Strip: A Novel  

Copyright Lee Ann Mortensen 1994




Not Quite Peru

Phoenix is called the Valley of the Sun, and it produces the kind of heat that can make a person see things. I am a woman who lives for this fever, for the feeling that I am something other than mere. When nothing in my dry suburb is moving, I have dreams. I dream of being pricked by hot, succulent cacti, and that this makes me smile. I dream of my muscles becoming huge, unreal and feared by men. I dream of women’s soft skin and that they don’t look surprised as I touch it. I dream of wading through humid plants in the Andes, and of my parents who talk to me through moldy Peruvian phone lines from Lima. Peru is a place where they try to convince Aymaras that conversion is necessary, that Mormonism is the only way. In Arizona, I dream of my parents dunking souls for God as I watch from tropical bushes. When it's close to morning and our desert is already getting hot, I dream of Peruvian boot prints, my boot prints, in short grass. I dream of wet apples covered in chocolate that reflect Aymara faces and the Aymara bodies standing in weeds before the picking season begins. My mother has described it all to me in detail. Their dark faces. Their picking hands. Their white teeth. I can't help but dream of such things.

If I've run too far the day before, trying to further lean out my muscles for the next body building competition, I sometimes dream of women's bodies that don't look like bodies, that are steely like organic machines. My mother, with her white skin and white clothes, will occasionally call from a Peruvian village she is trying to convert to tell me none of these things are in the South America she knows.

"It’s always humid here. And there’s no cactus or chocolate, not the good kind. It's just so windy," she says. "I think it makes people shoot guns."

"People shoot guns everywhere," I tell her.

"We have body guards. People would kill us if they could. They just don't understand, but I know God has His ways."

I imagine her body guards as tall, white men, wearing thin suits and religiously white ties.

"I keep dreaming of chocolate covered apples," I say. "I dream of machines, and lot’s of hands. Hands everywhere."

“That must mean something,” she says. “Your father’s better at dreams than I am.”

When we don’t talk, she sends me letters typed on onion skin paper, but I only skim a paragraph, or file them unopened because I no longer want to hear how He can save me from my impulses.

My mother calls me Terry and so do all her white relatives, but I’ve started telling them it's Teresa now.

"I'm taking Spanish classes," I tell my parents, long distance to Peru. "Hola," I say for 30 dollars. I imagine my mother, dressed in white, sits on velvet chairs when we talk, that her voice echoes over polished marble floors scraped clean by maids each week.

"You're always our Terry, no matter what," my mother says.

My father's first name is like mine, culturally interchangeable. If he goes by Jamie or James, he's white, a gringo. If he goes by Jaime, he's with relatives and speaking in latinate tongues I sometimes barely understand.

Because of my classes, I try to speak to my gringa mother in Spanish, joke with her that I want to live in downtown Phoenix and buy tortillas cheap and hot from the tortilleria. I tell her I want to sell things on street corners I can make myself, with my fingers, with these callused hands I use to lift weights and turn myself into something not quite human. I would sell gorditas or limones, yell out their foreign sounds in my always American accent. My mother does not know this comes from the need to feel indescribable.

When I talk to her long distance, I try not to tell her about my body, and how she would not recognize me. I try not to tell her that every day I lift so many barbells, do so many squats my clothes fit tighter and men stare until I make kissing lips at them. I don’t tell her I like to shock these men with my deceptive mouth.

There are other things I have not told her. There is Linda.

And there are other changes. I am so different from the child who left them, the child they left here, that now I can stand in front of clapping audiences in a bikini as if I had no weakness. I don't tell my mother much about this. I don’t tell her I sit in Spanish classes trying to become foreign, trying to gain the kind of accent a girl named Teresa would have.

I am so changed there are times when I want to pack a gun in a leather shoulder holster and walk stiffly past the barrio boys who take the same language classes to laugh at the stilted, text-book Spanish. I want to walk past these same boys on their streets, sneering and flexing myself at them until they faint. I don't say anything to my mother about my new needs, and though she is good at probing, I have managed to avoid telling her about the scar I now have on my stomach from a short knife fight in a fake cantina.

There are times when I almost let my temper become visible. Every day when I go to work or run through the desert, I look for the barrio boy who made me feel fear again. He who was so thin, held his gun so close to my face when I was alone lifting heavy bars in an old weight room downtown close to my office. I haven’t told my parents about this.

I also haven’t told them that in spite of their own Godly actions, the old religion feels like a heavy, drowning dust storm.

On a less kindly day, they might tell me this is what happens to women with muscles and fever dreams and lust, but I would rather not hear such things. So when my parents call, there is not much we can talk about.

"My biceps are bigger," I tell them, touching the scar on my stomach. Muscles seem to be the safest topic of conversation. "I win things by flexing in public. I'll send you a picture."

"I hope you still have all that beautiful hair of yours," my mother says. "Working out is one thing, but what's the point if it changes your natural beauty?"

“I think she has the free agency to do what she wants,” my father says from another line. He hasn't spoken English with an accent since he was 7 years old and living in the 40’s. Money and religion have turned him white, like me.

"Free agency doesn’t keep me from worrying. At least I hope you keep your banking job,” my mother says. Her Mormon ancestors taught her the basics of wise financial planning. "Just remember, honey, you’ll never have to sell tortillas or anything else on the streets. Why else have we worked for all these years?"

They have never wanted to see their little girl change, but each day I do change. I lay outside in the sun and inside on tanning beds until my white skin doesn't look white. I eat tortillas before and after my heavier workouts, sitting in the sauna with a rag full of corn ones, chewing their dry, yellow textures. I say tough words in Spanish like pendejo and cabron, hoping for a transformation, hoping I can change from a white, middle-class, frightened nothing into something tan and impregnable, something I have never been.

"If you eat too many tortillas you'll soon be speaking nothing but Spanish," my mother says laughing during another long-distance conversation. Bad connections often require us to repeat much of what we say.

"Spanish is good," my father says. "It’s good. I speak it. I eat tortillas and so does your mother. I was born in Juarez you know." Almost every time I call, my father tells the story of his father's goats being buried by sand in the Sonoran desert, and I always laugh, long distance.

"Oh, James, goats move too much to be buried. The stories you make up," my mother says. "Anyway, if your daughter came down here, I bet she'd be shooting guns with the rest of them, she’s becoming such a radical. I bet she'd be one of those communists.”

"They're Maoists, not communists," I say. I try to think of the word for bourgeois in Spanish, but nothing comes. My Spanish book doesn't list it, and only has words like "dog," "rain," "apartment," "rent." Because I don't think the Maoists would care much for my textbook Spanish, and because the church does not appeal, I tell my mother I could never visit them there in that place where people shoot and touch you too much, where people get too close to you with guns.

"People are the same everywhere," my mother says. My father hums a little on the other line, reading probably. He is a self-educated man. Every so often when there is phone silence he says "Yes," and "Oh."

I, too, am a self-made woman, or so I like to think. Each day I squeeze my fist, watching the power of my veins. But as I begin to sweat in saunas and think I feel pure, I remember yellow, the color of the sun, the color of the barrio boy's shirt. I remember how the yellow reflected off his gun, and the way his teeth reflected everything. Every time I feel some strength, I also remember my inability to move.

And so, I have made my body magnificent.

I sweat and try to concentrate on the toxins leaving my skin. I try to imagine nicer colors of yellow, like the yellow that looks so very deep and bright on the school bus I see every morning driving to the bank, the bus full of screaming children, my bank boss's children who are neighbors waving at me, making muscles at me through the thick windows that keep them all from jumping. I often grit my teeth at them, and they grit back.

When men in jeeps and suits stare at me as we all go downtown to our offices, I kiss my rolled up window and leave lipstick stains there to make them think there is something sexual going on, though they are never sure. As I drive into the bank basement, I stare back at the staring Latinos waiting for the morning grapefruit trucks. I want them to know I am in charge. Still, I sometimes look away first, and on those days things go badly, loans default, the secretary spills coffee on my skirt.

Even though I crave the movement that will make me truly different, truly powerful, I sometimes can't leave the dusty chair I'm sitting in. There are times when I want to tell my parents this, to really talk. Sometimes I want to tell them everything as if they were the evil Catholic priests they speak against, just confess it all, the phone our partition, and be absolved. I could then tell them why I lift weights and why I find men mere and amusing. But parents who believe in Eternal Wisdom use things like this against you later, so all I do is sit while we talk, and if it is spring, watch desert tornadoes start to swirl. When the dust in the sky turns yellow, I do pushups, I do sit-ups, I grab the bar in the kitchen doorway and pull until my head is pressure-filled and red. At the gym, during especially difficult workouts, the pain is a pin-point of feeling, the feeling that I could be a calm, killer Maoist, and pull the trigger without blinking. After the fifth set, I hit my chest, little macha, and smile while thin men in glasses pretend not to notice. They would never guess I once read the Book of Mormon in a dark bedroom, and never talked to the women I wanted.

But I am different now.

Linda my trainer, my lover, the one who saved me and who herself once lifted weights, who once won awards for the size of her muscles, tells me I should stop listening to the rest of the world. She tells me she is partly Navajo, and thus more spiritual than your average human. Linda who's blonde, muscular words make my body something other, tries to give me the strength I need to feel invulnerable. And I believe everything she says with her promises of bulk and cuts, of trophies and aggressive perfection, of total alien becoming. I believe in her as she gives me half-kisses between the strain of power lifting sets, when I'm pushing at weight until my skin is about to rip open. Linda is my new religion, and I often sing her lips.

* * *

"Balance is all there is," Linda says some days. Today she uses her pinky to pull slightly at the middle of the bench press bar I'm straining with in the middle of this weight room, a room I sometimes have dreams about at night as my large muscles twitch. When we first started here, when I had a body no one noticed, a body without veins, when Linda was still competing and pushing her muscles at thin-haired judges, that was when the men who lift here used to ignore us. But now they stare as I strain, as my arms get bigger than theirs, as the muscle striations I pull at daily start to make me look like the metal I lift.

"You must have everything in alignment," Linda says as we sit in her suburban home, a place I moved into three years ago. As she massages me on her bed, she sings to me in Navajo, her voice very high, but something I like to hear. She carefully folds my socks, placing them in a circle around me as I wait for her to use the spiritual phrases that will help me win trophies and money and fear with my body.

Linda understands the need to be stronger than one really is, and this is why I have fallen in love with her.

I am pampered under her hands. We spend our nights concentrating on the things that prepare me and my muscles for competition. When I first moved in to escape the man we had both fallen for, I was flabby and unspectacular, never thinking of muscles or speaking Spanish. I liked her fingers, long and certain. I liked her kisses, and how she would tell me purity and physical contact had something in common. But each time we moved toward each other there was that slight hesitation I tried to ignore, a pause before touching tongues. At that time, I thought it was me, so shy with women, so desirous and filled with guilt. I still always wanted to taste her.

Now the hesitation is hers. I have begun to believe Linda fixates on my muscles to avoid the falsity of this physical world. I haven’t told her I’ve noticed this. With her, I am still a girl who does what she’s told because somehow it feels like love. If Linda says sit on the bed, I do so and breathe in power words as she surrounds me with socks or with food, anything that is round, and thus, more spiritual. Eternal, she says. This almost Navajo woman turns out lights and makes me watch the ritual candle she holds, the blue flame of it, the way it moves back and forth when we breathe. It will, she says, make me forget the judges who grope and stare during competitions. It will make me forget guns and thin Latinos. When asphalt is melting outside on Phoenix streets, and Linda is chanting over me, I always feel what seems like love, a small sweat moving through my shoulders and the back of my head as if I was coming down from a sugar binge.

But this is not the time for a binge, Linda tells me. We have to be flexing and hard in the morning. We have to be completely without fat or sweat.

"We have to be mechanically in tune," she likes to say, and I like to hear it. Machine words make me feel like tight, perfect molecules. Some nights she'll even say I'm "steely" as she reads aloud from her Navajo books, trying to better learn the language her father spoke.

"We do not eat chocolate or fatty foods," she says in English, and then she tries to say it in Navajo. She tries to translate everything she says into this Indian language, sometimes making me repeat after her as I strain my deltoids with dumbbells. But this is how a body builder gains spirituality, and we are body builder people, she tells me. She makes me watch myself flex in the bedroom mirror every night before we go to bed, tingling with the spent cells of muscle and incense and Navajo incantations.

* * *

"There are lots of jobs I have to do here," I tell my parents when they ask me, again, to visit them in their Andean jungle, to tour the mountains of cocaine and poppy fields with them during the Spring mists, to help them find more willing souls. "I lift weights, you know. My possessions are here. My car, my mascara, my Spanish class, my pets." I have no pets, but mothers like them. Pets, like muscles, make them feel their daughters will live through anything. This is important when there is so much I don't tell them. I never mention Linda much, or her fingers, or her once more willing lips. They would not understand how a white woman who burns incense and sage can give me spiritual, or at least physical, insight.

They are not all that different than the woman I think Linda is becoming. Jaime and Penny are always in denial, always saying "no" to things, "no" to materiality, "no" to new paint for their flaking walls I see in the pictures they send. They say "no" to new shoes, they tell me, and put their Mercedes up on blocks, refusing to drive it anywhere out of a fear of God and bombs. Their deep pocket dollars sit in bank vaults, gaining interest, unused.

"When you're dead, objects won't matter," my mother says. "We can't take our Mercedes with us, so why drive it now? God is much more important."

"You should buy something, paint the house, live in a condo," I tell them, but they don't listen. Their walls keep flaking. Their Peruvian pool gets holes in the plaster as the water evaporates, unused. Their grass gets diseases.

"We're just like monks," they say.

"Monks are good," Linda tells me later. "They know how to give up silly things."

I look at Linda, then say, “I wish you could surprise me more.”

“No, you don’t,” she says.

When Linda and I are fighting, I like to listen to my mother’s stories of the Latin women down there, the ones I want to be like, or at least be with, and at night I dream about them. There are the ones who smile and never seem to hate, the ones she says are like children. Then there are those I am drawn to, the ones my mother thinks are brash and evil, toting guns and sleeping, or fornicating as she would say, with anything that moves. The guilt of wanting them, of wanting Linda, makes me dream so hard and sleep so light I remember every detail in the morning. There is the dream of the old, more muscular Linda who kisses my lips without hesitation. She is strong and protecting me from all manner of boyish intruders. Her fingers make my skin feel cool and perfect and in love. Sometimes Linda’s dream hair gets dark and she begins to look like a Latina, and in the morning when I see she’s still blonde I feel out-of-place all day. I don't tell Linda about these dreams. I don’t want her to think I’m in love with her, and besides, she always makes symbols out of such things. If I am starving and dream of Oreos, she says it means there is a black woman named Simone whose muscles I will beat someday soon in competition.

“You’re kidding,” I say.

"We’re in training so everything is meaningful," Linda says. "The sand we run on swirls to make patterns that tell us things. The air particles tell us how close we are to becoming bigger, more intimidating.” She looks at me. “And less fearful."

"Some people don't want to be big," I tell her during a moment when my stomach is growling and I have a headache. It’s the first time I hear myself say it, that perhaps all this muscle is just too much, that maybe it isn’t what I want. "Some people want to go unnoticed, be blank and invisible. Some people just want to be left alone, and feel love, at least sometimes."

"Only the holy can be invisible," she says, ignoring the part about love, but she looks at me trying to see if I am being revelatory. I flatten my face and continue pressing 160, and for a minute Linda’s face looks harsh and old and disappointing. Then she smiles.

“I know you are uncertain,” she says. “You want to be something you are not.”

“How Navajo of you,” I say. I know she sees it, though, that I seek change and mutation, but the minute I get there, there is always somewhere else to be.

* * *

At the bank where I work, I speak in numbers. My boss looks hard at me when the loan season is slow, when men aren't borrowing money to finance a boat or a mistress or a desert pool. My boss looks hard at me and it seems as if he is one of those who thinks I am too big.

"That suit looks attractive on you," he says. I try to see if he is being sarcastic, because I notice more and more how my clothes don’t look right. I see myself in downtown windows at lunch, my rippling reflection walking past mirrored glass, my well defined calf muscles pushing at pantyhose. My legs are men's legs. Drag queens who walk downtown, pretending their husbands have sent them out to shop, stop and ask me for advice as I eat enchiladas outside by the pigeons. I invite them to sit and have lunch, and this is how I end up in cafes eating with those who are more beautiful than me, their transvestite faces more perfect than the gloss of magazine faces, their waists thin and ready for photographs. We talk about makeup and posture, and I nod at their questions as the outside heat saps me of what little moisture Linda has allowed me to have. When these men walk with me back to the bank, the barrio boys and grapefruit pickers whistle at all of us until I want to hit them, but I don’t. Later I notice how comforting it is to being surrounded by tellers and businessmen.

Once when my Peruvian parents were asking too many questions about my faith in God and Church, I decided I would distract them with something dramatic and seemingly benign. I finally sent them a picture of me in a posing bikini, my body oiled, my g-string tight, my gluteals twice the size they were when my parents last saw me four years ago. They called to say I looked nice.

"Things sure change," my father said.

"Yes," my mother said. "In my day even the men were flabby. Times sure have changed.”

"I was skinny like a fence in the old days," my father said. "I ran for miles and never gained an ounce."

"My father was big,” my mother said, “but not from muscle. His voice was very muscular, though."

"We sure like talking to you," my father said. “It’s too bad you’re so far away.”

"Is that oil on you?" my mother asked. "I didn't even know you wore bikinis. You seem to be different every time we speak to you."

"People do change," my father said.

"If we had those kinds of women here, they would live in the hills," my mother said. "I bet they would shoot guns. I've told you about those kinds of women. I just want you to be careful, honey."

Without thinking, I told them what I had been telling them for years about all my activities. "It's normal. Everyone does it."

"Sometimes I think you just like to be different," my mother said, and for a moment I felt exposed. I looked around my office, trying to prove to myself that some things in my life are normal. I have a coat rack by the door. And a paper clip dispenser on the desk. A photo of my parents on the wall. But I also have enormous muscles. And a stomach scar, the scar I should get removed, Linda tells me, the scar that reminds me of my ability to take risks, something few women of my former faith allow themselves to do. After one too many Latino cat calls, I had finally decided to look for the yellow-shirted barrio boy, hoping to look him in the eyes without running, hoping to see that his threats were all just a mistake, that he could be like any of my father's velvety Latino nephews. I had seen the Tecate sign flashing from the road, and thought I might find some justice here after a long day of bank meetings and numbers. I, white woman that I am, walked into this cantina filled with drunks and anger and a man holding a knife. He had the kind of anger, the kind of face I so seldom see at my air-conditioned job, or at Linda's desert home, or at my comfortable white-bred grocery store. He was yelling at the wall when I walked in, my peach suit gleaming, looking almost feminine, almost logical and business-like.

"Yo tengo cojones," the man was yelling. "No me digan que no. No me digan." He was sweating, drinking from a bottle, spinning around to make sure no one was behind him. Everyone else was standing against the wall furthest from the man, still drinking, but also staring. I stood at the door, understanding his intensity. That was how I felt when the barrio boy left me there, a sudden, wild, killer girl. I wanted to touch this man, to taste some of his emotion, the kind of emotion that would never be seen coming from a woman in a peach suit. And so I did touch him, and he looked at me with big eyes, not moving. Then he jerked his arm and my shirt was split, blood staining my expensive suit as everyone ran out behind us. When he saw the blood on my stomach, he fainted, and I stumbled outside. I woke up in a hospital where the nurses spoke in Spanish to everyone but me.

This scar came from my first real encounter, so it is difficult to have it removed, even when the judges at body building events tell me they can't see my abdominals clearly enough with a scar like that in the way. They say it looks like cheating, like I have muscles where I shouldn't.

Though I don’t want to admit my mother is right, I sometimes believe I would shoot guns if I were in Peru. I imagine that in Peru no one would notice a woman totting a pistol, and no one would mess with her either. In our sandy Phoenix desert, fever dreams let me imagine I am a terrorist, coming out of bushes surrounded by mist and rain, wearing green camouflage, wearing large earrings and someone else's muddy boots that don't fit. I would be a guerrillera with muscles, and go to villages to tell people they must stop buying food with English or Japanese writing on the labels. I would tell them that potatoes are better, more natural, more Peruvian, less capitalistic. But even my dreams rebel. The villagers say they're bored with being told what to do, and besides, I am not like any terrorist they know with my even-tempered whiteness.

Sometimes I hate my passionless, round eyes, and my deceptively nice mouth.

After workouts I like the weak feeling I’m left with, so I enhance it with a sauna room cleansing. I sit and sweat all flaccid, imagining that in South America I could be a woman with a shoulder slung AK-47, speaking Spanish like my father's grandmother might have done. I imagine I might even cross myself before every kill like his grandmother probably did when bad luck and death seemed inevitable. I imagine crossing myself without even being aware of my mother telling me crosses are evil.

In Peru, no one would think twice about me.

I don't only think of guns and violence, of course. With Linda starving me toward perfection, I am always thinking of food. When I imagine being in Peru, pushing my rifle out of the way, I dream of telling the villagers how to cook delicious meals, like sauteed parrot meat on banana leaves, or seasoned boa over wild jungle rice.

Being surrounded by celibacy, by Linda, I also often think of sex. Sometimes I imagine flexing for my Aymaras when I help lift boxes full of exotic market vegetables. When I'm flexing, I imagine everyone touching my white, muscled skin with their warm fingernails. I want to name my muscles for them, say "deltoid" and have them touch that part of me, say "latissimus" and feel their lips on my back.

These people call me transparent in my dreams.

"You look like Coca leaves," they tell me. I smile because they say this is the highest compliment to give a white person in Peru, even if I am really a Mestizo.

Sometimes as I lay on the carpeted weigh room floor, the one safe from guns and full of white men who want to do things to me but never will, that is when I think of Peru. I like to imagine letting the Indian women there put lipstick on my lips and arms so they can see it stain. I want to enjoy the greasiness of their Mabeline against my body.

"You are like rocks at low elevations," they say. "Large and smooth." Their lipstick leaves marks like dark berries on my skin. I want to feel them undressing me, laying me on top of banana leaves, filling the room with steam.

My mouth begins to water.

"You've got to get that out of your mind," Linda says. She can always tell when I’m thinking of forbidden things. She often rubs my stomach scar, trying to make it fade before the body building judges complain. She wants me to be perfect.

Before my first competition, I thought of bloody steak and Linda’s lips. I sat on an old examination bed in the auditorium hallway before my first time flexing in bikini, in oil, in public. This was the picture I sent my parents later, the one they will think is nice, the one where I'm oiled on a cot with a hand over my scar as if I were laughing so hard I had to hold my stomach in. I told Linda to take the picture. This way my parents would never see her face that has been so ravaged by her former life of cigarettes and indulgence, a life my parents would call worldly.

Men in dark suits walked by as Linda took pictures of me and my muscles so my parents could see what I was becoming. She put oil on my lats as men asked me questions about my body building past, how long I had competed, how much I weighed, what my biceps circumference was.

"You are a big one," these men told me, making me get on a scale. It said 139, the most I had ever weighed without fat. I didn't say anything to these men. I tried to be like rocks and coca leaves for at least a few minutes.

"She has to concentrate," Linda said, moving in front of them, snapping her fingers at me to help me focus.

In the bathroom she opened a make-up kit for me and we started to put powders and colors on my face, bits at a time. She put eyeliner in my hand, but all I could do was hold it.

"A little charcoal would look good here," she said, pointing at my eyelid.

"Yes, a little charcoal," I said, dazed, staring and hot from a lack of food, not sweating from a lack of water, nervous about showing my body off in front of yelling crowds, in front of suited men. I wasn’t anything like rocks at that point. My fingers were twitching with shaky nerves and a low supply of electrolytes.

This is normal, everyone says, and everyone does it, they all say, so there must be some kind of safety. Yet when I am more lucid I know safety is not a word for them. Food and bloated stomachs and saturated skin cells are foreign, evil things, to be gotten rid of at all costs. I think of bloating, my skin swelling, my muscle cuts fading into a mush. There is a certain horror, and comfort, in this thought.

I once lived with such a mushy man, our beloved Darryl. He was such a good cook, and helped me escape from Mormonism. My stomach always growls when I think of his recipes.

At my first body building competition, I sat putting on makeup, thinking of Darryl and his food, thinking that this night was everything I had been working for. I thought of the barrio boy. I thought of buying a gun. I could taste the chips Judge #2 was eating as he walked down the hallway. This was when I was supposed to be reaping the benefits of muscle, exuding the highest fear factor, making everyone faint, but instead I was merely shaking.

"You think you're a big deal," the barrio boy had said. I laid there on a dusty bench, still holding the bar bell in its metal support arms, feeling the pressure of veins in my neck as I became speechless and incredibly angry. "If you were a woman, I'd fuck you." He laughed, then looked at the door as if someone he had been running from might come in, blasting. He touched my breast that was, at that time, still like a breast. I didn't move.

I was paralyzed.

At my first body building competition, I could feel the creeping paralysis of his memory layering down from my throat. I tried to imagine being able to move, to take a gun out of my purse or pocket and blow away this sneering boy in yellow. But in Phoenix, the winds are hot and slow, and seldom do white women like me shoot hot bullets.

"Your eyes are slightly dilated,” Linda told me as Judge #2 walked past, munching. “Make a fist for a few minutes." Linda’s voice seemed so quiet. I could feel heat in my neck. All colors and objects at that cheap body building contest seemed far away. I began not to care.

"I don't care," I told Linda. "Everything is fuzzy." I looked at her, my sometimes sparkling love with her eyes so dark a blue, but speaking foreign languages. Navajo, I suppose.

"Close your eyes," she said. Everything smelled of sweaty competition and chlorine. In front of me, in Linda's hand, there was that sharp point of pencil eyeliner dragging my skin into clumps, something to make me look less like a machine. Linda's fingers were cool as they held my chin. She spritzed my forehead and put on the sweet smelling base, brushed on light rouge, the brush pricking my cheeks. Then the glinting powder she said the judges would like in those lights, blown on to hold it all in.

"That's not me," I said at the mirror. My face had changed. It looked like the face I see on so many other women as they try to do what their bosses and boyfriends tell them. It looked like the face I once had when I was a teenager, still feeling virginal and religious and feminine.

"That's much more you," my mother said when she saw the close-up photo, me in make-up and an almost real hairdo with small curls. I would not go to a barrio with that kind of makeup. I would not pack a gun with that kind of hair.

"You are so pretty," my parents like to tell me, but no one ever calls me pretty anymore, and I don't want them to. The old me was pretty. The old me was nice. My muscles block out the old thing I was. When I flex I think of clenching my buttocks for the judges. I don't think of being pretty.

Even my first time on stage, I flexed unprettily. The dizziness of bright lights and cigarette smoke made me want to stop moving and fall onto the stage floor in front of everyone. I knew Linda was out there looking at me, saying magical words for me, so I stayed up by not moving my feet or doing any twisting. I flexed in place, and still, I got applause.

But this is not all I am.

When I work I am corporate, my bar bell callused hands finessing other people’s bank statements, my muscular lips saying whether or not they can have ten thousand dollars. In this way, I am my mother. Her financial words and investment advice come to me as I sit in my office during lunch. Because of her and her pioneering ancestors who learned the value of hard work and a growing savings account, I wield the power of finance.

"You are so bourgeois," Linda tells me when I come home with new suits, or a new car. She tries to make me feel guilt though she herself wields power with the governor of our Arizona. She is his supreme executive secretary just as she is my supreme executive trainer. She helps him understand that the blueprints he makes have an effect on his spirituality. She helps me see when cream-filled treats would not be good for my retention. She shows him how his ideas can make dams where they weren't meant to be in a desert that doesn't want them. She shows me that wind-sprints and extra sets can mutate a body.

"You wear $200 dollar suits," I say to her, trying to find inconsistencies in a woman who lives for contradiction. “That seems pretty bourgeois to me, love.”

"My suits are natural. Yours are not," she says, winning all arguments.

Lately this is all we talk about when weights aren't being pulled or magical Navajo words aren't being invoked. Our faces get a little red. Someone mentions spirituality. Someone else mentions sex. Sometimes, when she isn’t looking, an occasional wall gets hit. Eventually I end up watching yellow desert storms.

Sometimes I do have to admit to feeling a little odd when I'm in my expensive and unnatural power suits, sitting over oak desks with clients. Air conditioning let’s us dress up as if we lived in the East, when only a few technological disasters would have us all down there on the street with the Latino grapefruit pickers, stripping to cool off.

One day when I could think of nothing but Linda and her smooth skin, I decided to surprise her and buy some suits in a donation center, but the woman at the cash register looked at me too much. She saw my clean, tanned, white skin, my impractical leather shoes, my too finely coifed hair, all in somebody else's unwanted, crumpled suit. She knew I was a fraud. My Latino cousins could have shopped there all day and no one would have said anything, but I have too much of my white mother in me. I have passed too firmly into the middle class.

Even with this body, I still look respectable, but people can tell I am shifting.

"Soon you'll be getting a tattoo," my boss says, trying not to smile. Lately he is always close to smiling when he calls me in. He looks at my thighs, my tight skirt. He knows Linda and I are more than friends, and I can tell he is curious. Even though I've been a little rebellious lately and approved a loan for the cowboy who wanted to start an iguana purse factory, even though such a slip in a culture that worships safety should get me fired, my boss hardly mentions it. Mr. Lubic always forgives me lately.

I know Linda would love me just a little bit more if I told him money doesn't mean that much. But I don’t tell him this.

"People in Scottsdale will love iguana purses," I tell my boss. “They’ll sell like hot cakes.”

"This isn't California. This is Arizona. People are conservative here, Ms. Sangster." He always breathes a lot when I'm in his office, wanting to ask me to flex for him, I know, but he doesn't ask. This is something new for me, the knowledge that men want to see me flexing for them. If I was as sassy as a terrorist, I might wink at him. When I leave, I imagine Mr. Lubic feels just a little fear as he watches my calf muscles bulging as I walk away.

* * *

In the early evenings when I wait for my love to come home from a long day at the Capital, I watch as the sun bleaches the yards in our neighborhood. Mr. Lubic’s lawn has gone light yellow, and the black family’s cactus garden is pale gray. Darryl’s flowers and once careful pruning are eaten by dust and jackrabbits. Javelinas with their wild pig snouts and black hair lie dead and bloating on the 18th hole of the nearby executive golf course, unaware of the havoc their smelling bodies cause. Linda's house is the closest to the desert, too close for such civilized things to survive, and so she has left it natural. As I wait for Linda, as I begin to clean my short, practical nails, a late summer dust storm hits, burying newly planted sod, blowing quartz crystals from rock gardens into the road, bending the tall yuccas people have brought in from our backyard desert to see if they would grow next to roses and purple snapping dragons. Our neighbors pat manure around the base of their yuccas, but still their hollow stocks bend, their pods blow down the street past station wagons trying to get in out of the dust and swirling desert bushes.

This is the season I was born in more than a few decades ago.

When it's dark and the monsoon lightning storms are flashing by South Mountain, I wait and read make-up magazines to improve my skills for Linda and the judges. I read them so I have something girlie to tell my mother if she calls, maybe about a lipstick color or a new scent on the market. I look at the bras advertisements and the sometimes beautiful models wearing them. There is a lure to a piece of clothing you haven't worn for years, the containment of it unneeded after reps and diets become the norm. I try to remember if I ever had breasts like that, the one’s so big you have to look. I wonder what it might have felt like to hold them. Even when the barrio boy touched my breast, it was small and disappearing. These model women look so foreign, so pillowy and full of curves, I have to cut out pictures of them in their Maidenforms and Balis and put them in a file I keep at the office.

Still, Linda must know. Lately, she has been saying women’s bodies are a distraction.

"Women's bodies will break you," she said once during one of our fights. She sat in the kitchen, wanting to smoke, I could tell, her lips moving into O’s. "That's why we can't be kissing all the time," she told me. She sat on the tile floor and, instead of smoking, painted her nails in un-Navajo fruit colors. I willed myself to fall asleep on the couch, my large quads twitching, my mouth quiet, my mind filled with mess.

I’ve bought a lot of magazines lately.

When it's lunch time and the office is eating in, licking fallen mayonnaise off their desks while clients wait outside, I look at my bra pictures, and at these bra models without stomach muscles. Their mammaries would shock the body building world. I touch the glossy pages where the bras are highlighted. I tabulate interest rates for my next client, and think of calling the phone number at the bottom of one bra ad, a 1-800 number for sharing bra mishaps and complaints about fit and color and unnatural rashes, problems I haven't had for years.

There are days when I watch my clients waiting, sitting, cleaning their own nails as they hope they have told me the right things to receive the big loans. They fidget, crossing legs, constantly readjusting. I tabulate figures and think of phoning the number, of calling up the bra receptionists who no doubt have big breasts and soft voices, who I'm sure wear nothing but a bras when they talk to their callers so assuredly. But then I think of Linda and her Navajo charm. I think of my parents and their Mormon godliness.

There are few moments when my brain is not filled with the people I love.

One day, after a night of starvation dreams and yellow-shirted Hispanic men that left me feeling weak and ordinary and pathetically white, I do call, right there after lunch, my boss walking by my door every so often to try and look at my leg muscles hidden behind the desk. The line picks up and there is a computerized voice menu. I speak my choices, hoping the real voice I hear will be smooth and rich and as sexy as these ads.

"Service Center," a woman says. She has an eastern accent, but her voice is kind of soft.

"I have a lot of questions. Do I just start asking them?" I look up and wave first at my client, then at my boss.

"That's what we're here for." I try to ignore the image in my head of Linda’s disappointment. I try to block out the vision of my mother's upraised eyebrow.

"Do you know about underwires? Mine doesn't fit very well." I try to remember a conversation I had with my favorite transvestite last week. I try to talk like him. My client is looking right at me, so I cover the ad on my desk with a hand and turn in my swivel chair to face the outside window.

I try to imagine what this phone woman looks like as I listen to her clinically explain how I might get my breasts to cooperate, if only I had them. I want to ask her what she looks like, and if some of the women where she works kiss in the restrooms during lunch breaks. I want to tell her I’m lying, that I don't have the kind of breasts that require extra support.

"Do you enjoy talking to women?" I ask instead, hoping she'll say yes.

"I suppose,” she says. “Would you like to place an order?"

At night when I can only think of food, Linda's house moves in slow motion around my starving and breastless body. I wait for her, drinking soda water after soda water hoping she will see minerals coming out of my pores, hoping she will notice the empty bottles covered over in the kitchen trash can. I wait for Linda, my body so big, so fearful of movement, yet needing to feel the invisibility of being still and silent and unaffected by the world. I wait for Linda and think of breasts. I wait for Linda and think of Darryl and his fading gardens, so near. I rub at my acid-filled muscles and think of my fat ex and his cooking, his sticky sweet kisses three years away now. He lives only a few blocks down, but I never see him. As I wait for Linda, my thinking accumulates and expands. I imagine her having an affair with the governor. I imagine Mr. Lubic is our neighborhood peeping tom. I imagine Darryl is gay.

My parents were surprised I chose him for a boyfriend among all the more spiritually qualified men they had know. And then they were shocked when I moved in with him, my first truly rebellious act. They still lived here in this Valley of the Sun, and there was no way to hide things from them. When he finally started talking to me again, my father would cough every time he called and Darryl answered.

"Darryl seems to like himself too much," my father would tell me every week. "You don't want a man who likes himself too much. God should always come first. I think you should come back to your home."

"He’s just not right for you,” my mother would say. “He never went on a mission, honey. Don’t you want a righteous boy who will take you to the celestial kingdom?" But this Mormon heaven was not part of my criteria. I was young and Darryl was, at that time, strong and nothing but body, a foreign, lovely thing, non-ephemeral, and seldom talking of priestly duties. Even with all those muscles, he still never seemed very masculine. And so, I craved him. A few years later I was still with him when my parents decided they had had enough, and got themselves on a mission to Peru.

Though I am not the kind of girl who cares much for men, as I wait for Linda, I decide to call Darryl. Just for kicks. Nothing serious.

But when he answers, I say, "I’m so lonely."

“What? Terry?” he says. “I should hang up on you right now.”


“It’s Linda, isn’t it? She’s such a cunt,” he says. “You should never have left me.”

“Of course I should have,” I say. “I’m just calling to say hi.”

“Well, say hi to someone else.”

Later when Linda is painting her nails and repeating her new Navajo words over and over, I think of Darryl kissing me in the desert like he once used to, the 110E sand sticking to our legs as snakes watched from under bushes. I pretend to read a magazine, and imagine the sand between my fingers, the kiss of Darryl's sweetness making me laugh. Linda’s kisses have always been too powerful to make me laugh. I look at her now, and she looks up and smiles, then she comes over and kisses my cheek, probably in one of her loving, motherly moods, but soon she is back to her books. Eventually, the magazine falls onto my face as I go to sleep, dreaming of Darryl’s fat lips and Linda’s juicy lips, and the smell of nail polish. I dream of my parents’ hair getting grayer and thinner as they watch the Lima evening news, which says nothing of Andean terrorists or barrio boys in Phoenix. I dream of running through coca fields with a shoulder slung AK-47, strong and sensuous and covered in Aymara lipstick.

I like it when I wake up and remember.

After a day of banking, I also like to yell "pendejo" from the safety of my car at every barrio boy I see. I like to run through the tall saguaros and creosote bushes in the desert behind Linda's house, the desert Darryl once kissed me in, sand and dead lizards hitting the backs of my calves like they used to hit the back of Darryl's calves when he would run, when his body was as hard as mine. I like the way the sand sticks to my shoulders and hair. I do sprints as snakes sidewind patterns on the trail in front of me. This is where children play behind our neighborhood houses. They hide behind prickly pears, throw dead yuccas at each other, and watch the skin of their hands melt on any rock they touch.

This is the place I watch these children from as I run on a circular path, the one all the husbands and ex husbands run on in the mornings when the snakes have receded. They tell me their running makes them more aggressive at work. For me, it is a way of feeling clean and safe and alone. Except when my boss is out. Sometimes, more lately, I see him running here in the mornings, far behind me but still watching. His playing children watch Linda and me in the kitchen as we kiss over tabouli salads on the weekends, Linda sometimes pulling away and smiling.

Mr. Lubic knows I'm a banker who can kill with a look, who can bleed loan payments out of clients with a word on the fax that makes their secretaries feel fear. What he doesn't know is that I'm a loan officer almost packing a .44 I will buy to shoot at things when the heat is pushing in on me, when the winds are blowing in Peru, when my body is even more of a foreign thing my parents will not have any words for.

"I kill with a flex," I say before every competition, and in every mirror, trying to believe it. "My muscles can flatten you," I say before every loan appraisal. "My hands are dangerous," I say as I drive by cantinas in South Phoenix, wishing it were true.


Copyright Lee Ann Mortensen 1994