás cooked for them, the food that made them so much taller than their cousins back home in Michoacán. They should be ashamed of themselves, such big strong boys standing around, feet glued to the corner, not even looking for honest work, she said. I sneaked looks and smiled smug high horse at the boys as they said “Yes ma’am” to each thing my grandma said. But mostly I watched the pigeons on the telephone wire until Nana was ready to begin our walk again.
Down the rest of Walnut Street and across the tracks and through the other side of town to the bank, the library where the librarian lady in tweed skirt suits let me feed the blotchy white and black and brown and stinky guinea pigs living cramped in cages in the children’s section, the ice cream shop with pointy cones, the antique stores with the gold shine and velvet bric-a-brac fuzz, the town circle with its little sitting park and fountain in the middle. Each detail all the way was memorized. And for good reason. I had to know the way home. I told my grandma where to turn, where to go straight ahead, and when to stop. Nana Lupe said she couldn’t remember the way, but I took comfort in knowing that she did.
Back home, my legs warm tired from the walk and belly full of sopa I knew to say thanks for, back home at my grandma’s I fell asleep. Each night to the sounds of the trains across the street. Either the trains never traveled the tracks during the day or I just never noticed because there was too much else going on when the sun was still up. Come eight at night, I lay in the living room on the foldout sofa that was my bed. Then I heard each and every train that went by. The whistle horn of the trains filled my dreams. The plastic factory across the street made my head dizzy and my eyes burn. I slept through so much back then, but the air, it soaked into me anyway.
And the Weeping Woman, that powerhouse, from the first time she cried at my window during my childhood sleeps, scratching my name upon the windowpane, she was the center of all that I became. She knew I was something different. She told me I was her favorite child to visit. She came late, late, late when Nana was sound asleep.
Weeping Woman knew me. She knew where to come for visits each night of the week. In my family’s living room, asleep on the creaking couch of a bed right under the window, that’s where she’d find me.
“Weeping Lady, please leave me be,” my mouth silently breathing the rhymes Nana taught me, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, pretty please God, don’t let me die, I pray the Lord my soul to take … “
Weeping Woman’s breathing audible. My own breath constricted by what I thought was fear. Electricity ran through me as she watched me careful from the window. I pulled my blankets up tight around my shoulders to hide the pale skin of my arms. I shifted so my brushed-out waist-long brown hair covered the hazel gold glimmer of my eyes. Look, Weeping Lady, I’m nothing special. I’m just like all the other children in the neighborhood.
We both knew it wasn’t true.
Well, at first maybe it was. I mean, I did meet Weeping Woman no different than did all the other kids on my block. Nana told me about the Weeping Woman just like my cousins’ mamás told them. Weeping Lady, she came riding into town on the cuentitos Nana handed me to teach life without spoon-feeding it. Nana’s voice even deeper and more serious than usual when she would tell me. Weeping Woman was more or less like a bogeyman, but not silly Halloween make-believe.
“Don’t you doubt it, girl, the Weeping Woman, she is real.”
And if I was misbehaving, wasn’t nobody going to stop her from taking me, not even my grandma, tucking me in careful each night, “Who wants a goat girl so troublemaking? Not me, that’s for sure.”
Weeping Woman traveled by wind in the night, stopping at windows and howling deep and mournful wails because she was bad and wanted to take bad children to be her own. She was the Weeping because she birthed a little girl whose father was a Spaniard. She cried because she had a mixed baby, one her Indian family and neighborhood despised. That is why she threw her little girl into the river that storming night, the night when the lightning’s gleam on her baby’s hazel eyes finally drove her mad. The Weeping Woman, she cried because she was La Malinche reborn.
You don’t know that story either? Didn’t you ever spend any time with your nana?
La Malinche. Everyone was taught to despise La Malinche because she loved a conquistador. Or so he said. As did his buddies. And the entire empire they set up. La Malinche. Yes, that woman, the archetype of the Wrong Kind of Woman. Not surrounded by cherubs and pink roses like the Virgen de Guadalupe, our blessed patron mother saint. Not pasted on candles in textured tall glasses that we lit for thanks. No, the Weeping Woman and her cousin Malinche, they were bad, bad, bad girls, those two were.
Those two girls, their fierce rebel lasting power made people remember them long after they had died. They were everything I wanted to be.
Crystal’s sign flickered off. A pathetic two-beer anxiety-produced drunkenness sloshed acid deep in my gut. Dry winds pushed the early morning damp air away and Weeping kissed me gently. Green as a tomato not ready to be picked, I promised myself that never again would I go on an empty stomach to where Edith might show up. Weeping told me to stop mumbling at shadows, to focus my step so my toes would quit finding the cracks in the sidewalk. Weeping’s hand under my elbow propping me up, I walked the couple of miles home to my apartment slow and uncomfortable tipsy.
I got to the front security door of my apartment building and had to lean my body against the metal doorframe to remember the entry combination for the security keypad. After three wrong tries, the lock buzzed and I walked in. Past the mailboxes, up the common stairs, down the carpet hall, and into my dollhouse apartment. The bed found me.
The cold was dank and I would have been even more cardboard than I was when I woke up if I hadn’t worn my clothes to sleep. Denim bunched and twisted and tangled me, all night I flopped in shallow dreams.
Early in the morning, almost late at night actually, the phone rang and ripped my light sleep apart. I picked up and heard a voice force through, loud and full of boss.
“Leticia, you get over here. Now.”
I pushed the receiver into my pillow, cleared my throat and tried to respond with a melted-butter voice.
From Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties. Copyright © 2003 by Felicia Luna Lemus. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted by permission of Stuart Bernstein Representation for Artists, NY. All rights reserved.
—Felicia Luna Lemus graduated summa cum laude from the University of California, Irvine, and received an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. Her writing has appeared in ZYZZYVA, On Our Backs, Trepan, and Tongues. Her first novel, Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in September 2003. She lives in Los Angeles.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Marina Abramovic and Laurie Anderson, Paul McCarthy, Christian Marclay and Ben Neill, Jesse Reiser & Nanako Umemoto and Andrew Benjamin, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Adam Fuss, Aryeh Lev Stollman, Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulciniby and Bette Gordon, and Elliott Sharp.
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.