On Stage  

Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 1999




I, Teresa, woman of heat-tempered muscle, am here on stage in a Phoenix auditorium, seeing only lights and knowing there are people down there watching me, my body tan in this spiritually white bikini. Or at least that is what Linda would say about white, that it is powerful and can help me win. I flare my lats like she has shown me, make my veins large for the audience, and they moan, wanting to touch me, to see if I am real. I pull my arms above my head to give everyone a good look. I let them see my indented triceps full of lines and sinew. The soundman plays Cuban music that goes off on its own, and I stand still and sweat, flexing my quads until they shake and the people I can't see below me are clapping and whistling. Pastified judges are in front pointing at my muscular flaws, my asymmetrical pectorals and unaligned left gastrocs. I dance my body around for them, twisting in the ways Linda has taught me to twist. I try to look for her out there, sitting, perhaps, with my staring, flirting boss and his blonde, staring children.

I know they all want to be like me, a woman made of muscle.

When the song ends, I run off stage. Perhaps there are notes in my gym bag, notes from Linda saying she still wants to train me and live with me even though I am a lusty kind of gal. Perhaps that is my calling. Perhaps my calling is to be a person caught up in her own genetics, a person who can almost choke an ex boyfriend to death, a person who smashes breakable objects and causes mystical disturbances and dreams about revolutionaries. But right now the conventional side of me, my mother's side, wants at least one little love note from my sweet, papery Linda.

When I open my bag there are only messages from judge #4, the one whose back is bent, the one who is always trying to take me out for drinks and ice cream and kissing after I win things with my body.

"Your abdominals. They are so ooooooh," he says when he inspects my bikini before every show. This is the kind of winking man who makes me want to throw things as he touches me, as he looks for evidence of cheating or excess. His pinches and remarks remind me of the Darryl, and then I think of the barrio boy who has now been absent for a time. Judge #4 sometimes puts his hand on my gluteals that same way, as if I were the kind of girl who likes to put out. He does not think I could break his arm with a breath. I like to think I could do this, just look at someone and do violence. I like to think I could scare. If he knew about my genealogy, he would know to be afraid.

Sometimes, after all the judges have gone away, after they have felt and pinched at me and I have stood there taking it, I like to sit backstage and throw things. I pick up another body builder's cold cream jar and throw it against the wall to watch it explode. All that mess gives me a power I never feel at home with Linda, or in that weight room with Mr. Barrio, or in the churches I once went to, or with Darryl and his roaming tongue. Here breaking things is expected. It is encouraged. No one lectures if cold cream jars are found oozing down walls. No one is surprised when mirrors are broken.

No, it isn't just my bisabuelita or the beautiful Imanuela speaking to me when things break. Linda with her incantations, her whippings, her bare footed stompings and naked vision quests are making my lips feel like a tight burning metal. Once they picked me up off the hospital floor, I came to and could not stop thinking of her. Even the binges, the dreams, and Darryl's lips could not stop me from seeing her face every time I think of anything but muscle. Linda has hit her cultural mid-life crisis. I moved back in with her and she stopped kissing me. Her body has become even more a withered stick. Not long after she stopped looking at me. She said she knew what I was thinking, that I was too in love with the physical. She told me this was the beginning of death.

"Celibacy is the only way toward perfection," she told me. Certainly such a revelation shouldn’t shock two people who had almost died in the desert together, yet that was not what I wanted to hear. All I could do was look at her, my hand on her blonde thigh, my trainer, my lover, gone heat-stroke mad.

"Sex is only for the here and now," she said. "I have seen what is important. I have had my vision." For the first time, I wanted to hit Linda with something, the phone receiver, a book, the lamp, the ashtray clean from lack of use. But everything in the room looked too deadly, so I just sat there.

Linda certainly likes to think she is prophetic. Perhaps she is. Her lips are not what they once were. Her hip bones protrude. Her eyes go big at slight noises. It's all for her own good, she tells me, looking sad and celestial, looking much too small for a big woman. This is why I think of sex all day and dream of it at night.

Linda once got the comments I get now. "You could be a bar bell model," judge #4 told me backstage one night after checking for illegal bodily extras. He looked at my shoulders and my neck and breasts for too long, like he owned them. Then he gave me his card, a small bar bell engraved in the center.

"I run an agency," he said. "Famous all over the valley."

"Lovely," I said, and I surprised myself by kissing the card, leaving my lip stains there. I smiled, feeling the new power of my own, virtually guilt-free naughtiness. I imagined he might be the kind of man who would want to kiss these stains of mine late at night when his wife was snoring beside him.

Since the burning of my body, I have collected and kissed many cards, mostly from lawyers and retired police officers who want to stare without being slapped, who think that I am here for them. Sometimes though, when I am lucky, I find notes in my bag from other kinds, visitors, replacements, petit, uniformed women from the armory, or uninitiated fans like sheep ranchers and prickly pear farmers who think they like big women.

"I enjoy it most when you flex your calves," said a new judge once after a difficult competition. The large sign with a #3 on it still hung around his neck as he talked to me, as he stared. He was a Latino in a straw cowboy hat, looking anything but judge-like, looking so young, so smiley. I scraped oil off my body and watched him closely to see if his eyes or his mouth were anything like the barrio boy's. But this one did not look like the type who would follow a woman, or shove her, or yell at her. The heat would not get to this man that way. He was more of a ranchero type, like the ones who live by South Phoenix mercados and grow grapefruit. He was soft. His eyes were not angry at the world. He spoke to me in an accent I have always wanted to speak in.

"Are you a Latina?" he asked. My dark hair probably made him want to discuss the old neighborhood.

"No," I told him. "My father stopped being Mexican a long time ago. He's a Mormon now."

A small mustache covered the smooth youth of this judge's skin, and I almost touched his face right there, but I had oil on my hand. Linda would have looked at him and laughed at his tiny, slim body.

"I know what good muscles look like," he said. I could tell he was only guessing at what symmetry and cuts meant, only hoping to give the right scores. "I'm filling in for the judge from Peoria," he said, biting his mustache. The other competitors in the room were watching him as he pulled on the dark hair under his hat, blushing and shy. For a moment I thought of how Linda’s image chased me from the naked brunette in the locker room, and I gritted my teeth, then smiled.

"You're so smooth," I told him. "You shouldn't have a mustache."

"I look like a baby without it," he said.

He asked me to flex my biceps for him, and I did.

"You're so cheap," said one of the other women as we walked out of the changing room. For a minute, I feel cheap and cheating, but I try to imagine that it’s just jealousy, and that they only wish the judges would fall in love with them.

That night the ranchero let me shave the mustache off him, me behind his back putting on the cream, washing off the razor after every pass, trying not to make cuts or burns. The cream came off in neat rectangles as he told me about Margarita, and Xotchil, and Jimena, his tall sisters who grew cattle in Nuevo Leon. I watched his talking mouth in the mirror and nodded and laughed at his stories about cows and milking mishaps. While he talked, I noticed that the smooth, hairless skin on his back could be anyone's skin, Linda's after a day in the sun, or the barrio boy's. I kissed his skin there, and it was sweet at first, but then I began to feel my throat collapsing dry. I began to feel fear and guilt and the bile of these people who think they can own me and give me nothing back.

For a moment, I held the razor, a plastic disposable, in front of his soft neck. I imagined I could control him from back here like the barrio boy controlled me, like Linda still controls me, and that if I wanted to make a change and see blood and death, if I wanted some kind cleansing or the power of a Maoist, some sense of real power, it would have to happen now. I pressed the razor in, but he was smiling. He was rubbing my razor-holding hand. His lips were like children's lips, with cream around the edges.

When I was done with the shaving, I could see he was right. He did look like a baby, so I put my mouth all over his baby lips and body, and for an evening I had fun. I almost didn’t think of Linda at all, and how she would look at me, unholy and impure. I almost stopped imagining she could see the two of us through some cosmic telescope. As the ranchero shaved my already smooth legs, I even smiled. He laughed as I bit his toenails, unaware that his life had been, for a moment, a thinness ready to disappear in front of me.

As I drove drunkenly home, sex with this boy did not make me feel like my skin was going to burn religiously off, and so I began to feel like the most powerful woman on the planet

"Terry, you are so reckless," Linda told me after I got home, laughing and full of cervezas. "He could be anyone. He could have guns. He could have a disease. Then where would your muscles be?" She stood in front of me looking calm, but would not move or let me walk past her. Then she touched my arm. "Don’t you want to be better than this?"

"He was very young," I said. "Very quiet and smooth." Linda had been training my muscles and fucking my body for much of the last three years, but her face was foreign to me now.

"You don't really want my help. You need to be on your own. I can sense these things." She walked into the kitchen, her small back moving away from me.

Linda has always thought of herself as more knowing than other women.

"I won tonight," I told her, holding up my new trophy. "They were all clapping and stomping. I hit my extensions perfectly." I looked at her back. "I was really it."

"You want only what distracts," Linda said. From the front door, I could see her drinking something with leaves in it.

"How do you know what I need?" We look at each other almost surprised. "You have no idea what happened to me in the desert. I don’t have to follow your higher purposes," I told her, my voice cracking and dry. Linda does that to me, makes my voice just a little afraid, even though I am twice her body size. I looked to see if she would react, but her face was once again like gritty rocks. I touched the striated veins on the back of my hand and said, "A big girl like me has to have an outlet. You of all people should understand."

"Your mind is too out of control," she said, ignoring me. "Your body could go at any minute. You like food too much. Your hair is too thick. I have to think of higher things now."

"You are so omniscient," I said. But I knew she was right. I was on the verge of something uncontrollable. My celibate, mystical Linda is right too often, and lately I find myself wanting to hate her for it all.

* * *

It has been three days since I've seen Linda and her blonde, Navajo ways, even though I have been living in her house and running through her backyard desert and past her newly constructed sweat lodge, looking for her or her body, but hoping for something more. She hasn't been around to make me lettuce sandwiches or watch my caloric intake. She hasn't been in the weight room to spot me, or make me do sit-ups until I want to bleed, or touch me with her once sharp and colorful nails. She left no messages, no notes to say she was angry at my muscles, that they were not getting big enough or lean enough, that they weren't celibate enough for her. There were no notes saying my unruly thoughts were giving her headaches, or that my old sex partners were calling too much. As I stepped through the house, flexing naked and tight in front of Linda's mirrors, laying face down on her scratchy carpet to stretch my gluteals and look under the bed for any signs of her, I could see that all of Linda's astrological magazines were stacked neatly in their spiritual places under the mattress, dusty from a lack of use. The one she had been reading the night I came home from my last competition was still open on the edge of the bathroom sink.

I walked by each corner of the house to see if she had hidden anything for me, a burned incense stick or a piece of wine soaked sage. A Navajo horoscope. An etching on the wall. A sand painting in the tub. She started doing things like that a few months ago after she saw Frederick, my bank boss, and our neighbor, try to kiss me in his back yard.

"He likes my quads," I told her.

As we lay in bed later that night, she said, "You would sleep with anything. You’re becoming a loose woman."

"At least I am still living," I said. "And stop sounding like my mother."

"You know how I feel about it," she said.

Now Linda wasn't here, and I felt punished. I felt bad for hating her. I sat on the couch for hours, holding onto the cushions. Around 2 AM, ten hours after not seeing her, I took a flashlight and walked outside to look at her sweat lodge. I wanted to see if she had etched anything into the mud walls, but all I felt there was smoothness and radiating heat. Once when I came home from the Arizona Body Builders Tour for Leukemia, after I had let anyone touch my inhuman body, Linda was in her mud hut praying in other languages and braiding twigs into her thinning hair. She was naked and covered with the same mud that was all over the carpet inside. "It’s like I don’t even know you," I said. I wanted to laugh, but Linda does not often inspire such things.

"This is the real me. Pretense is dead."

And now my nirvana woman was gone and I was partially dressed and outside, looking at the opening of her manic creation. It was a hole really, small and close to the ground, made to humble. I turned on the flashlight, and pointed it around the unfenced yard, then inside the sweat lodge.

As I sat inside it, dust got on my hamstrings while I smelled the remainder of incense sticks and Linda's sweaty, spiritual perfumes. Near the mud-packed opening of the lodge was a collection of dead lizards, neatly lined up side by side, drying there for some spiritual potion she would no doubt make herself later, if she came back.

Then something moved at the far side of one wall, and dust went swirling. I thought for a second that I saw a face. I squinted then closed my eyes. Not even Linda can make me see what isn't there.

"It's not unusual," Darryl tells me four days later when I call him. I have noticed more tumbleweeds and grocery sacks pushed up against his window screens from afternoon winds. His dead yard is filled with dog shit. He is becoming the neighbor everyone wants to kill, but I still call him because, really, I know no one else. I lie on the bed, listening to him sounding peeved because I'm not still living with him, helping him binge on chocolates and pies, helping him feel better about being fat and afraid of the heat and the people outside. "She used to always go off to lunar conventions even when she was a polygamist. It’s nothing new. If you don't want my cheese cakes you can just get used to it."

As I lie here, I feel weightless at not knowing and yet wanting to know if she was still somewhere in Arizona, sleeping at the same time as me, sweating when I was sweating. Now there isn’t even any magic tea bringing us together. I am a woman who has overcome her inhibitions, or at least some of them, with no one to enjoy her new status with. Linda could be anywhere, in Mexico or Europe, or even with my brown father and white mother in Peru, with their rain forests and baptisms and beautiful terrorists who only look into your eyes when pulling the trigger.

* * *

During the wet monsoon nights before the forth body building competition of the Arizona season, I sit and stare at the gun I finally bought after Darryl showed me what it felt like to hold one correctly, even though the gun he had was small and stolen from a grocery delivery boy. After calling my mother to hear another of her terrorist stories, of bombs going off, of her dead chauffeur, of the security man’s missing fingers, after dreaming about the barrio boy and waking up alone with no Linda in the house, and after being whistled at by those Latino grapefruit pickers, I went to the gun store. Something needed to be done. The pickers' words were still in my head as I looked through the sight of the salesman's largest short barrel magnum. Those men had called me a maricón and a transvestite because they were not sure. I could be anything with calves like this, I know, but I still walk like a woman, and after they stopped me on my way to lunch and tried to touch my breasts, after the one looked so much like that barrio boy I could hardly move, I sat in my office and flexed and flexed, feeling like explosive air at high altitudes. As I left work early, I passed by Frederick's office and tried not to look at the new 8 x 10 glossy he had of me holding a trophy in my white bikini. I tried not to show him that this big-bodied woman was afraid.

And now I'm sitting here in Linda's house looking at my gun and hoping it will give me what I need. The gun is blue black and polished, a color like something Linda would put on her nails to prepare for a bad day. If she were here today instead of lost in a sand storm, no doubt taking these last few weeks off from work and from me to try and find the rest of her aura in the dust, I would tell her to paint those once long, cool nails this color of black. I would hold my .44 on the bathroom sink and say, "Paint your nails like this." I would even try to sound angry, to make sure she knew what effect she had.

There was a time when she would let me rub my lips over her nails to feel their smoothness that is like fur. I would lay there with her, my lips on her fingers, my muscles aching from squats as I smelled her Noxema and the perfume of her wooly suits. I would listen to her Tuba City stories of drunken dogs and pow-wow encounters until all we could do was laugh. I would slowly paint her finger and toenails with Apricot Assurance or Mandarin Marvel. She would rub light swirls on my naked back and tell me about the husband and children she hadn’t seen for many years. Some nights as I fell asleep I would think her lips were saying the word "love."

But things have changed. If Linda were here and sleeping right now, I would have insomnia, for her nails, her new-found celibacy, and her usual regimen of starvation do that to me, make me sleepless and constricted. I would be next to her cool body, thinking nothing could intrude on my last pleasure, the absolute silence of touching skin, but then I would remember Linda was changing, and in my weakness I would remember the barrio boy. I let him make me think I was a weak and twitchy thing again. He makes me want to go down to South Phoenix with my gun, driving fast, looking for him, seeing something, shooting, and later putting a dead boy in a park or a ditch. The news would say the gangs had started to go wild again.

Now that I am armed I decide to go to South Phoenix to show myself there is nothing to be afraid of. I get out of my car by the lime orchards and walk in my overstuffed jacket in the heat. Sweat begins to run down my back. My black shorts show off the heavy power of perfect, shaved legs. My .44 in its shoulder holster pulls tight against obliques and breastless breasts. When I bought the gun the man said, "That's not a woman's gun, but I guess a woman like you doesn't care." I shook my head to reassure him.

When I walk through the barrio there are many people outside avoiding the heat in their homes, smoking generic cigarettes, staring, sitting on the sidewalks drinking dark Mexican beer. I stand on a street corner, also holding a cigarette, one from a package of Linda's old Viceroys I hid from her when I first moved in. I can feel the weight of bullets and metal close to my skin, and I almost laugh. I'm in public. I have a gun. But there is something to it, its weight, its liveliness, and I start feeling like I can look anyone in the eyes, maybe even Linda, and tell them all to fuck off. This makes me smile for the first time since I shaved and kissed the smooth ranchero.

* * *

Three days later, after my visit to the south side made me feel confident enough to hit one of the grapefruit pickers and yell at them until they ran, I even turn down an invitation from my boss to come see him tonight. He called me later but I didn’t answer. This is me, feisty and pumped and ready.

Darryl calls and I tell him to fuck off.

"How rude," he says. To hear him sound bewildered makes me smile for several hours. I sit on the couch all toothy, looking at my legs and liking them. I watch channel 33 with it’s Latino soap operas and try to talk like that, with an accent. I watch Marta take an hour to tell Raul that she doesn't love him any more. For a moment, as the sun moves down Linda’s picture window, I think of leaving this house, of throwing my tailored work suits in a bag and driving off, never to see the sweat lodge or Darryl or my weaknesses ever again.

Then Linda appears, walking in without knocking or waving, and the air leaves my body. She says, "I always find exotic things."

"I don't care what you think you've found," I yell. "Come, go, come go, why don’t you just make up your fucking mind?" She looks a little uncertain, as if she has walked into the wrong house. I want to keep yelling at her, to make some kind of noise that will make her go away. I hold my leg up to flex the quad, trying to act like the body builder she has made me into, a woman who cares only for her own flesh and no one else’s. The only time she leaves me alone is when she thinks I am a mindless muscle.

Linda walks in front of me. She must not be in the mood to be ignored. She’s in baggier-than-before shorts, looking dusty and a little greasy, a little dehydrated with her peeling, burnt skin that has been in the sun for more than a month. I can see scratches and cuts on her shoulders.

"You look thinner," I tell her. "You've been whipping yourself again." Her mystical atonements, her self-induced starvation, and the Sonoran sun are making her transparent, like old, beaten glass.

"I'm becoming holy," she says, sitting on a chair away from me. She does not want me to kiss her or be close or touch her ragged nails, but I don’t want to do any of these things now. We sit here for a while, and she looks at me. I know I am a blank. Later as she showers and rubs the dirt and mud off her body, I sit on the couch and watch a high cloud dust storm come in from the southeast. I want to think that her holy presence, cleansed by the heat and dirt of the desert, will not infect me again.

* * *

The pose down is a strange event in body building. All of us slide around each other trying to get the judges to notice, to see our bodies first and the careful deprivation we have put them through, to see that our legs have done the most squats, that our triceps have been the most perfectly tortured. Still, this exhibitionism always takes an extra effort for a shy girl like me.

"Just imagine you are alone," Linda told me after my first competition. I didn't want to touch anyone because they were sweaty, and so I flexed behind them, unseen until it was over and the others were going back to the dressing room.

"You need to think, 'front of the stage'. Push them all out of the way if you have to," Linda said. "You're bigger than they are."

Now, during this seventh competition of the season, during my 3rd year of pumping and squeezing, I pose down better than anyone as I try to imagine I am alone while pushing at the other bodies that are so much like mine, so inhuman. I now imagine there are no women surrounding me, or touching me with their oiled hands, or slipping their shiny biceps in front of my face. I imagine their sweat doesn't really drop on my eyelashes. Still, as we show ourselves off in every competition, one woman always leans against me to lift her leg for a hamstring flex, and I try to imagine I don't see her, or feel her hand on my arm. When I turn toward her to show my back off, she licks her lips at me. She touches my abdominals, and my knife fight scar.

This woman who is trying to distract me now, who has always licked her lips at me, touches my scar very lightly while we flex. The crowd claps politely. They are tired and it is hot outside. She has the kind of big, red hair only a woman trying not to look like a dyke would wear, but I like her eyebrows, dark and thin. I wink at her. Her pointed toe slips out of it’s pose.

"She always was a cheat," Linda will say when I get home. "She thinks she can break people with her eyes." Linda will be dehydrated and quiet, sitting at her kitchen window to stare outside for hours. She no longer comes to see me and my body win things, and I am almost relieved.

In the dressing room the lip licking woman comes over to me as I take off my make-up. She walks over in only a pair of shorts and starts to rub my shoulders a bit, her breasts never moving, never looking like something a woman would have. Our bodies are the same, sexless, but so very human under fingertips.

"I hope I didn't ruin your concentration," she says.

"I hope I didn’t ruin yours," I say.

"Oh, no, no. I just had to see that scar of yours up close. I like a woman with scars." Her face is much older than mine, more like Linda's face after years of marijuana and smoking, or a long time in the desert.

"How nice," I say. I look at her hand on my scar, the tickly feel of her index finger. I know her kisses would be only physical, and that is what I will tell Linda, that physical is not what I want right now. I want to fool the all-seeing Navajo and make her believe that I, too, want to be holy. This may be the only thing that saves me from her.

"I haven't even thought of sex, or food much," I tell my trainer later. I can still feel the breastless woman's bite on my shoulder, sharp and small and humid.

"Sometimes the physical is nice," says Linda, always trying to catch me off guard and make me think twice, but I won’t be fooled. I know she is not becoming the woman I want. I know she has been spending too many long hours in the sweat lodge, sweating and hitting her arms and her back. When she showers I can see the marks. I know that it’s hard to look at her now that she isn’t here for me.

She turns toward the living room window and watches a station wagon drive by. "I was once a very different person," she says. I sit up slightly. She almost sounds like familiar. I wait, wishing I didn’t care, but wanting to hear the words, any words that show me she is still alive. She says nothing more, and that night sleeps far over on her edge of the bed. It's hard, she tells me, to be as holy as she is.

That night I dream of Imanuela, so beautiful, so dark and often clean. I watch as she pushes plastique into the wheel hub of my parent’s Peugot. She chews on a wire, then spits out a bit of plastic, pushes the wire in and up.

"It's easier than you think," she says. "It changes everything. It means nothing. There are billions of us on this planet. You should try it."

“It won’t work,” I tell her. “My parents can’t be killed. You’re just going to kill their chauffeur. I’d rather that you just kiss me, as long as you’re here.”

So that’s what she does, floats over to me and kisses my lips until they glow.

* * *

"You were a marvel," Frederick says backstage after a late season competition. "I almost drooled." His children stand next to him and look at my greasy legs, at the lack of tan line I have there, at Darryl's old muscle shirt, and the lack of bra underneath it. Frederick smiles like a man who has tried to kiss me. He comes to these events a lot now, but this is his first time back here with all the women as they stretch and undress.

"I can't imagine being able to do that," he says, looking around to see if any other competitors are looking at him. He flexes a little bit as if to try it out and see what body building is all about, but he looks a little red. He knows I see how he wants to touch me sometimes, especially my deltoids. He looks at them now, trying not to let his very blonde children notice his eyes. And because I want to be the slut they all think I am, I say, "I’m coming over tonight, Frederick," as one of the competitors brings around the Häagen-Dazs for our immediate pleasure. The redheaded lip licker looks like she wants to kill me, so I stop watching her.

"Maybe you were a worrier in a past life," Frederick tells me later. We’re out at midnight, running through the yucca fields. As we sit on the warm ground, his breathing pushes into the still hot air. He smiles, and then I see him going down, his lips pushed out as he thinks of kissing my dusty knee cap, but then he changes his mind, rubs his lip.

"I worked hard for these legs," I say to distract him, and he nods. This is something he wants to understand, and it keeps him at a comfortable distance. It isn’t so easy with Linda. I wish for indifference, I pray for loathing, but then I find myself still wanting her to enjoy the darkness of my almost Latina hair, gotten from my almost Latino father. I wish she would leave or kiss my mouth and really mean it.

Instead I touch, then kiss Frederick, and we take each other’s shirts off. I push him down and get on top. It’s the only way I’ll have sex with men any more. I know he likes this, though, a big girl like me overpowering him.

The next morning Linda seems disrupted for the first time since I've known her. I imagine her prophetic eyes seeing us out there under the moon, seeing me pulling at the black hairs on his chest, seeing him biting my nipple. No doubt I wanted her to see it, yet I thought she was too expansive to care anymore. I walk by her sweat lodge with my mouth still dry from Frederick's lips. I see her looking at her lizards. I see how her face wants to be hit by their leathery carcasses. I almost stop. I almost want to go inside with her and smell the incense and touch the holy welts on her skin, but I don't. Later that night, I try to read a magazine as she walks through the house, holding onto her matches and mumbling "Viceroys" under her breath, but there is no smoking now. Linda has been too good for too long.

"I wanted to look at his whiteness," I tell her.

"There are times when I can’t believe you," she says. "He’s a man. A corporate man. A white man."

"You’re a blonde, Linda," I say.

She sits on her couch lighting matches and breathing in the phosphorous.

"You made me into a body." I rub my lips over the veins in my hand. "A body doesn’t always care where it finds pleasure."

"Kissing will make your muscles fade," Linda says. "And I wont be able to help. You are almost gone now as it is." She is trying to talk like a trainer, trying to keep my muscles in mind, but her eyes are, for once, angry.

Later in the week, and for the first time in six months, Linda decides to give in to her earthly side, decides that for an evening she will come down from her spirit world and kiss me, but when she pulls me onto the couch with her, which she does awkwardly, being so out of practice, when she almost has her dusty lips on mine that are so muscular, I tell her my mouth is very dry, dehydrated, painful from too many sprint intervals.

"My quads hurt too much for lips," I tell her, surprised at myself.

Linda’s face begins to flatten. Her smile goes straight. I close my eyes, feeling just a little petty. She touches my mouth with her fingers like a nurse, acting again like she is only here to make me perfect. For the rest of the evening she gives me electrolyte replacement drinks and rubs oils on every part of my body, trying to make me smooth again, make me see that she really wants what's best.

Her fingers burn every part of me.

"Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a calling," she says. I stop breathing. Somehow she must know what her calling is, she seems so sure, but for some reason I have still been hoping for a change. I wait paralyzed for the words I need to hear, but then she says the unforgivable.

"I loved you more than Darryl or my husband."

Her past tense words make me want to faint, and I hate that she can see this.

That night, when this Navajo woman is sleeping, when her self-inflicted bruises seem to glow in the dark, I am awake. There are electrolytes buzzing in my arms and thighs, making my heart beat too fast. I sit there on the bed with my gun on the carpet, watching her breathe, watching the glow of lizard welts on her back. I start to feel angry that she is so violent with herself. I feel angry that this emaciated woman, this caved in thing, this alien who had lips can still make me crave her. I feel guilty for not kissing her and for wanting to kiss her. I feel stupid for still being in love.

Sometimes I would like to be as violent with her as that barrio boy was with me, call her a gringa bitch and just be done with it.

There are billions of us on this planet, so I pick up the gun. My index finger twitches, and for a moment, for just a small point of time, I aim the gun at her back, knowing it is loaded with shiny, clean, silvery bullets waiting to explode out into something. I lie on the bed and feel my pulse as I move the gun slowly toward her, until I touch the barrel to her naked backbone. If she were awake she would say the cold feel of it was the perfect sensation for focusing on other worlds. I think of pulling a bit at the trigger to watch the firing arm move just slightly. But then, behind me, it's as if someone's eyes are big and staring, and I think I hear Linda say, "Wait."

I run outside to the backyard desert, Linda's electrolytes burning my esophagus. The air is hot and thin even when everyone is sleeping and the downtown lights are going off. The moon is rising over the boldery mountains to the east as insects fly by my ear. Everything that moves is highlighted. Scorpions. Dogs. Coyotes. Snakes. Rocks. At this hour, the desert is alive, and my feet are bare. Something makes a noise in a bush nearby, then moves quickly into Linda's sweat lodge. I think I hear breathing. Linda's eyes seem to still be behind me, staring, and then a voice says, "Gringa puta." I pull the trigger, and a shot goes toward the Cave Creek mountains and the yellow moon.

"Wait," I hear from the sweat lodge. I shoot at the voice until the gun is clicking and there are large holes in the dried mud. I hear dogs barking. I stand there, listening for something wounded, but I can't move toward it to look. Nothing makes a sound for many minutes as I stand there, my muscles stiffening, and then I hear a coyote from far away. A police siren goes off, but it doesn’t come down our street.

The next morning I wake up with swollen eyes from a lack of sleep, my former lover standing at the foot of the bed, staring at me. I watch as she goes into work without nail polish, in a dull, grey suit she hasn't worn for years, one that is now too big for her un-muscled body. She wears this suit every time she wants me to feel guilt. When she’s gone, I watch the sweat lodge from inside the kitchen. Its holes are obvious and violent. Later I put on sandals and go outside to stare at the opening. There are a few drops of blood in the dirt. I bend down to touch one of the drops, and it is still wet. It should be dry. It should be old. It should be some of Linda's from a particularly violent self-cleansing. I squint inside, but there is nothing there. No animals. No barrio boys. My night of violence has produced nothing but holes. I bring a bucket of water outside and poor it into the dirty sand to make a mud pit, and then pat heavy, slick patches onto each hole I've made. I know Linda expects this penance, and so, maybe for the last time, I comply.

That night Linda isn't talking. I look at her face as she sits on the couch, staring, then closing her eyes, opening them to look at desert wrens hitting themselves against the windows. I walk into the bedroom to dress for an evening at the barrio where it's easy to feel powerful. As I put on my black shorts, I notice Linda's apricot suit hanging in the closet. I touch it, put it against my skin. It looks so orange next to the stretched tan of my arm. Linda's soap smell is still in the fabric of the large sleeves.

I breathe her old cells in.

As she gets into bed that night, I know she is a dead thing.

"A woman like you shouldn't need sleep," I say. She doesn’t respond. I watch her until her breathing is thick. As I leave, I look at myself in the mirror and for once, I don't think about which muscles need work. I see how dark my eyes are, almost ethnic, almost watery and red, but not quite.

Outside the air is as hot as Linda once was, and I suddenly don't feel like toting a gun or anything else. The moon is rising. I drive with the windows down, breathing in dust until I am high up in the Cave Creek hills. When I stop, there are finally no homes, no development sites, no gas stations anywhere. There is only the bright moon highlighting the boulders and the cacti, making sharp, dark shadows. My car looks almost white up here. The Phoenix lights below are washed-out and quiet.

I begin to walk, then run and shed things as I pass blue sand, scorpions, and ocotillo. First, the gun goes, thrown toward the city lights. I don’t hear it land. Then my tank top, floating white onto a saguaro. Then my shorts, my watch, my shoes, my earring hoops dissolving into the sand. I step on painful things, running naked but not looking naked, my arms so bright, the air so warm flowing over my fluid body.

I swim through it and nothing in the desert moves.


Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 1999