November '05 -- guest edited by Claudia Smith
Caroline hesitated. "I don’t know," she said, and averted her eyes, feeling the waves of warmth sweep her again.
Caroline looked at him. "What?"
"My old lady had it. I know all the symptoms."
"I hardly think--"
"Don’t think," Ben said. "That’s my advice. Herbs help, she said. Orgasms."
Caroline looked at her fingertips. "Maybe I’d better leave."
"No," Ben said, and directed his attention to his painting. "You don’t have to. Please. I’ll just shut up."
Caroline stood up. "I feel a little sick," she said, then closed her eyes.
The room was half-dark. Photos covered the walls, most of them snapshots of Ben. She leaned up on her elbows, glanced. Everything pink. This must have been the "old lady’s" room, Caroline thought, and then saw her on the walls: a slender, open-faced woman with streams of long black hair.
Caroline leaned against the headboard. At first she thought he’d drugged the coffee. Then she realized that she’d made it. She’d just intruded on his life, acted stupidly, gotten high on honeybuns, passed out. It wasn’t as if she’d never fainted. The menopause had given her lots of strange symptoms.
And then there was a knock.
A light, discreet knock.
What the hell, Caroline thought.
"Come in," she called.
He’d changed his clothes, was wearing a bright blue denim shirt and new jeans: he looked much cleaner, though a big swath of gauze made his left arm seem enormous. He held a china platter in both hands, and--atop it--a cup.
"Brought you some green tea," he said. "It’s supposed to be good for you."
Caroline sat up straighter. "Did I--pass out?"
He sat down on the bed, keeping the entire space of another body between them, handed her the cup. "Drink up."
Caroline took a sip and winced.
"Why’d you look me up?"
He’d finally asked.
"I don’t know," Caroline replied. "Still figuring that out."
"Can I help?"
"Do you want to?" she asked, then drank her tea, shuddering because it was hot.
She wanted to ask him about the bandage but felt shy. So she stayed in the bed, sipped the green tea, which wasn’t bitter but delicious, little flecks of something floating. "Aaah," she said, "wonderful," though there was no one to hear. She supposed that Ben was painting in the next room. She should have gotten up, should have gone home, to bed: she’d have to make up today’s work tomorrow, and she still hadn’t decided whether to include O’Keeffe’s Unititled: Red and Yellow Cliffs, 1940 or The Cliff Chimneys, 1938 in the exhibit. It seemed clear she couldn’t have both: they were both landscapes of the rugged New Mexico that she loved, and the paintings would only compete with each other in terms of an aesthetic reaction.
Finally she heard water running. Still she didn’t get up; she wanted only to lie here, cup clasped in her palms. She wondered if Jake missed her. Wondered if he’d called her apartment. Probably not. She pictured him, his body. How sticky she felt when he got up after sex.
She didn’t feel like herself anymore.
Instead, she felt powerful.
When she woke up again, the room was dark. She was lying on the mattress, dressed, a thick pink blanket covering her. Her head hurt, but it could have been a period migraine: despite the pain, she didn’t feel compelled to leave. She lay there gazing at the ceiling, at the headlights of passing cars, at the dark spider crawling across plaster. There was a truth in this room: she felt it.
Her limbs felt different, too. Her arms and legs aching, as if she’d weathered a few blows. She shoved her sleeves up: no bruises. Suddenly she thought of the Sally Mann photos she’d seen, "Dream Sequence," out-of-focus shots--Polaroids--of a mother and daughter entwined, the mother hovering over her daughter, their faces elongated and hazy, incestuously poignant.
Caroline rolled over on the bed. Tasted the stale pillow fabric. Unwashed, she thought. As he was.
When his arms eased under her chest, when his weight settled atop her back, the night seemed darker, and she wasn’t surprised.
She thought he’d enter her from behind. Jake, after all, loved that sort of mystery, though Caroline might have categorized it differently--as craving a lack of intimacy, perhaps. But Ben didn’t do this. He lay on top of her, breathing, and she didn’t feel his erection. Then, he lifted the back of her dress, unhooked her garter, tugged down her panties, rolled down her stockings. Guided her with his hands, turned her over, opened her.
"I’m bleeding," Caroline said. "I mean--I’m wearing a tampon."
"Take it out," he said, and went down.
That was what they were made of, she thought. The blood and the bones and the flesh, separated out into features, faces, but when you got down to the level of the cell, of DNA, who could tell the difference? Blood and bones. And paint. It was all the same. Climaxes were for animals. And she was an animal. Ben. Their DNA would prove it. His face was tucked under her breast. She reached down, caressed his hair, discovered that she could move her fingers through it: he’d washed it. Discovered, in lessening moon from the barred bedroom window, that there were deep slices along his arm. "What did you do?" she asked, tracing the ridges. "Is that blood?"
She didn’t know if he’d answer.
She thought he was asleep.
"Drip painting," he replied, and shifted his face beneath her right rib. "If the art form doesn’t develop, it dies."
"Where else would I take it?"
She hesitated. "You’re drip painting with your own blood? That’s crazy," she said.
He looked at her, traced his arm wounds. "Haven’t you ever wanted to be somebody else? Somebody whose life seemed better than yours? Fuck. I’d rather be a fake Jackson Pollock than a real Bentley Wells."
"Maybe, if you believed in yourself, you could be just as good."
"Nah," Ben said, and laughed. "Not in this lifetime."
She didn’t understand but let it pass. A strange night, she thought. But that was all right. She’d never experienced much strangeness of any type, and it had made her feel old. It had made her feel tired.
She was bones and flesh and fur on the bed. The pillow against her neck. He was whispering, whispering, when the sun came up, spreading a dirty pink haze, and the sheets clung to her arms, soaked. She peeled them off, watched him walk out...to make coffee?
She stood up, and her legs wobbled. She gripped the bed’s baseboard, headed to the first room she spotted.
She thought she was going to the bathroom.
She stopped on the threshold.
It was his animal studio. This was where he sculpted: clumps of wire everywhere, giraffes and foxes and wolves so real that she started back though they surrounded her. She could feel their teeth in her hands. Their hot, blunt breath on her neck. Her vagina ached: raw. She was walking through the woods and they were there, all the animals, and she sat down on the ground and she was sitting on the floor. And the animals--wire constructions--had painted plastic eyes. Black pupils. Green irises. She studied them as she backed. The O’Keeffe retrospective. She had to get back to the O’Keeffe retrospective. Instead, she wandered to the window, peered between the bars, touched her hair, twined it into a braid. She thought about bones, about walking through the New Mexico desert, picking the best pelvises up, two chows, a black and a gold, in tow. Was she a real Caroline Johnson…or a fake Georgia O’Keeffe? Caroline peered between the bars, smiled. Suddenly she whispered, "God told me He would give me the Pedernal if I painted it."
And then she went to the kitchen.