‘The ship is reported to contain over five hundred children, some of them as young as three years old, destined for the slave trade in Benin.’ Before my eyes the newsprint blurs and I feel the hot splash of tears on my cheeks. I close my eyes and I am a child, just three, snatched from my parents or maybe I’ve had no parents, and I am in the hold of the ship, packed in with so many others. The smell of sweat and excrement and vomit. The endless motion of the sea. Am I afraid or is it all too awful to be able to feel even that? And what awaits me even worse…
‘Jesus Christ, Tracy.’ Dani stares at me from the kitchen door, her face a collage of pity and disgust. She’s just finished forty-five minutes on the treadmill; her face is flushed. A tornado of sweat swirls between her breasts, staining her T-shirt. She’s taken in the tears that streak my face, my white knuckles gripping my coffee mug.
‘What is it this time? The Palestinians? The earthquake victims?’
‘It’s the year 2001 and children are being sold into slavery…’ I begin, but she waves away my words, barely disguising her irritation. She comes around behind my chair, wraps her arms around my neck. She smells salty and unfresh.
‘Honey, stop reading the damn paper if it makes you so upset.’
I twist out of her grasp so I can glare at her. ‘Everything that’s going on in this world, and you think the answer is to just stop reading?’
I know the look she’s giving me, the look that signals ‘All the lesbians in LA and I had to get stuck with the one who’s too sensitive to live.’
‘I don’t see it doing much good to sit here and cry about it. Life isn’t that bad,’ she rationalises.
I stand now, to equalise the height advantage. ‘Dani, that’s just the attitude that makes me crazy! I can’t just pretend that life is great and everything’s fine when there’s suffering going on all over the world!’ I sweep my hand across the front page to illustrate my point.
‘Okay, but what about the suffering going on in your own house? I mean it, Tracy, you’re driving me nuts with this stuff. Work is hard enough. I just want to get up on a Saturday morning and have breakfast without having to take on all the world’s problems before noon! I’m about ready to cancel the subscription.’
‘Excuse me? I pay for the paper.’ I’m not backing down on this.
‘Christ, baby, when was the last time you laughed? Or told a joke? Yeah, all right, the world’s a mess – what else is new? But face it, there’s not a damn thing you or I can do about it.’
I don’t agree. Doesn’t human misery deserve at least a witness? But I’ll never convince Dani of that. She doesn’t want to probe too deep or feel too much. Things are exactly as they seem for Dani. On her birthday, she celebrates. On the weekend, she relaxes. She goes to work and does her job and never questions if this is what she should be doing with her life.
I look at her, her short gold hair dishevelled from sleep, sweat-plastered to her head. The way she looks so cute in her exercise shorts and T-shirt. We’ve been together three years. I love her, or at least I think I do. But staring at her now, she’s the one who seems grainy as newsprint, composed of atoms like ink dots; it’s those floating children who seem real to me, compelling.
‘Hey,’ I say, folding up the paper to carry to the recycling bin. It’s a conciliatory gesture. ‘Want to go check out that antique place Tanya was telling me about?’
Her face brightens. She’s relieved the storm has passed. ‘Just let me go take a shower.’ She kisses me before she vanishes down the hall, not just a peck, but slow and sweet.
I try to stay in that moment of her, savouring that kiss, but as I hear water stream into the shower, I spread open the newspaper once more. I try to figure out where this elusive ship with its precious chattel might be hiding. The article contains a quote, some admiral, ‘The Navy tried to keep its pursuit a secret. Sometimes, to avoid prosecution, the crew is instructed to just dump its cargo into the sea.’ Its cargo. I imagine tiny bodies floating in the ocean, splayed angels drifting through layers of blue, strange fish so far from home.
Monday morning, and the freeway its own clotted sea. My Honda has moved about three feet in the last fifteen minutes, and the dashboard clock leaves no doubt that I will be late for work. Again.
‘…UN investigators uncovered scores of mass graves, each containing the decomposed bodies of dozens of ethnic Albanians…’
Behind my eyelids, the sky is grey, trees leafless, the ground a dead, frozen brown. The air is still bitter, revealing no trace of spring. This land was once farmland, but now the furrows erupt in gaping holes from which sprout a clatter of twisted bones.
A horn blast shocks me back to the freeway, the driver behind me mouthing angry words. I press the accelerator, move forward ten feet. Big deal. I try to remember whether I have any deadlines this morning; I don’t think so. I work for a special effects house, and depending on what’s due, it’s either frantic or slow. This morning I’m hoping for slow.
The story of Srebrenica makes me angry. Ethnic cleansing, it’s like Hitler. The Jews promised ‘Never again,’ but now the world sits by while what was once Yugoslavia consumes itself. Dani thinks the anger is a waste of energy, but if this doesn’t make you angry, what does it take?
My parents always said I was too sensitive. They tell me I used to watch the news on TV when I was a child and cry at the footage of civil rights marchers in Birmingham, chaos on the streets of Saigon, Watts and Detroit and Newark burning. I could feel it as if I was there, the blast of water cannons, the wind whipped by the chopper blades, the hiss and crackle of flame. I never understood how they could behave as if this were all happening to someone else, something for them merely to watch. Couldn’t they smell the napalm? They told me I needed to grow a thicker skin.
Sometimes I think my denna is thick and thin in the wrong places. When I was in college, I volunteered at a homeless shelter. Some days I’d work in their kitchen, chopping an endless mound of cabbage or peeling mountains of potatoes. Other days they’d have me sort out the old clothes that people had donated, ragged sweaters and barely worn dress shirts, jeans and trousers and topcoats. I’d hand these out to men with scabs on their faces, men with trembling hands, men who looked at me and did not know who I was. One on one, I felt nothing for them. I’d hand a man a scarf, but I wouldn’t care if he was warm that night or not; usually he smelled bad and I wanted him to go away quickly. I couldn’t force my lips into a smile for him, some human fire on which to warm himself. It was only later, when I’d walk to the bus stop through the streets of downtown LA., sidewalks lined with cardboard pallets where men and women made their beds for the night. I’d walk for blocks past these cardboard condos and then sometimes I could feel it, the deep sorrow of it all, that thread that connects us.
The news haunts me like a shadow on an X-ray: the latest toxic spill, victims of torture, the decimation of AIDS. Newspaper, television, radio, internet news enters my body like an IV drip. It seeps into my dreams. How can I turn away?
When I met Dani she was working for an organisation that delivers food to people with AIDS. It was the first thing she told me about herself, and I loved her instantly for it. She used to come home and tell me about the people on her route: ‘Alan’s parents came to visit; JJ got into a clinical trial; Ricky D went into hospice.’ I could feel the sharp rattle of pneumocystis in my lungs, my anus raw from the diarrhoea of wasting syndrome. I knew the ups and downs of their health. Sometimes we went to their memorials. Then about a year-and-a-half ago she came home and told me she’d quit; she was burned out.
Now Dani sells computer supplies over the telephone; she’s good at it, earns big commissions. Last Christmas she took me on a trip to Kona with her year-end bonus.
For weeks Dani’s been telling me about Gina; she’s so excited that there’s another lesbian at her job. Gina plays racquetball. Gina told off the supervisor who questioned her late arrival. Gina and her lover Natalie are having a baby. Their second.
So tonight is the night when I’m finally going to meet Gina and Natalie. A double date. It’s taken a few weeks to arrange it because it’s hard for them to find a sitter.
I don’t want to go. Dani’s let go of a lot of the friends she had when she used to work for Project Angel Food and there’s something about her descriptions of Gina and Natalie that make my stomach clench. I imagine my evening filled with stories of teething and spit-up; parents are entirely solipsistic and lesbian parents are the worst of all, as if they’re over-compensating, as if they have something to prove. I’ve known since I was a little girl that I didn’t want to have children.The lesbian baby boom going on all around me makes me cranky. But here it is, Saturday night, and Dani has made it clear that this is really important to her.
I’m online reading about the Taliban in Afghanistan, the movement’s total suppression of women who are no longer allowed to walk on the streets unaccompanied, are forbidden to be educated, and who may be stoned to death for violating any provision of the strict Islamic code. Inside my skull I see the shapes of women covered head to foot in the burkha, feel its suffocating heat in the dusty streets of Kabul. I cannot be on this street unless I am accompanied by a husband, a father, or brother.
‘Tracy, what are you doing? We’re supposed to meet at the restaurant at 7.15.’
I shake myself back to the present, bookmark the page before signing off the internet, shutting down the computer. ‘I’m all ready, Dani,’ I call back. ‘In fact, I’ve been waiting for you.’
As I come down the hall she looks at me; disappointment flickers across her face. ‘Is that what you’re wearing?’
I look down at myself. I have on a short black dress that is, admittedly, wrinkled from being balled on the floor of my closet after the last time I wore it, tights with only a couple of runs and black lace-up Doc Marten boots. Dani said, ‘Dress up,’ so I’m wearing what I wore yesterday to work.
I notice that Dani’s version of dressed up includes tailored black slacks, a black linen shirt, boots with a heel. Her wardrobe has begun to change since she’s been in sales.
Even before she says anything more, I start to argue. ‘Dani, I thought Natalie was supposed to be pregnant. How glamorous do you think she’s going to look?’
‘I was just hoping… ‘ she begins, then breaks off, as if giving up. Then tries again. ‘Maybe you could put your hair up or something.’
‘Give me a minute.’ I sulk into the bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror. My face without make-up, the hazel eyes wide, the broad brow. I grab handfuls of my dark brown curly hair, now lightly threaded with silver, pile it on top of my head, and fasten it in place with a jumble of clips. I’ve seen the young production artists at work pull off this look. I have to admit I look fancier. I go a step further and outline my lips in a dark purple lipstick that accentuates the pallor of my skin.
I pull the black dress over my head, leave it strewn across the towel rack. I go to my closet and pull out a purple velvet dress my mother bought me a few birthdays back. Not something I’d have picked out for myself, but Dani’s face lights up when she sees me. ‘Thanks, baby,’ she breathes into my neck with a swift kiss. She dares not comment on the tights and boots, which I’ve retained.
When we arrive at the restaurant and greet our dinner companions, I am chagrined to see that despite her seven-month pregnancy, Natalie is glamorous indeed. She’s wearing a loose black dress with a low-cut neckline that reveals her swelling cleavage, and a stylish pair of platform shoes. Gina is garbed in an expensive suit, its trousers knife-pleated, the jacket cut to accentuate her waist. Natalie’s blonde hair is salon-cut, her make-up professional, and her nails are manicured. She hangs off Gina’s arm like a precious jewel as Dani makes awkward introductions. Within thirty seconds I can tell that I have nothing to say to these women. They are from the planet of the Upbeat.
The restaurant is dark and decorated in a spare aesthetic that signals expensive. One hundred candles glitter around the room. The maitre d’ is thin and formal, his face bisected geometrically by a triangle of goatee. As he shows us to our table, Dani keeps her arm around my waist in a way I’ve never liked, a proprietary gesture that makes me feel like an appendage. I quickly pull out my own chair and sit before she can do it for me.
Gina and Natalie do it properly. Gina pulls out the chair to my right and her partner glides into it, their movements seamless as Gina guides the chair back toward the table, then bends to kiss her lover’s ear before seating herself across from me. Dani has plopped down disconsolately to my left.
Gina bends over to whisper something to Natalie; Dani and I sit bolt upright in our chairs, not looking at each other. I pick up the menu for something to do; Dani notices the small frown at the comer of my mouth and scowls.
The waiter appears and introduces himself as ‘Jake.’ He is model-handsome with a tanning-booth glow to his complexion. He asks for our drink order: sour apple martini for Gina, grapefruit juice for Natalie – she requests ‘fresh squeezed’ – a Corona for Dani. Jake’s eyes turn to me.
‘Just water,’ I say.
‘Pellegrino or Evian?’ he persists.
The whole ‘status beverage’ thing offends me. There are villages in Africa where women must walk several miles for a bucket of sludgy, bacteria-infested water and carry it back across the desert on their head. ‘Tap,’ I reply. Dani winces. Jake lifts one eyebrow and disappears.
‘Don’t you worry about all the stuff they put in the water?’ Natalie asks me. Gina and Dani are deep in conversation about printer cartridges, so Natalie and I are left to find something to talk about.
‘I do,’ is all I say. I could tell her about lead and mercury, lindane and atrazine and asbestos, about cryptosporidium and giardia, the biological contaminants. I could tell her about trace elements, parts per billion, sources of contamination. I could tell her about rates of infection, the mutation of amphibious creatures, the occurrence of cancer. Gazing at her French manicure, white moons at the tip of each fingernail, I am pretty sure she doesn’t want to hear it.
‘So when is your due date?’ I ask, and am immediately sorry. This is reflexive, the kind of thing one is supposed to say to a pregnant woman; I hear the secretaries in my office make this kind of enquiry. In truth, I’m not the least bit interested in her pregnancy, but I can’t imagine what else to say to her.
‘I’ve got eight more weeks to go.’ Her grin is self-satisfied, smugly content, and I feel a stab of active dislike for her.
She waits; clearly I am expected to ask more questions:
Method of insemination? How long did it take? What was it like the first time? How old is your first child? I can see the words clustering just behind her lips, her story, so well polished, ready to pour forth.
But I don’t take my cue. Instead, I nod and rearrange my silverware and stare into the dark space of the restaurant. I sip my ice water. It’s rude, I suppose, but then, she’s not asking me anything either.
Jake reappears and offers temporary distraction. Gina and Dani each order steak – prime rib rare and porterhouse, medium, respectively. I hate it when Dani eats meat; I can smell it on her skin for days.
Natalie says, ‘I’d like the scallops, but could you ask the chef to use olive oil instead of butter?’ As if she were an old friend for whom there’s nothing he wouldn’t do, Jake assures her that he will.
He is far less amenable to my own request for a vegetable plate. It’s not on the menu, and maybe he thinks it doesn’t cost enough. He impatiently scribbles something on his pad, asks, ‘Will that be all?’
For just a moment, Dani shoots me an accusatory look. Then she says, for the benefit of the table, ‘Tracy’s a vegetarian,’ as if my order somehow demanded an explanation.
Gina looks astonished, then suspicious. ‘How do you get your protein?’
I shrug. It’s the year 2001; a vegetarian diet is not a radical concept. ‘The amount of land and crops used to raise cows could feed hundreds of thousands of people…’ I begin, but Dani heads me off at the pass.
‘Tracy’s a really great cook,’ she says, as if this somehow makes up for my other eccentricities. I narrow my eyes at her.
‘So, Tracy, Dani, ‘ Gina wraps an arm around Natalie’s shoulders. ‘Have you given any thought to starting a family?’ ‘In a few years I think we might…’ Dani begins, when I
override her with a harsh ‘NO.’
Natalie chuckles. Our disagreement hangs in the chilled air, turning the moment awkward, which Natalie seems to enjoy. ‘Sounds like you two have something to discuss,’ she taunts.
Fuck you, I want to say, but I let my eyes do it for me.
Dani wants to redeem the moment. ‘We just need to work it through,’ she says. My jaw drops, I can’t believe what I’ve just heard. I stare at her, stunned by this betrayal. Does she imagine that she can just dismiss my feelings about this?
Then all of a sudden I understand, this thing I’ve been sensing but haven’t been able to grasp until just this minute: this is who Dani wants to be now, who she wants us to be. Like Gina and Natalie. It’s like an earthquake; only a few seconds pass, but nothing in my world is left intact. My first impulse is to strike back.
‘Actually,’ I correct her, ‘I personally believe it’s immoral for people to bring more kids into the world, when the planet is so overpopulated we can’t feed or care for the ones who are already alive.’
All three stare at me, offended, shocked. Dani looks as if she’s never seen me before in her life, as Gina angrily protests, ‘Who are you to judge us?’ and Natalie fires off, ‘You must be a very unhappy woman.’
Servers arrive with our order, set the platters before us, and it seems like a good opportunity for a time out. I stand, letting the napkin fall from my lap. ‘Excuse me,’ I say, ‘I need to use the restroom.’
I don’t know where I’m going so I wander toward the back. I don’t find the restroom but I stumble upon the bar, where my eye is caught by the TV, tuned to CNN. I take a seat. The story being reported is about an oil spill off the coast of South America. Volunteers hold blackened birds in their hands, feathers oil-soaked. The bird’s heart hammers against human fingers. The waters churn black. The beaches full of dead fish. The fisherman, his eyes already old, gestures toward his now useless boat, his futile nets. If the sea is poisoned, the whole village will starve.
‘What the hell happened to you?’ Dani’s voice is harsh in my ear.
I turn to look at her and for a moment can’t figure out why she’s angry.
‘We’re supposed to be out for dinner with my friends,’ she reads the indictment. ‘First you insult them, and then you leave to watch TV?’
‘I just got caught up in this story about… ‘
She doesn’t let me finish. ‘What is the matter with you? So some fish die halfway around the world, but you’re here!’ Her thumb and middle finger snap furiously in front of my face. ‘Wake up, Tracy. This is your fucking life!’
‘You used to care about the world, too,’ I protest.
She doesn’t respond. She turns and strides away, her boot heels clicking on the Italian tile. My eyes wander back to the television, but there’s another story now, something about the economic trends of the European Union and I’m not interested. I pay the bartender for the club soda I don’t remember ordering. For a moment I consider calling a cab and just going home.
I have no idea how long I’ve been gone from the table, but the bus boy is clearing plates when I return to my seat. My vegetable plate remains untouched. Gina and Natalie glance at me as I sit, then slide their eyes away.
Even if I wanted to, there’s no way to salvage the evening. A bloated energy hangs over our table, imposes a thick jagged silence. Jake appears and I ask for my vegetable plate to go. No one wants dessert or coffee.
Outside, Dani says, ‘We’re around the corner.’ I’m grateful that I persuaded her to look for a parking place on the street, because it means we don’t have to wait with our dinner companions for the valet. Our goodbyes are hollow and quick. I feel like running down the street back to the car.
Then I am in the passenger seat of Dani’s Jeep and the silence is different now, as if night has shrouded us. She’s too mad at me to talk, the space between us bruised, swollen, and really, what could I say to her?
So I sit in my seat and lean my forehead against the window; it’s cool and hard on my skin. I watch the streetlights pass, one after another. History is a current, I think. I heard that somewhere. I try to imagine myself as part of that flow, that tide. Those who can’t see this will be left behind.
Before Dani, I was with a woman named Arshille, a folksinger who played mournful love songs on her twelve string guitar. She used to sing to me while I read the newspaper. When she left, she told me I was cold, that my preoccupation with world events was my shield against a personal life. ‘You’re going to end up alone, Tracy,’ she warned, ‘with nothing but your newspapers for comfort.a’ I missed the smell of jasmine that always surrounded her, missed the long red hair that she would sweep across my belly when we made love.
I stopped looking at the news, started meditating instead, going each morning to the Zen Centre to sit on a cushion on the floor and quiet my thoughts. When it was best I could slip inside a kind of emptiness, like a pocket, held within its soft folds, my whole mind white. I could feel myself and my connection to everyone else inside that silky blankness. That’s what I was doing when I met Dani.
Dani always says she fell in love with me because she saw me dancing. I love to dance; I like loud music, like to lose myself in a raucous beat until my mind recedes and I am just a collection of joints and limbs pulsing and swaying. People never expect it of me.
My friends had dragged me out to the club that night and I was feeling good out on the floor, dancing by myself. Dani came right up to me and just like that we fell into a rhythm with each other, as if our cells were perfectly in sync. I loved that feeling. When she told me where she worked I believed that she too was connected to the world, attuned to something bigger, something beyond the container of skin that is our humdrum life.
But I was wrong about her. She quit her job and I went back to the news, like an old friend. Now she wants a house and a baby and a life like Gina’s and Natalie’s and I subscribe to the daily editions of the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. I subscribe to cable so I can get CNN. I’ve programmed the buttons in my car to all the National Public Radio stations. I am carried along on the current of events – wars and natural disasters, terrorist attacks and ecological breakdowns. These are what touch me.
Still not speaking, Dani pulls into our underground parking and we trudge up the concrete steps to our second-floor unit. Dani is waiting for me to apologise, I know, and then she will chastise and forgive me, but I just can’t. I will never be the way Dani wants me to be, oblivious to the civil war in the Sudan and the vanishing rain forests. Once inside, I take off my dress and drape it indifferently over a hanger, not bothering to straighten its contours. I pull the clips out of my hair, let it fall across the tops of my shoulders. I brush my teeth and rinse my face with cold water.
Dani stands at the bathroom door, her eyes on me. The hard set of her mouth has softened; her gaze holds a question. My lack of apology, my refusal to back down has unnerved her, shifted the balance of power. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. So she comes up behind me, rests her cheek on my naked back. Her hands wrap around to cup my breasts, palms pressing my nipples. I feel both inside and outside her embrace, even as I tum to face her, let her mouth find mine.
She is seeking reassurance as her tongue pushes toward mine, as she tosses her pressed slacks in a heap on the carpet and leads me to bed. I don’t fault her for it. Even though my skin is thick as granite, my breath still quickens at the press of her teeth in the crook of my neck; I still grow wet at the weight of her hips against mine. It’s my brain that is watching off to the side, an uninvolved bystander.
Making love with Dani is something I will miss; she is fiery and generous, playful, insistent. But as she holds me, as she wraps her legs around me and draws me closer, she cannot contain all that I am. She doesn’t want to embrace the plane crash of my shoulders, the torture of detainees in my ribs, the diminishing polar ice caps of my thighs. Tonight, as her orgasm crests beneath my fingers, she dissolves in tears: her body already knowing what her mind has yet to admit. She has gone to live on the other planet now, and I cannot follow her. I can’t breathe in its atmosphere. I couldn’t tell you the last time we went dancing. She falls asleep with her face resting against my heart.
I kiss her forehead as I gently disentangle myself and roll off the mattress, pausing at the bathroom door to slip into a robe-Dani’s or mine, I can’t tell in the dark. Barefoot, I pad into the dining room, take a seat at the table. My toes curl around the rungs of the wooden chair. The room glows with a greyish light from the street lamps beyond the window.
My eyes roam the space before me. I regard the apartment as if I’ve just come back, years after having moved away. The comer of the living room where Dani kept her treadmill. The shelves that used to house all my books. I am a visitor from the future, regarding my present life with nostalgia. I do not feel sad. Perhaps Arshille was right.
I try to remember the techniques I used to meditate, deepening my breath, closing my eyes. I try to find that whiteness in my brain, that silken pocket. At some point I must have put my head down in my arms because the next thing I know the sky is nearly light and I’m awakened by the sound of the Sunday Times thwacking its heft against the sidewalk.
Taking just a moment to plug in the coffeemaker, I climb downstairs to retrieve the paper. Back upstairs I hear the hiss and drip of coffee brewing. I hear Dani groan in sleep and imagine her reaching for me. Across the street, a neighbour backs down his drive, headlights on.
But all this dims and recedes, like a memory of childhood, or the address of a place one used to live, as my eyes catch the front page story about the execution of dissidents in China. The stone walls of my prison cell are always cold. I have had an ache in my chest ever since I arrived here, seven years ago, I think. Without turning on a lamp, I begin to read the news in the eerie half-light of dawn.