Lack of Oxygen
He was a lawyer. He thought about other people’s problems for a living. He got to pretend that his own life was unassailable. He used thoughts like carpenters use nails and boards. The more difficult a case the more alert and engaged he became. Conscience and worry weren’t parts of the plan.
He rinsed his hair of his night problems, and shaved his face four times a day, twice with the grain and twice against the grain. He scrubbed his hands with a bristle until they were almost bleeding pink. He was unassailable by day but vulnerable by night. He shook sleeping people (women and girls) as if they were dead. That was just the beginning. He was a pharmacist. His problem was that he wasn’t resting well. But there was something to take for that. He hadn’t talked to his wife about it. But there had been at least ten incidents. I didn’t know anything about any it at the time. He looked secure in his own skin to me. His thoughts were definitely his and not someone else’s.
He toweled off. Thinking was a normal pleasure. He was a anesthesiologist in southern California, a deeply tanned man with a pencil-thin mustache. He believed that he existed to educate others, that all his beliefs were true.
When I was alone with the girl one day he came home unexpectedly and he trapped an insect that was crawling on the white carpet. He balanced it on the tip of his finger and told me to look at it closely. I was his employee, so I did as I was told.
“Observe the coloring, the wing structure.”
He told me to find an empty jar in the pantry. He put the bug in the jar, screwed the lid on light, and smiled. A minute passed, two minutes, then I told him to let it out. He looked at me blankly. Five minutes passed and I nearly shouted, “Let it out! You’re killing it!”
That was what he’d wanted to hear because he smiled, and said, “I’m not killing it, the lack of oxygen is killing it.”
My body shook with rage, or like a leaf, really.
But still he wouldn’t let the insect out.
“Why are you killing it?” I asked.
He said, “I’m not killing it. The lack of oxygen is killing it. I told you.”
He looked at me with compound hatred.
“Don’t you like oxygen? Do you wish that oxygen were less of a bully? Is that it? Is that how you would like the world to be?”
He waited for a response.
But I didn’t have one, not in words.
He said, “I suggest you examine your prejudices before you go accusing me of mine!”
We heard the front door opening. It was his wife, surely to save the day.
I ran into the kitchen. She was carrying two bags of groceries in. I told her what was happening. She went to unscrew the lid and we three ran outside to let the bug out in the grass. The littlest girl and I were trembling.
But she said nothing.
He was like that.
I wanted to hold her.
It was the first time I’d wanted to hold her, united against that man. But she didn’t want me to.
She told me to take the girl for a walk. Go anywhere we wanted to. Take all the time we needed.
The baby’s name was Susan, which was a grownup name, and she was like a grownup. She only cried when it was absolutely necessary. She knew quite a lot of sign language. Fifty signs so far, I would imagined. Everything from up, down, feed me, change me, take a nap, et al. She was a smart and self-sufficient baby so I didn’t hesitate to take her to the Bar for Unwed Mothers.
The light in the bar was so dark I had to open my eyes wide just to catch a glimpse of my acquaintance across the table, a woman who used to be me my neighbor across an alley. She had a baby too, I think, but I’d never met her. It was so dark individual rays of sunlight could be seen coming through tiny cracks in the wall which angled down to the floor.
“You’re expecting and unwed?” she said.
I drank from my orange juice mixed with rum.
“I’m not expecting anything, anymore – not a damned thing!” I said.
She drank from her Diet Coke mixed with crushed ice.
I deferred to her to hold up my end of conversation from then on. I’d established myself as a young rogue. She told me about even darker bars than I knew. Places where I couldn’t be see. Places where the person you were talking to could become someone else.
That’s why people went to the Bar for Unwed Mothers – to trade partners in the dark because it was fun, and a good way to get totally wasted. Not that feeling totally wasted felt good, but the next day felt like you’d cleaned the slate.
My head felt softer and lighter the more I drank. I liked the feeling. I knew alcohol was the biggest flirt human beings had invented. That’s how I’d met my boyfriend. Isn’t that how you met your boyfriend? Did I forget to tell you that I left the baby outside in her carriage by the door?
I laughed while I cried because I was on my third OJ and Rum, like it was raining and the sun was shining. I also hated and loved – hated the man, and loved the woman and the girls. I left myself out of it for now. The only way to handle it was to be objective.
My drinking partner agreed.
In fact, after four or five in quick ones I wound up feeling pretty good.
“Alcohol is an exceptional flirt,” she said.
“Boy, don’t I know,” I said, and I tipped back her Diet Coke and crushed ice.
“Another cocktail?” asked the perky little waitress who used birth control.
“In a sense I do,” I said, “and it is nice scene in here. H ah a.”
“But actually,” I continued, “There’s a wealthy man waiting at home in the hills who really wiped me out today.”
I let it be vague.
I felt if I story again it would lose its punch to the gut.
And I felt more intriguing being mysterious.
“I’ll get you double. Same price as one. In case you have twins,” said the perky waitress on birth control, and she laughed, then went behind the bar to chit chat with the bartender for a long time before coming back with a single.
When I got what I thought was my double I proceeded to get just more than half drunk – a dangerous place for a nanny on duty to be . But I’m Mexican, I can handle it. And then the inexplicable happened, a Mexican walked in. A Mexican man. In the Bar for Unwed Mothers. He sat right down in my booth like he knew me. Hell, he was my old boyfriend.
“How’d you find me here?” I said.
“Yellow pages,” he said.
He was good at being droll. But he was also a stupid dullard and a heroine addict (yes, addicted to women like me). A deep down addict who could never quite manage to climb out of the hole of self-uselessness because he could dreamt so incessantly about hitching his wagon to my star). A romantic Mexican, five foot two inches tall.
He wasn’t somebody I’d ever wanted to hang around with much. Yet we’d gone out six months. Doing what? You guessed it. A therapist once said that I shouldn’t blame him for being an addict, so was Jesus Christ, who started doing heroine when he was a little baby boy born in a manger.” Only a loving psychiatrist would say that, don’t you think? Are you allowed to think of things like that? Anyway, he never excited me “intellectually,” you might say. And I need intellectual excitement, it stimulates my clitoris, and I’m not kidding, not one little bud. They go together. They date. They’re lover. My psyche and my pussy. So I sent him on his way, texting, “it’s over now and forever.” I didn’t capitalize the words or sign it. But then who signs texts? Anyway, what did he expect? What was he expecting now? Why had he burst into the Bar for Unwed Mothers where he clearly wasn’t welcome, even though it was pitch black and nobody recognized him. Did he want my baby? Too late for that, hombre.
“What are you doing here in this bar!” I demanded to know.
He said nothing.
“Don’t they have bouncers here?” I shouted. “You’d think they’d have bouncers in a bar for unwed mothers around here?”
He said nothing.
I said, “Observe the coloring, the wing structure …”
It didn’t make sense to him.
“Look what happens when I slip into this jar and close the cover and wait. Wait, wait for what happens next? Are you following along, my ex?”
“I’m not killing it,” I said, “The lack of oxygen is killing it.” Then I looked at him.
He didn’t care one way or the other who was killing the bug, or if the insect was going to die or not.
I stabbed him in the eye with my eyes. I concentrated on his left eye, his strongest.
A waiter came. This time a male. I didn’t know they had male waiters in the Bar for Unwed Mothers.
I said, “Psst, masero! un otro jaro de gin, por favor.” but I wasn’t gin, I was drinking rum. I was all mixed up. My ex should have stepped in and corrected me, but he didn’t of course, because he didn’t have my best interests in mind. This book is about many more me’s than I can count! I’m finally being honest! Not the goody-goody seventeen year-old girl everybody thought they saw.
He said, “What?”
Those were the first words he’d said since he’d come in, can you believe it?
I said, “I said, R-u-m. R-u-m. R-u-m,” each letter of each word very slowly, as if he were very drunk and I was totally sober.
He said, “You’ve forgotten how to roll your r’s, gringa.”
I looked at my acquaintance with contempt for she was admiring the long purple birthmark that went up and down my x-boyfriend’s cheek. She could have it, him, and the former baby. And they could have the new house and the next baby too. Because you either loved that birthmark or you hated it. Most people were afraid of it. Actually it was the thing that had really attracted me to him. It hurt me, viscerally, in my guts, just to look at it. Just to be there with it in the room roiled my innards, and you know what else is in my innards? Vibrations were sent directly to the center of my clit. I saw that my acquaintance was feeling this too. I saw him looking at her too – ah, another single, half-attractive, half-drunk, half-committed to nothing single mother – just his kind!
“I came here to tell you …”
But I didn’t even let finish, and I didn’t say, “Excuse me,” I merely dropped to the floor, snuck toward the front door on my hands, knees and belly, groping my way past chair legs and human legs that I couldn’t tell apart until I touched them, until I found the exit.
When I stood up outside, the sunshine was sharp and horrible. The baby carriage was … still there. The baby pressed her thumb between forefinger and middle finger, signaling that she’s pooped in her diaper.
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll change you when we got home.”
I sang as many of the lyrics to Itchycoo Park as I knew as I ran with her home.
“What will we see there? We’ll see the sky? What will we do there? We’ll get high-high-high. In Itchycoo park there is a la la. And it’s all so beautiful. It’s all too beautiful.”
I wanted to tell her that The Titanic had sunk in April, and that when The Titanic sank the word “titanic” sank too, literally, after that, going from invulnerable, unsinkable, and strong to vulnerable, sinkable, and weak. Or rather a word that nobody dared use any more. It was from the era of the anaestheologist, when technology and men were linked inextricably to the future hubris of the infinitely progressive.
Ah, but it was just L.A. Missy Elliot, toss T.S. Elliot. Where everything is always the same beautiful so if you’ve got a problem go inward, you had to.
The infant named Susan began to cry. I knew what she wanted. She wanted to be picked up and held. She signed as much (index finger in the air). Nobody likes to go unheard. But I just wasn’t in the mood.