“I dreamed last night,” she said.
“I was back in L.A.—in a car—”
“I think it was a Mercedes.”
“There was red upholstery. Leather.”
“Nice.” He looked at his watch. “Twenty-four hours,” he said. “Tomorrow morning—by this time—”
“If it doesnt rain.”
He sat across the table from her. There was furious rain outside. It clattered loudly against the window glass. Because of the rain she could not see the jungle which began directly across the street. Their hotel, El Paraiso, was on the very edge of town. It was what he wanted. They had to acclimate, he argued. He had allowed three days for acclimation. The humidity, you know, he said. The humidity, and the jungle, and the insects. And the voices in a foreign language—a language which sounded like the twittering of birds. Yes, and the racing motor scooters, and the buses without mufflers, and the toilets that didnt flush. Three days, he said, and then they would continue. Today was the fourth day. Today it rained. During breakfast he agreed to a postponement. His schedule was flexible, he noted with pride. The hotel restaurant offered eggs with bacon or ham. It was the best ham she’d ever tasted. The eggs themselves had a gamy flavor. The coffee—she drank from a white mug against which she clicked her long red fingernails—was black and thick. If everything else is as good as this breakfast, she’d said—click, click, click—everything will be fine. She listened to the rain while she ran her tongue over the egg in her mouth. What an odd sensation, she decided. How many times had she had egg in her mouth? Had she ever noticed eggs before? Perhaps not. Perhaps one had to go elsewhere, she decided, to notice the mundane. She glanced at George, her husband. After a moment she looked away.
Their suite at the Hotel El Paraiso had three rooms. The dense forest was across the street. The town was on a continent surprisingly far from Los Angeles, the Harbor Freeway, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood—the places with which she was most familiar. She had been married to George for three years. It was her third marriage. If it were not her third marriage she would have divorced George after the first year. After the first year she realized that George’s ineptness would never change. He was inept in his job—a sinecure provided by his wealthy father—and inept in her bed. This realization came to her one day when he asked her to go with him in one of his father’s trucks. A load of refrigerators needed to be taken to Santa Barbara, and they were short a driver. She watched in amazement—in revelation—as George, baseball cap askew on his head, fought with the truck for three hours. He jammed the shift lever from one gear to the next. Mechanical things clashed and whined. The cab shuddered. Once he lost his way entirely through the gears, and they had to stop and start all over again. He raced either full out—the gas pedal pressed to the floor—or backed off entirely. He followed cars so closely that she could look down from the high cab into back seats filled with gaping children or senescent grandparents with brown spotted hands twined together. This ineptness with the truck was not vicious or angry, but it was endemic. It was apparent in everything he did, even everything he did to her. On that journey she realized she had known this before she married him. She had known it, but never realized it. She had realized instead that he was young, good-looking, wealthy, earnest. None of that however seemed significant after a year. What seemed significant after a year was that he jammed gears together when he tried to drive.
On that journey she realized she was facing a critical moment in her life. Three marriages was the maximum that a normal American woman could have. More marriages than three would subject her to ridicule—as though she were an aging starlet, like one of the Gabor sisters, or Liz Taylor, a fading bloom whose consorts became younger every year. Such women were faintly ludicrous. They appeared on the covers of supermarket tabloids, mocked by their own fame. She knew if she divorced George she would marry again—the only thing worse than a bad marriage was no marriage at all—and if she married a fourth time, why not a fifth? Why not a sixth? If her first three husbands had been unsatisfactory—their warranties, so to speak, too limited—why should the next be any better? Perhaps all husbands were unsatisfactory. She suspected this might be so. Perhaps one simply had to make-do. This was how her friends seemed to stay married. They were busy in their own careers and saw their unsatisfactory husbands only briefly, at night. Perhaps they watched the same television programs together. That was as compatible as a marriage could get. If you could watch the same television program, your marriage was successful. There were no grounds for divorce.
She had divorced her first husband for his infidelities, which had become flagrant. She divorced her second husband because he lost his job. Both divorces, even in retrospect, seemed perfectly valid. A husband should not appear in places frequented by their friends with a drunk woman on his arm. And a man without a job, a job which paid at least as much as she earned, was of no use to anyone. When her second husband had his BMW repossessed, he cried. It was pitiful. His balls shriveled away.
The two years since that drive to Santa Barbara had passed without resolution. The crisis remained. She thought about it every day. Gradually changes occurred. But they did not occur in George. George remained inept, earnest, wealthy, young, and good-looking. He did not seem to be unfaithful, and of course he would never lose his job. She did not think he would ever change in any substantive way. The changes which gradually made themselves felt occurred only within her. She did not understand them. After a while she surmised she was not supposed to understand them. Gradually these changes became visible in the way she looked and the way she behaved. Other people noticed these changes, but not George. When George took a sudden interest in ecology, and decided to visit a real rain forest, she understood this did not represent a change in him. For him it was just another expression of his earnest youthfulness. It meant nothing genuine to George, or at least nothing more genuine than his interest in immigrant’s rights, a cause which had trailed away some months before. But as she thought about the rain forests, she began to realize it meant something to her. I am a rain forest, she decided one morning in Los Angeles. She looked at her red lips in a mirror. She turned her head to one side. Her eyes were damp, her skin humid. She did not understand this, exactly, but she knew it.
At breakfast in the restaurant of the Hotel El Paraiso, she sat poised in a metal chair. One of her legs—her right—was crossed over the other. A high-heeled pump dangled from her toes. Across from her George sweated over his own eggs. He talked about his plans for the next day—if, of course, it didnt rain. Occasional flurries still whipped against the door of the restaurant, which creaked part way open. Overhead a fan turned too slowly to stir any air.
“Have you noticed,” she said, “Octavio’s arms?”
Octavio, their guide, had joined them earlier for coffee.
“His arms,” she repeated. “Octavio’s arms. The muscles—they look like snakes crawling up his arms. Havent you noticed?”
George was silent a moment.
“No,” he said finally. He coughed into his hands. “No, I never noticed.”
“I dreamed,” she said, “I was in a big car. A Mercedes, I think. I liked the way the leather felt. The upholstery, I mean.”
“It seemed like a Mercedes.”
“There’s no Mercedes here.”
It was evening. She leaned into the mirror, and watched her face lean back towards her. She guided lipstick over her lips. They were going downstairs to the hotel restaurant again for dinner. George refused to go into the center of town where the restaurants were more elegant, or at least more expensive. He would not explain why he would not go into town. He mumbled something about it being too far, or the difficulty in finding a taxi. But that, she knew, was nonsense. Taxis passed outside unceasingly. He would not go into town for reasons he would not express, and perhaps did not know. She would punish him, therefore, by dressing in her finest clothes and sitting with him at their fly-specked table beneath a listless fan. El Paraiso was not paradisiacal. The only paradisiacal things were the hissing gas lanterns. The boy who waited on them in the evening was embarrassed by these lanterns. The fluorescent tubes overhead will not work, he explained when they first arrived. He cringed in shame. The wiring—something to do with the wiring, so old, perhaps, rotting in this damp, the damp which bred the mold which crawled up the walls, which turned concrete into dust, which peeled away the paint, layers of paint, whitewash really, made from rendered limestone, peeled it right off the wall like layers of skin. But the gas lanterns were the saving grace of the Restaurante El Paraiso. Their shadows were deeper than the shadows cast by electric light. Their shadows had a kind of tangibility. They moved in the corners. She was aware of the shadows in the same way she was aware of people when they watched her. In any case the gas lighting was very flattering. She made up her face carefully for the gas lighting. Her face would be darkly exotic, perhaps even luminescent. Her face would be perfect.
George sat on the bed in his khaki shorts. He did not look at her while she dressed—while she took her revenge.
“I wonder if dreams have significance,” she said.
“To a psychologist—”
“No, not psychology. Significance.”
“Like omens, you mean?”
“No.” She sipped at a wine so sweet it was almost undrinkable. “I mean something more serious than that.”
“I dont know—”
“I was on the Harbor Freeway last night.”
“In the dream?”
“In the Mercedes—the red upholstery—”
“It seemed real. As real as this.”
A fan turned listlessly overhead. The air was thick with moisture. Rain lashed at the windows of the Restaurante El Paraiso. The boy who waited on them, as fine-boned as a girl, lurked behind the counter. She and George were his only customers. She idled away the time imagining what the boy would look like dressed as a girl. His eyes were beautiful. His hair was thick and black. His arms were hairless, and probably his legs also. She imagined him in a tight black skirt and high-heeled shoes. He would look better, she decided, than most women she knew. Make-up would suit his face wonderfully. The boy’s shyness, in a girl, would seem flirtatious. She imagined his lashes darkened with mascara, his lips sweetly red, as ripe as berries. He would sway as he walked—a high-heeled strut, a girlish mixture of pride and modesty. If she lived in this country perhaps she could have a houseboy of her own. If she had a houseboy she could do whatever she wanted with him. She could dress him as a girl. What would her husband think of that? She imagined her hand with its shining red nails sliding up the boy’s legs, over stockings sleek and taut, then over bare thighs pressed together by the tightness of his skirt, at last to find those nubbins, those dangling genitals, the little uncircumcised penis, the two descended sacks of flesh so smooth to her touch, an anus as sweet as his breath. Would his little penis stiffen as she explored him? Would he sigh longingly, his throat exposed to her kisses?
She realized that until recently this dream—this day
dream—would have been beyond her, especially with George sitting across the table, his face folded somehow into painful disapproval. George did not like to disapprove; it was his nature to cast a benign gaze over everyone, everywhere, especially what he called “the people,” as though people could never be too noisy, or unpleasant, or mean. The only people he could disapprove of—but of course they were not “people”—were people like his father’s friends, who were too rich, or their neighbors at home, who were too frivolous. And perhaps her. She inspected her nails, long and red, over which she took such care and pride. His disapproval of her had become painful; he did not wish to disapprove; she had, in fact, forced him to disapprove, which he did with great reluctance and personal anguish. Yet this disapproval was the only real notice he gave her. Most of the time he dealt with her as though she did not exist—she was there,
she functioned, she made noises, but she could see this was meaningless, and thus not worthy of notice. The disapproval only came, painfully, when he really saw her. “You dont have to dress up,” he told her once. They were going to visit his mother, who was with her
third husband. He meant, of course, “I dont want
you to dress up.” But he could not say such a simple thing, because it would imply disapproval and suggest he had some rights over her, that he could legitimately ask her to do something for him, which he thought improper. Thus his remark—“You dont have to dress up”—was meaningless. Of course she didnt have to dress up. Or, to put it differently, she did
have to dress up. There was no law, no rule, no social requirement, but there was a personal imperative. She dressed in fact in a red silk shirtwaist whose bodice swung open sufficiently to reveal her lace bra. She wore stockings, not pantyhose, and shoes whose heels were much too high for this occasion. George, watching her, became so clumsy and confused that she felt pity for him, though not enough pity to change her outfit. She didnt like George’s mother in any case, a sour though elegant woman who had been carved, sliced, and lipo-sucked into her present form. Looking back on that evening—she remembered every stilted word—she realized she had already become, in some way, a kind of rain forest. Everyone else at the event had been kindling—dried sticks. Only she had possessed humidity.
During the night she awoke to silence. The rain, she realized, had stopped beating on the metal roof. Then she realized there was no silence at all. The rain had stopped, but its sound had been replaced by the sounds of insects who stridulated all around them. This stridulation was intense and unceasing. What were these insects doing? She went to the window and looked onto the street. Around the one street lamp was visible a cloud of flying insects, perhaps moths, some as large as birds. But she could not see the creatures who made the chirping, squalling, skirling noises. Perhaps they were in the jungle, in the darkness beyond the light. They sounded hungry, eager, insistent. The insects in America—the occasional cockroach, or a chirping cricket—were innocuous in comparison. Certainly they had never cried out with such voracious greed. In their backyard in California they had a bug killer, a light which zapped the occasional stray mosquito or moth. She remembered it crackling as it killed things. But the bugs it killed seemed insignificant. Why was it so different here? No bug light could kill all these flying creatures. She imagined insects swarming on the jungle floor, amid rotting vegetation, decaying fruit, beetles crawling from seed pods, mandibles clicking, carapaces aglow with iridescent colors. Walking in the jungle, she thought, would be like walking on someone’s skin. She would be walking on living things, squashing them beneath her feet. Other bugs, she imagined, would devour the dead ones. She could see it easily enough, these feral insects clawing over one another in a kind of mindless lust. Is that me? she wondered. If she was a rain forest—the thought brought her a pleased smile—then she was these creatures too. She ran her fingers through her hair. Her hair had become thicker, fuller, in this humidity. She felt a drop of sweat trickling down her thigh—like the semen which occasionally ran out of her. She looked over at the other bed. George was grunting as he slept. He had always been noisy when asleep, clearing his throat, mumbling, gasping for breath. He was inept, she thought, even as a sleeper. In their home they had separate bedrooms. She did not like to lie next to him. His pale skin and the beginning of his middle-aged pudginess did not please her. He had hairy breasts—not woman-sized, of course, but nonetheless protuberant breasts, which in their hairiness seemed particularly unpleasant. They were not manly, nor feminine. He was, however, still an efficient screwer, if an inept lover. He screwed with a kind of ruthless directness, which had its appeal. But he did not linger over her. He erected, he mounted, he performed, he left. Sometimes afterwards his semen—he seemed to have a plentiful supply—dripped out of her. She wiped him up with tissue. All those tiny sperm, she sometimes thought, leaking down her thighs.
She went back to bed. By morning it had started raining again.
“I dreamed I was back in L.A.—”
“In that car?”
She toyed with her fork.
“I was on a freeway,” she said.
“The Harbor Freeway.”
Octavio had come and left. He wore a white t-shirt—showing off his serpentine triceps—with the image of Che Gueverra printed on it. Under Che’s familiar visage was a word: ¡Vencerémos!
She wondered if he had worn the shirt deliberately, if it was a secret affront to the capitalists who hired him. George, of course, did not notice the shirt, or its message. He stumbled along in his Spanish while Octavio waited patiently. They agreed to postpone once again their journey into the rain forest. “This rain, senor,” Octavio had said. He expressively shrugged his shoulders. The rainy season was supposed to be finished. George had researched this. But the rainy season, which had been scant, had suddenly returned. Octavio had never seen such rain so late in the year. The jungle was like a swamp, the rivers torrents. “Bueno,” he said, “Quizas one more day—” He left without drinking coffee. Perhaps he hurried off to other customers, equally frustrated by the weather. George stared, somewhat slack-jawed, at his eggs, which he pushed around on his plate. He seemed to have grown sallow in the last couple days, she noted, almost jaundiced. Finally he cleared his throat and began talking about his eagerness to witness first-hand the strange fecundity of the jungle, the vast wetlands now so endangered by civilization. While he talked, she savored a morsel of ham in her mouth. Against the white tablecloth lay her nails, elegantly long, very red, tapering to points. They moved, idly, reassuringly, while George’s voice droned on, and the rain continued to beat at the window panes.
“If dreams have significance—”
“If they do—why was I on the Harbor Freeway?”
“I dont know.”
“Why not here?”
“I could drive these streets in a Mercedes.”
“I suppose so.”
The hotel was empty except for them. Why was that? She spent some time wandering through its corridors. Much of the hotel was unfinished. From a bare concrete opening—it would one day be a window, perhaps—she looked down onto a cobbled street, a Bougainvillea bush, two hens, and a rooster who strutted importantly, just like some men she knew. A baby boy, quite naked, sat in the dark against a wall, under the eaves, as motionless as a doll. After a while an old man wrapped in a blanket came and sat with him. Together they watched the rain. No one noticed her, high above, leaning out the nascent window. Finally she wandered on. Many rooms were unpainted and only partly furnished—a solitary bed, perhaps, or nothing more than a rough wooden cabinet. Everything is unfinished, she decided. She looked at herself in a mirror in an otherwise empty bathroom. She smoothed at her collar, and touched her cheek. The bones in her face were more noticeable than ever, an effect she liked, but which she suspected was only a sign of aging. She was older than George, older, in fact, than her friends. She examined her eyes while she thought of this. Then she returned to their suite and dressed for dinner. In the restaurant she could hear the rain lashing at the street outside. George ducked his head over his meal. The boy, their waiter, as pretty as ever, drifted in and out of her daydreams.
The rain lashed at the street outside. If dreams have significance, she said—or imagined herself saying—does reality? The question had struck her in the middle of dinner, something called cerdo adobado,
which appeared to be limp pork marinated in a sauce. The meat was accompanied by beans and rice. It all looked rather gray, and tasted gray also. She stirred it around with her fork. Was this reality? she suddenly asked herself. And if it were, did it mean anything? She didnt quite ask this of George, sitting across from her, because she could see in his youthful, earnest, inept countenance what his answer would be: a confused rumbling, a handful of words flailing about, themselves quite meaningless. Or perhaps their meaninglessness was their meaning. She imagined herself walking outside, dressed exactly as she was. What was the significance of this imaginary act? She would immediately be drenched by the rain. Her hair would cascade in rivulets down her face. She could see that clearly enough. Her clothes—a white silk dress—would become transparent. Beneath the dress her underclothes, somewhat more substantial, would become visible. This visibility of what lay beneath the surface—what significance did it have? It would be a real enough visibility, she decided, unquestionably, her lace undergarments apparent for all to see. A whole obscuring layer—her outer dress—would be made insignificant by the rain. Would the rain do the same to the world? to the rain forest? What was becoming visible around her as the world turned transparent? After dinner they went upstairs to their rooms. George quickly went to bed. He began gasping and moaning as he slept. He looked lumpish, hardly real. She realized he hadnt fucked her in quite some time. She mused on this. After a while—she was still dressed—she went back out into the corridors of the unfinished hotel. She found a window, unglazed, unscreened, and watched the rain fall through the darkness. She put out her arm. The sleeve of her dress became transparent, just as she expected. Soon she could see, through the thin silk, the blue veins of her arm, which themselves lay beneath skin. She would become wholly transparent, she decided: first her dress, then her undergarments, then her skin. Lungs would be visible, and bones, ovaries, a thyroid pulsing in her throat, arteries glowing with their rhythmic thrusts of blood. Even my heart, she said, would become visible. Even my heart.
She watched a mosquito—the night air was dense with them—settle on her wrist and begin pumping away, like a minuscule lover.
Finally she went back to her room. George snored softly. She lay down, still fully clothed, and fell immediately into a dreamless sleep.
NOTES: This tale had its genesis in a story I'd written—or more exactly, failed to write—a few years earlier. As a whole it simply did not work, but there were bits of it I still liked. One day in Mexico—I believe I was in Xalapa, in the Hotel Limon, near the Cathedral—I pulled it out and saw, within its pages, two different stories. One, The Burning City, I wrote there. The other—this story—I wrote later, in Aguascalientes. The two stories are very different, but each shares something about the freeways of Los Angeles.