This is what you give a dying man: half your cheesy mashed potatoes from Boston Market, none of your sweet potatoes with mini marshmallows melted on top, and a rash of your go-go routine to CeeLo Green’s “Satisfied” in a pink fringe dress shedding sequins like pollen from its tassels. Your dress doesn’t quite cover your bum, so normally you wear sparkling magenta briefs over your underwear. Letting the audience glimpse what amounts to Barbie roller derby shorts for women whose thighs touch at the top is fine, because there is no vaginal contact and modesty isn’t anyone’s first concern with go-go dancing anyway. But Glen can see the real thing, your nude nylon panties creeping up your body’s deepest seam, because he’s gay and his eyelids have all but closed. Only a slim scythe of iris is left, the color of brown mustard or shifting sediment in the sun. This though he hasn’t taken a marijuana pill within a week or more, because he’d rather not sleep the day away, he says, even if there is nothing else to do.
At times like these, you know you’ll make a better patient than most, because you’ve long wanted a separate lifetime to do nothing but read, sleep, and sip hot chocolate that melts marshmallows into cream. But Glen’s cup feels cold in the air-conditioned room, so that he’s really only drinking Swiss Miss milk. In Houston, you have to keep the air on to light a fire, in a winter that’s no winter at all, which makes you grateful for real cold, for sweaters and frostbitten toes turned nacreous as new-fallen snow. If you didn’t have so much life left in you, you might want to be dying too, staring into the leaping flames, feeling your lungs fan themselves like lazing butterfly wings and memorizing no further routines. Only not here, not Houston. Somewhere fire can warm you away from Freon’s shroud, where you can freeze yourself numb in the open air. But that will have to wait a while. Until all your sequins have fallen to the floor.
You dance at the foot of Glen’s bed in your dusty brown tennis shoes with the flopping insoles, because your white pleather boots didn’t fit inside your backpack. Because you didn’t want to bring more than one bag on the plane from Chicago to Houston, not when you would see no one but a dying man, your husband, and his garrulous gay brother. When you wouldn’t bother applying mascara or lip gloss and probably wouldn’t floss. This morning you didn’t wash your hair and you didn’t shave your armpits, agape as prickly half moons when you step from side to side, reaching up to pick invisible apples then pivoting round an onyx sock lying limp beside the dresser, rotating your hips inside an orbit too tight to admit any starlight. You don’t give Glen the whole show, but then this isn’t real life. This is its unraveling.
Glen will see no more stars, because the firmament and its roiling luminosity are not of interest when you’re wearing a catheter. He will never have sex again. But then he doesn’t wake in the night crying with lust for strange men as you do. He wakes crying for other things, for sunburns on shoulders and mayonnaise congealed inside aluminum envelopes marked “tear here.” For elevator rides that make your ears pop. Things of no interest when there is still so much sex in the world. Since you’ve started go-go dancing, you’ve gone easy on the mayonnaise anyhow.
He’s lost 105 pounds since you’ve seen him last, Thanksgiving nearly two years before. Tom, you know, will have other partners, maybe within the year. In restaurants, he sits facing away from the light, so he looks 10 years younger than he is, his A-cup breasts pressing petulantly against slim-fit shirts. He never shows his teeth when he smiles, which he avoids for the lines that would otherwise enclose his lips like permanent parentheses, colored taupe with self-tanner. And who knows? He could be right. Smiles and sun may be hazardous. Tom hasn’t caught cancer and refuses to eat vegetables. He glowers at the French fries that sustain him in the dark and has low blood pressure and lean ankles. He could survive well on a frozen planet much farther from the sun than this one. The stars’ ceaseless combustion of light would do well to keep its distance, even if we are born of its effluvia, as you remind him. Even if dead suns are the chalk inside our bones.
We are evolved effluvia, he only says in response. Then he dips his fries in a coiled snake of ketchup, made from tomatoes grown in hothouses, skins distended with water recycled from who knows where. Houston, Tom says, has an underground city, where he spends more time than above ground now. The subterranean stores have better bargains too, he claims. There’s no need for sun at all anymore.
Glen has lips like rising caramel waves, a long gaze with almond pupils that expand and contract like a beating heart, breathing in light, exhaling shadow while he watches your face. Seven years younger than Tom, he looks older but better loved and he ate his vegetables too. He loved okra, cut its tapered lady fingers into little green wheels with seeds for spokes. He looks, even from a distance, like he could love someone without cutting them into pieces that might roll away. But that’s what comes of years of collecting pebbles smooth as bone on the shoals of Southern California, you think, of stowing them deep within his bedside drawer.
Love, however free people say it is, needs its own drawer. Because when you steal from the ocean, you need a dry place to keep your pebbles safe.
Glen will die with an ostomy bag attached to his stoma, a limp exoskeleton that occasionally bursts and soils the duvet. Glen is just about gone, and you forgot two turns in your routine’s final refrain. You forgot to pony and hully-gully just like girls with picnic table-print bikinis and invisible innie belly buttons at California beach parties circa 1962. So you just repeated more of the first part in their place, a little more absently than before. The dance may well have looked repetitive by this point. You may have looked slightly bored when visualizing the choreography, because your eyes roll back in your head when you’re seeing things in the past, within a mirror blanketing your dance studio wall a week and a half ago. But if you had remembered this last part, the missing boots wouldn’t have mattered. Even with the blinds shut, we could have all sat in the sun for a while, on a fresh duvet without any stains. If you’d done the jerk in time, nodding with your high ponytail whipping the cool, stale air. But then you forgot to pull your hair back too. You didn’t bring any rubber bands.
The last Thanksgiving you spent together, Glen didn’t make cranberry sauce or sweet potatoes. He’s the only one of the four of you who cooks, but the turkey, you couldn’t help noticing, was a little dry. You drank more water than wine, a Chilean red Glen observed you must not like, though it really just needed decanting. Not to taste as tart as yellow-green cherries, you explained. You’d bought the same brand at Trader Joe’s in Chicago and thought it good enough, but then you let it breathe. You’d had time. You personally thought he could have bought something a little more expensive, something from Whole Foods instead of Trader Joe’s. But you just kept sipping water instead. Without either cranberry or sweet potato juice—anything red or pink or orange or remotely colored like a sunset or slushy internal organs—swarming the turkey and cradling your plate’s Pangaea like a blood-stained ocean, though, it was all a little dry. Even the gravy was dry.
But then oceans only ever rise, erupting in a hurricane near the continents’ crust. Rivers eschew land. Wet runs to wet. The skies have to do all the real watering of plants and plains, even in the dessert, while the water largely keeps to itself. But then you are the only one of the four who menstruates. You are the rain. The red, red rain.
You don’t cook, though, just taste and remember. And all you can remember are turkey, stuffing, green beans, and mashed potatoes with gravy darker than you like, brown like mud stuck on horses’ hooves. The green beans came from the swamp with silt still settled deep within their rimples. Except for them, threading the stuffing and potatoes like reptilian veins, your plate was a cloud that would rain nothing but sand once the pressure broke. But you thanked Glen, told him the turkey was moist enough to sweat even with the air-conditioning on, a little too effusively to be believed. You offered him $40, but he loaded the dishwasher without listening, pouring himself another glass of wine and feeding his dog shreds of leftover rolls. If not for Glen, you would had stayed in Chicago and eaten burritos swollen with black beans and peppers. Watched no Golden Girls reruns. Missed Bea Arthur and her silk robe blouses trailing her hips like unfurling ribbon, but not had to pay for airfare.
Maybe Glen doesn’t like sweet potatoes. If not, he has nothing against marshmallows, you’re sure. Maybe because they’re gay, maybe not, but he and Tom both have a sweet tooth sweet as a girl’s, though you’re an actual girl and can’t stomach sugar cookies, which they keep piled inside a ceramic jar shaped like a Buddha’s head. Only the cookie-jar head is smaller than a real head, though people were smaller back then, you’re told. The Buddha’s nose is also cut too thin, you think. So that it’s nothing but an arrow with nostrils, a nasal passage strung with dental floss. Looking a little too tranquil and inured to odor even for the Buddha, who also has taut, thin lips. Not like any Indian man you’ve ever seen. With eyes sealed shut as a sepulcher, unwilling to watch a man with fuller lips die.
Tom has three full-bodied Buddhas in his three-story house, three sets of legs folded in an anchor’s knot with their rump spread wide to the ground. But Tom couldn’t quiet his mind for three seconds if his, not Glen’s, life depended on it. For Glen, he may sit longer than the cookie jar on its counter shuttered in his underground city. He’s said he would find a way to kill himself if he was the one with stage-four colon cancer, if he turned as ugly as Glen looks now, new wrinkles swarming round his eyes daily like planetary rings. Outside of work, Tom does nothing aside from shop and watch Fox News. Now, though, he also washes a succession of sheets soiled from Glen’s burst ostomy bags. Inside his car, talk radio caroms through speakers yet to hear an ungrumpy voice. While Glen sleeps with the cooking channel on, so loud you can hear it from the kitchen where you finish all your sweet potatoes, wiping the corners of your mouth with a moist paper towel. So that the marshmallow film is gone when you sidle back to Glen’s bedside, your tassels swaying side to side.
There is no silence here except inside the cookie jar, inside the Buddha’s shrunken head, void of everything except saccharins. No thoughts even of lotus flowers or sexy naked people. Glen hasn’t made any cookies in months, so you know Tom bought them from a store, the most for the least money. Because even though he’s rich enough, he’d never bother buying any cookies that weren’t hard as clumps of rat poison, so you’re sure you won’t be eating Thanksgiving here again. But then you’d rather have a bean burrito in the cold, stale sun. Sitting inside your apartment watching the rats dart between the dumpsters, because there’s not enough poison in all the world to kill all the vermin of Chicago. And because burritos are rarely dry.
Beginning next Tuesday, you’ll perform “Satisfied” once a week in the attic of a restaurant serving nothing but hamburgers stacked tall as rabbits’ ears, most topped with either pineapple or avocado or something similarly yellow or green. At lunch there with your troupe last week, you knew your waitress was a man, though at first she looked like an Argentine underwear model, with round copper breast tops and raven hair snaking artfully down her coccyx. But the register of her voice and the tufts of hair curling thickly on her forearms told you there was a penis beneath that pleated skirt. Normally you would have told Glen the story and high fived, because I had to send my burger back so that it didn’t leak blood, but you don’t repeat the story. You don’t want to seem mean.
You are one of the older ones in your group but from a distance look passably young, maybe because your legs are still so tan from summer. And then they slide into your white boots like a snake into a new sheath of skin, so that you slither when you’re dancing your best. Glen may have liked the boots, but then he has YouTube on his phone. There’s no end of this kind of stuff—go-go girls with better legs and boots than yourself—on the Internet if you want it. You can’t supply it all.
You rehearse in a white t-shirt with “Lolita” scrolled in bright orange letters across your breasts and a black skirt with charcoal leggings underneath. You’ve worn your pink fringe dress in public only once, to an Italian restaurant an hour before your last performance. The restaurant sits two doors down from the auditorium where you danced with ten other women in front of five of their spouses. Its owner, Massimo, is gay, and he typically tells you how nice your hair looks before you sit down, though you cut it yourself in the bathtub and the lenses of his glasses are so thick it’s hard to decipher the color of his eyes. Massimo’s eyes may be green and they may be brown, but he wanted to see you shake your tassels before you ate your bruschetta. Afterward, he clapped with his fingers splayed like peacock feathers, when you hugged then promised him you’d see him soon.
You haven’t gone back since, because his prices aren’t cheap and you like the fish po’ boy at the tavern next door, where you can get a glass of the house red for $6 rather than $10 and the bartender, who acts as your waiter as well, is not remotely gay. You would never wear your fringe dress and go-go boots here, because you have to behave differently with straight men pouring your water and decanting your wine. You can’t let them know you wake crying with lust for them at night. So you eat your po’ boy with a book in hand keeping your head down. You act as though you are dying, letting your eyelids fall, so that only a slim scythe of iris is showing.
Massimo is the name of the man you with whom you circled the Piazza Navona the last evening of July when you were 21 years old. When you were wearing a rose-print dress you have since folded in an azure suitcase with other clothes you won’t wear again, because you don’t collect pebbles and you have no bedside drawer. For his name alone, you might pay a few extra dollars and have a better meal—a side of broccoli rabe and a bowl of pumpkin soup if not a plate of tortellini or some pasta bolognese—and a finer glass of wine too, one that’s remembered to breathe. The po’ boy, you are starting to realize, tastes a little off. The mashed potatoes are from a mix. No one tells you how pretty your hair looks here, but then you can see the color of their eyes. Green and glistening as a turtle’s back just crawling from water to rock.
For years, Tom has told you to highlight your hair, blonde with sun streaks from no near star, but Glen never comments. Glen knows you do only what you want to do. He hears what isn’t said because the silence sounds larger inside of him. He listens to less talk radio, which keeps cancer from swarming your vital organs because so few of the talkers smile, eschewing parentheses too. Cooking shows, after all, are fairly quiet. When the meat sizzles, it sounds like rain. Inside Glen’s pupils, the darkness is clear and dark as within a Buddha-head cookie jar.
After your routine is over, after you’ve repeated more of the same sequence than you will next week when you remember to do it right, you turn toward the television and see a woman in a cerise sweater wrapping jasmine rice in grape leaves. So you sit on the brown rug beside the bed then begin prating about your trip to Turkey only the spring before. You didn’t buy souvenirs for Tom or Glen, but then you weren’t planning to see them soon. You also bought tickets to Savannah for Thanksgiving in August, you mention, before Glen’s diagnosis came to light, because they must make sweet potatoes right down there. Because beneath that Spanish moss will be plenty of cranberries and certainly some smattering of pecan pies. Glen didn’t make a pie last time either, just bought more sugar cookies you didn’t eat.
You don’t usually cook, so cutting a head of red cabbage in half is a revelation. A few weeks before flying to Houston, you tried making borscht. You had just begun chopping the cabbage when you found an Arab mosaic inside. You realized then that you didn’t have to go to Turkey at all, though you enjoyed the Turkish bath. So you tell Glen, who is now bald, there is nothing like having someone wash your hair while you sit naked on a warm marble slab. You tell him this still in your pink fringe dress and dusty brown tennis shoes, as the woman on TV wraps the grape leaves tighter, like gauze over a kneecap. A poultice for an invisible wound.
In Istanbul, you ordered dolma as an appetizer every evening at dinner, you effuse to Tom and Glen, who don’t like Mediterranean cuisine. You also bought three silk scarves from the Spice Market, selling considerably more than spices. And you plan to go back, if only for the smell of aniseed and coriander even deliquescing down the drainpipes alone. This you aver directly into Glen’s left ear, seeing that he is falling asleep, while the woman drizzles olive oil over the dolma like viscous rain, slicing them transversely into glistening wedges. But Glen may not like dolma either, which taste even better than sweet potatoes with mini marshmallows melted on top. Dolma taste like spring, like daffodils sprinkled with rice. They make a good April food, but this is October. This is dying weather. For dry turkey and wooden boxes.
On the plane ride home, you sit in front of a family of Turks, the men all wearing fezzes looking like velvet corks, the women’s necks swathed in scarves longer and prettier than your own, their patterns all giving the inside of a head of red cabbage a run for its money. You are grateful they’re sitting so near, even if the man behind you does thrust his knees into your back when he folds and refolds his legs. The women’s perfume smells of cardamom, and as the plane heaves itself off the ground you are aware you are already becoming habituated to the scent, far faster than you’d like, so that you won’t even be able to smell it by the time you land in Chicago. You’ll only know its sweetness by its absence once you exit the plane and the airport assaults you with odors of grease, gum, and gaseous urine. You’ll know you’ve lost it but without being able to conjure even its essence. You’ll wish yourself back within your airplane seat to bathe in the spice-scented air. But airplanes are not resting places. They fly too close to the sun for us to sit and survive in them for long. And their baggage compartments are small, too small for you to carry your go-go boots, in which you’ll soon slither and dance, forgetting anyplace as hot as Houston, where all seasons feel like summer and there’s very little to be thankful for. Where the best bargains are all underground.