Made in Heaven
(originally published in Exquisite Corpse)
He believes in eugenics — his line was bred for sad brown eyes turned down on the outer corners. He feels his Self slipping away, somehow. The Self he was creating — he did it, he was tied to a woman, a woman who didn’t really want him, a woman who flailed at being tied to men like an unbroken yearling colt flails at the lead chain. He fell in love with her watching her walk in the grass at the side of the road — bare arms, long brown dress, square brown handbag, pale white skin, waist-length brown hair. He’d had ten cups of coffee pulling an all-nighter to teach his first medieval history class. His role: the nervous young professor. He stopped to give her a ride — his first day on the job, he didn’t want to fail some test, by not stopping, and then she was just like some wild horse, he knew he had to marry her to keep the other predators at bay, they’d have chewed through her throat in a heartbeat. He’d never seen eyes like hers. Unattainable. One morning, he woke up, he was married.
Sometimes he thought the way his wife acted in public was like doing a strip-tease inside the Dome of the Rock — asking for it; bad stuff going down out there, he said in his mind over and over whenever she started up, giving people looks of… what was it, exactly? Then one day, driving to work, dawn breaking, coffee clutched in hand, he watched a flock of birds pass by, bits of black looking like a school of fish coursing through the sky. Landing on a new-mown field, the birds hopped among the grain stubble, picking up leavings. His wife with her unsatisfiable longings was like that, a ballet too graceful to be endured. How was he going to stay? How was he going to leave? He goes to the office and tries not to think about it, but it’s there every second, floating in the air in front of everything he tries to focus on, like text on an invisible TelePrompTer. It wouldn’t matter — his wife could run off with the car, all the money, his heart — still he’d never stop asking her to come back.
His newly-adopted hometown was full of squares and smiles: people walking by, talking and laughing to the air. For years, his wife had this best friend who always thought she, the friend, was dying. Sometimes his wife got irritated with her best friend’s fear and wished the woman would get it over with already. She’d been dying for over 10 years now. Except one time, after his wife hung up on her friend disgusted by her seeming hypochondria, the friend actually ended up in the hospital with a heart attack. His wife told him God was teaching her not to make wishes. That night, she sat nude in front of the closet-door mirror bawling like she’d just gotten a bad haircut. Which she had, at her own hand. Hacked her hair off with kitchen shears like an insane nun taking her final vows.
Long ago, his wife says, she lived in a warmer climate. Her first love was a coconut palm, phallic and bristly. Round brown fruits. She scaled the tree again and again, could never make it all the way to the top. She got a crush on every boy that talked to her that year. She quit reading the Bible when she got to Job — after her own father lost his two sons in separate car accidents, he just lay down on the couch and died, for which she never forgave him. Maybe it was the fact her father willed himself to die, left her on her own too young — maybe that, and the two dead brothers, made her feel like any man was better than none.
A spade is a spade. Death and time are as big as the universe. Even your wife’s dying friend can be deceptively spry, hale and affectionate; she can give bear hugs. The dying friend can move to Lulu, Florida, after she gets out of the hospital for what she doesn’t know will be the last time. The sky over her can be blood blue with thin white clouds like cobwebs. A dying woman’s dentures can deteriorate — first a missing eyetooth, then going brown in front in weird streaks. Evidence of her inner corruption. Even a dying woman can be financially abusive. His wife always handed over his money like Kleenex to people with pathetic sob stories; whether they were dying or not, she’d have bankrupted him if he allowed it. Surprise! His wife’s so-called dying friend can actually die. His wife cried and cried, even though she told him only yesterday she was afraid her friend only wanted her money.
Yet, that impulsive woman he married, she got pregnant the first night, the condom slipped off and was found wadded up next to her cervix — she baked and baked, after she lost that baby. Even the day of the miscarriage, her favorite Dixie Lily flour was soft and cool and white on the table, her nimble hands unevenly pigmented, strong and capable, dusted with the white powder, holding a green-handled rolling pin. She was like a horse trainer, she’d never hit you with her hands, only with something held in them, usually a hairbrush, the bristly side. She wanted you to obey, but not to fear.
Die, black smile — his wife was like any ordinary woman you fall in love with on the side of the road, touching her own lips, feeling her own breath. She was not comfortable with him. She was not comfortable belonging to any man. She lost another man’s baby the year before she married. Now she is fighting depression off with a big stick. In his favorite picture of her, his wife’s flesh looks so soft as to be eminently pierceable by the polar bear tusks in the head she’s leaning on. Sometimes she’d cry hard and couldn’t get out of bed, other times she was just plain hard and he couldn’t get through to her heart — like she was compensating for the too-naked times, by not allowing touch.
They vacationed incessantly — Omega at the desert — she wore a backless sundress, and all her spinal knobs were visible to the casual observer. She was verging on plump when he met her, then she became lean, tireless and angular. He doesn’t care either way — he knows she’s no good for him but he can’t give her up. Maybe it’s that he’s never had lovemaking that good with anybody but her. An hour in bed makes up for the days of misery trying to live with the rest of her. He understands now how addicts can keep shooting up, even when they know it’s killing them.
At a frown from him, at the slightest disappointment seen or unseen, she’d bolt; he wouldn’t see her for days. Then he felt as hollow as an abandoned house, weathered gray clapboard siding, rusty tin roof, part of the roof gone so you see the rafters underneath. He took long walks early in the morning trying not to think about her; he saw a rising flock of birds, confetti against gray-blue. He was walking through flatness, brown plains, splashes of green, a dull sky, murky at the horizon. A grain elevator through the mist, far-off, looks small like a toy. Is he a toy, for her? He buys a cup of coffee at Love’s Truck Stop on Fountain Rd.
Her name, he sees it written everywhere — on a metal tower with guy wires, the upper half of the tower obscured by clouds. He sees her name on maps, even at City Hall on a quick stop in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, for coffee and smokes. Diana, the huntress — but she can’t bring herself to butcher her kills. She leaves them to rot. Or maybe she stores the carcasses in some psychic smokehouse, preserving them within herself for some imaginary future famine. As if she’ll ever be alone, as if she’ll ever lose her gift for making others feel sorry for her, sorry enough that they pick her up hitchhiking and end up married.
Heat and a white smile — he visited another sick friend, imagining making love to Diana in a hospital bed. What would it be like, to care for her until death? Would it make him forgive her at last? Would she be able to forgive herself? Diamond logic cuts through psychological scar tissue, removing old growths, old infections, but then comes pain, bleeding, and the collapse of drained and emptied dreams. When he aches for her, but in the same moment rejoices in her absence, assault-eating seems like his only option. He sits in front of the sports games on TV, bags of snacks next to him. The cat sleeps on his feet. It doesn’t matter who is playing, he always roots for the underdog.
Before she came back after their first separation, he decided that the flat glare of the sun loved him more than any woman he’d ever known — he wasn’t even surprised when he read in the newspaper how two thugs beat a gay college student, tied him to a fence and left him for dead. She is ill, mentally, spiritually; he knows this but something equally twisted in him needs to be around that illness, in order to feel himself healthy. Who, then, is the worse off?
She came back to him over and over, and every time she was hard at her music again, trying to get perfect that rhythm only she could hear; practicing, pure mindless female energy — dressing up in fur and spangles, frothy material, fancy. When she got like that, you could tell she wanted to persuade some mysterious Somebody to do a secret Something for her. She wanted to tempt, to bewitch. He let her practice her music on him, he took it into himself, her beauty, her nature, her vengeance.
He had pity — she was piteous — her legs moving like a deer’s, then wrapped around his waist — thin, delicate, poised for fleeing. Once she told him she loved to feel womanly, but the only way she could achieve that was to see herself as physically, mentally and spiritually complementary to whatever man she was with. She could then mold herself to accommodate his subtle shape the way the space between her legs accommodated him, and the womanly experience came to her through that forming, that clinging. Yin/yang, two halves of a sphere, with herself having structure only when against the man’s half. And sooner or later, she always stopped assuming that complementary shape, as soon as she started seeing things in a man’s shape she didn’t want to cling to — what man doesn’t have weaknesses — and that left her feeling like a neutered being, not male, not female. Barely alive.
A spade is to be pitied for having to bury a woman like her, he thought upon waking early one morning to stare at her sleeping face, drained of pain and fear, sweet as a baby’s — but the light was all wrong for this time of morning, damn that daylight savings time. Change, he hated any kind of change. She should stay in one place; there can be no love without commitment and full knowledge. Yet even regarding her deep within the throes of her struggle, primed with the proper amount of pity, he felt their beauty together, as a couple, was almost equal to infinity — but then again, mating cockroaches could fly toward the light too.
One day when she said, “Let me out of the damned car, now,” he stopped, let her go — thought “finis.” She ran toward an idle hay baler & mountains of mown hay in a field; after that, she ran through a field of milo. Then came a sheet of rain. While he waited for her to return, he picked handfuls of yellow flowers beside the brown stubble. She was his ultimate fantasy — her hooded eyes, high cheekbones, firm jaw, and full lips. Gleaming brown hair. He said to her the next morning, grinning like a chimp, “I live for simple things now: coffee and a cigarette in the morning, beer and a cigarette at night. That’s my life.”
Scent-paths are the most primal in the brain — one day he read about how, in the next state, a cyanide suicide’s body gave off fumes and made nine others ill. His wife’s baby breath slowly turned into dragon breath. A crazy tarot card reader told him seven was the optimal number for a point of view, whatever that meant — then during the month of July, his own mother walked the Great Wall of China, worrying about his pending divorce.
Money could always make her come back — who was it that wrote, “Wealth is power?” King Cotton. After all, his family had bales of cotton the size of railroad cars, covered with blue or yellow plastic. Chicken houses the size of football fields. Tractor-trailer cars stacked with white chickens, still alive. Numerous Arkansas mountain shanties. On one particular tract of farmland, there was pampas grass and a rotting tin-roofed general store. Not to mention abandoned buildings, too numerous to count.
He felt his smiles turning into complex equations, numbers, letters, factors squared. Also that July, his wife fell madly in love with Puerto Rican twins. She sat in the college Spanish lab for hours, trying to acquire the accent of a native speaker. Later, she asked him to take her in for an abortion. Him, a male, like a wide column of stationary air before her warm front, her hurricane eye — she left him wishing he were a virile but tender auto mechanic instead of a college history teacher.
Dig up the heart that was properly buried and leave it defenseless again — in a dream the next night, baby fists flailed against him, their full force like the blow of colliding with large bumblebees. Heavy but miniature. His wife, woozy with painkillers, crawled into bed beside him, woke him up, told him how in college a virgin boyfriend of hers, frustrated because she wouldn’t sleep with him, punched a brick wall, injuring his fist. Crooked paths lead to God — his wife then told him how it was with the elder Puerto Rican twin, Emilio, that she first stayed awake all night long, so hungry, but then he pissed her off with his blond boyfriend: using her as a cover so nobody would know he went both ways.
The sun’s light always reminded him of diamonds — his favorite teacher once told him, “Don’t waste your gifts.” He was too much in love with the teacher to ask what gifts she meant. Now he thought he knew. The sun ate his heart anyway, it didn’t care about his promises — he was bereft beyond bereft when his wife left him for the last time. All his friends and acquaintances told him how he’d be better off. He was, and yet he wasn’t. Everything he has dreamt since then, since she was gone, was in black and white — he wanted to hear the white noises of the wind, he wanted to fly down the tunnels of green, he wanted the warm salt water to gently burn his eyes clean, he wanted all his enemies dead, he wanted the memories removed.
His wife loved white sheets — they made love that last time in a bed so white it looked like barely repressed violence. In the center of all that pain, something brought them both rising smiles — together, they were convulsed by spasms of laughter, uncontrollable as an orgasm. It seemed like laughing at a funeral — insane but maybe the sanest response of all. She gave him one lasting gift, his black smile at infinity… infectious. Even as he walked around, zombie-like, memories of the failed marriage ringing in his skull like aftershock of a car crash, total strangers started propositioning him out of the blue. Male and female.
The heart, it seems, can expand, then collapse, both to an infinite factor. He noticed, one day at lunch downtown, lots of little people he’d never seen before. Or maybe he saw before, but he didn’t notice. Had she left him that ability as well? Fat, strangely shaped people, people who looked mentally disabled, odd angles of eyebrow, odd expressions of puzzlement. Then, he noticed a very pretty woman in a garden-print shift & orange straw hat, no makeup on except blood-red lipstick. She could be his wife’s twin. She ordered grilled turkey & Havarti with cucumbers. Unlike his departed wife, she was apparently an effortless mother; her child was immaculate, dressed in hand-sewn clothes. If she ever left her husband, the world outside might swallow her whole — but he’d do his best to convince her she had to — for both of them — at least try.