**** Editor's Pick!!**
"..I also caressed barmaids who smelled like mermaids and I wanted to take them home and turn them to puppies who turn into oceans all night long."
by Nannette Rayman Rivera
She smokes, too.
It’s not that, it’s his obsession with them, the avalanche of money spent on them, the things she had to give up. At first it was little things, the latest dime store face cream promising to erase her newly drawn wrinkles, so tiny they look like feathers. Then it was the sweater with the finely sewn beads that looked like it went missing out of a 1940’s movie. She wanted it badly. Then it became her AFTRA union dues, and putting off fixing the wobbly crown in her mouth. Pain so rough she exhaled electrical vapors if the top tooth hit the bottom. How could she find a way out? she thought, as she lit up an Indian reservation cigarette and sucked in the smoke to calm herself. She hopes his taste buds aren’t finely tuned.
Jose continued smoking, face up on the bed. The smoke from his cigarette rose, losing itself in his curly hair, sending rings of holocaust shadow through the room.
"You know what, Lelani?" Lelani knew. She knew there was still time.
"I know, I know. You need more cigarettes. Always that. I’ll never be able to put one damn penny away. But what do you care, Jose? You have what you want, more than you could have expected. Yes, I know you love me more than the sky, but what is love, baby, without a little sacrifice? A man is nothing without his woman, nothing without the pain and pleasure of a good day’s work. Haven’t you noticed how I’ve taken you, no, plucked you right off the street, out of the low-life, and tamed you? Don’t you see how cute you are now, not like those other men, loud and crazy as loons, hanging their queue ball-heads over the sidewalk outside the shelter? Rorschach stains spreading along the thighs of their jeans onto broken bottles in their hands. They’re talking trash, demanding cigarettes."
"Oh, Lelani," mused Jose, "Oh, my sweet-tushy baby! Why do you have to go on like this? I’ll get a job. I will. Do you think it’s easy for me? With these ghosts and hallucinations flying at me, sizzling in my brain? Lelani?"
Jose stretches deep into the bed, yawns, and bites his fingernails the same way those men did. Only Jose has teeth. He turns his face to the closet, to all the colorful dresses inside. Lelani turns from the computer to the closet, itchy to put on the pale yellow sundress, the one Jose said made her look like sweet-butter melting. And she comforts herself in the others. Every color: fuchsia, peach, red, black, white, shell-pink, mint-green, all ladies-in-waiting to be touched and worn. Like so many distraught, lonely women, Lelani had fixated her desires onto clothes, and for her, sundresses. The perfect sundress. She imagined running in the sand, the dress billowing in soft breezes, the slight blush of nipple available to the eye. These dresses are absolutely necessary to her feeling of being female. First an expensive dress nipped at the waist, a strapless dress of palest lilac with a flouncy hem, and a black backless number with a keyhole at the breasts, chiffon ruffle at the neck.
* * * * * *
"Aumakua, please, please, I must have these dresses, find me a way. If I don’t have them another woman will take my man!" The price was much higher than she had imagined. It meant squirreling away dollar bills away from his calculating eyes, and smoking only half a cigarette at a time, doing without half and half, and drinking low-fat milky coffee. But finally she got them. After three months of euphoric days in which she was sure Aumakua lit the whole room, Lelani sets out for the shop with her saved dollars. Jose never misses them, lost in his own fugues of smoking ecstasy.
Then followed the bracelets that almost-hippie girls sell on the street, the new ones with the green or turquoise or violet beads; the music box that doubles as jewelry box with the Degas ballerinas painted on top, playing all those intense Rachmaninoff pieces. And a new locket like the one her father had promised to buy her, but didn’t.
* * * * * *
Every day she talks to her Aumakua, and every day she believes she gets an answer. She can’t remember when this all started. His is the only voice she hears in her dreams and in the last moments before she sleeps. Though he never fades, though his skin-stripped body is not always conjured, and even though he comes to her; she ignores his warnings of impending disaster.
Her whole life Aumakua had been all she needed. But she’s a woman now, with other needs. She needs to be looked after, cared about; she needs to touch that space on the back of a man’s neck.
* * * * * *
Before giving in to desire and debauchery, Lelani prayed to her relative-God to give her flower mantle energy. She must overcome this sickness, this yearning to stay in bed and melt into nothingness.
"Imagine, Amaku, sweet dolphin of mine, I believe I’ve found a reason to live. A reason beyond pretty dresses. I believe I’d like a buck."
"And what would you do with this buck?
"Imagine, Amaku, I could be connected to him, he would arrange it that no absence of money would matter. I would never be alone or almost on the street again. And I still have this mania of desiring to be the most beautiful, to wear the most beautiful dresses and shoes. Oh, within reason, of course. I know Manolo Blaniks are out of the question, well right now, anyway. I want what I want, and this time it’s a buck. A very sexy guy."
"A buck? Well, that’s all right. If it‘s a buck you want, it’s a buck you will have. Take care with him. Remember, you don’t know the shape his aumakua will take. Take good care to feed him well."
"But this man seems not to care about ancestors, except some Greek god of debauchery, which isn’t even one of his own ancestors, and he cares little of things right and wrong."
"Ohhhh, this must be the new species, Nietzcheus thrillingly above it-us. Beware of his nihilism. Be pure and good and continue to pray."
Lelani recited her prayer.
"Aumakua, grant me mercy. Pueo, my owl, please guide me! Eyes of blazing sugar, pray for me! Eyeteeth of ivory, bite my soul! Canine molars, rip me apart in the name of Noho. Pink penchant, swallow me under the tomb. Pueo, bird of wisdom, take me to the river! Crack my bones! Do not place them in the custody of another! Lelani amplified her prayers to poetic heights. "Brown buck, come now. Stallion, thwick, thwick, run your hooves over my blood. Design me with scrumptious bruises…"
Then one day Jose came with his hands soft like orchid petals full of sex.
At first she didn’t see him as any more than one of those Spanish men who lurk on corners, purple mouths full of lust, whispering words, Hey, bebe preciosa. One of those men with long hair and dirty Levis who reads Don Quixote, a lock of that hair always falling over one eye. At first she swung her hips in a sinewy dance away from him, to a safe place.
"Baby, could you come over here and tell me how a woman like you walks by a place like this?"
"Amaku, he’s come, he’s here. A buck. My own."
* * * * * *
He was one of those men who ends up clawing, scratching inside of you, deep enough to take all your years to heal. He approaches in a smirk, her breath is betraying her, she’s in danger because he walks right by her, spilling truth in gasoline words, in hunger, her resolve growing weaker as the sky becomes a husky sun, tight bones of heat.
And one day he nudged her arm with his nose. From that moment, Lelani decided that Jose would be her pet. Someone to take home to coddle her. Someone to shape into a man who will buy her dress after dress; a man who will swoon at the thought of tearing them off her.
And one day he licked her face. She decided she would keep him locked away in her apartment. In that exhilarating moment, Lelani decided that Jose would be the next splendid thing to take home. He moved all his shirts and jeans, those Harley Davdison boots into her closet, silver buckles gleaming.
She’d collar him and swamp him with so much love, it would be a shackle. She’d guide him to marriage and his hard body would brush her heartache away. There she’d place him on the bed next to her, her very own man like her very own dresses. Perhaps Jose wouldn’t buy her enough, but what did it matter? The collection of spectacular objects would come to its end with the buck finally cowering and sedated.
But something unexpected happened. In her arms, Jose began to turn into a puppy. An adorable scruffy house pet she could cuddle with and play with and walk on a leash. And Lelani, whose hope was to devour and to be devoured, now heard only quiet barking.
Lelani yearned to walk her man like a trophy. As if he was a prizewinner and a very loyal buck. All along the avenues every woman would come out to see him - windows swung open, and from flowered balconies they’d throw kisses and geraniums, and little girls would stop playing with dolls. Even the sick rising to see him. The entire way she was afraid he would flirt with another and he would fall hard from this pedestal, that she would be shamed, and that it is a very long fall to the pavement. That his white tee shirt would become filthy and that he would lose the stars in his eyes for her. She was uneasy the whole way for fear that he would leave her; that he would lose his balance from strutting, the insides of him spilling out.
* * * *
Jose smoked one cigarette after the other right down to the filter, burn marks yellow on this fingers. He stopped caring if Lelani could buy the newest confection in the dress shops. He disappeared into his lonely head of psychotic voices who told him over and over she didn’t really love him. That she wasn’t real. Her silky hair and perky breasts, her luscious lips were figments dancing in his head. If she even went to check the mail, he thought she would never return as a live breathing woman. Yet he often left her alone when the money and his cigarettes had run out. At every month’s end he trolled the sidewalks and the ashtrays set outside the bars for the smokers. He asked for cigarettes from the free, American patrons forced to smoke outside while their Becks and Sloe Gin Fizzes watered themselves down inside.
"Do you know what, Lelani? There at the bars while I picked up cigarettes, I kissed very elastic girls who turned to putty in my arms. When I embraced them they smelled like cigarettes, acrid and absorbent. I also caressed barmaids who smelled like mermaids and I wanted to take them home and turn them to puppies who turn into oceans all night long."
Lelani knew that one of these jaunts would be the ultimate end. When Jose kissed her for the first time, throwing her down on the grass by the East River, Lelani told him, no, that people kissed only after a long friendship, after a constant and tenacious pursuit of words and plans. Lelani was weaving a long chain of commitments, of responsibilities.
"Lelani, you’re sweet as a sparrow and conniving as a snake."
"Kisses are roots, Jose."
* * * *
There they were. Words. Her first impulse was to pretend she didn’t hear them. The beat of the rain and the words bulging in the windows with the day’s fill of wet, then black and more black under the swell of those words. The calm river overflowed and the words spilled out in torrents. They fell like terribly ripe fruits beginning to decay. Primeval words that bring us back to Eden. To serpents and grass and naively naked bodies.
Still, Lelani and Jose talked. They talked as they never had before. Then the conversation became intimidating and mongrel, having no course of its own except rage. Their chatter mystifying and now unnecessary. Beyond all the words, a tableau, like a beautiful and ominous painting.
And Lelani had to admit her puppy was sick of being nagged. How that wrinkle in his brow was accentuated. She lit one of her own cigarettes, a luxury, dropping the match. Wearily she brought her hand to her face and covered her mouth. Jose was a puppy but maybe not hers forever…How ridiculously controlling and almost violent he had become lately…How the room smelled of smoke. Maybe Jose wouldn’t even notice…It would be so easy to just lie down next to him, feel the fire engulf them as he slept dreaming of his morning cigarette.
*Puhi Paka – To Smoke Tobacco
Nanette Rayman Rivera writes from New York City. In 2007 her first poetry collection, Project: Butterflies was published by Foothills Publishing. Her first chapbook, alegrias, was recently released by Lopside Press. She won the Glass Woman Prize for non-fiction in May of this year. In 2006 she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Arsenic Lobster for poetry and Dragonfire for non-fiction. Chantarelle’s Notebook nominated her for Best of the Net Anthology. Other publications include The Berkeley Fiction Review, The Pebble Lake Review, MiPoesias, Lily, Aiofe’s Kiss, The Worcester Review, Carve Magazine, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Pedestal, Sein Und Werden, Carousel, Barnwood, Wheelhouse, Poesia, Anti-Muse, Stirring, including Stirring’s Steamiest Six, Wicked Alice, Snow Monkey, Small Spiral Notebook, Three Candles, DMQ Review, Chantarelle’s Notebook, including Featured Poet in August, 2007, Flutter, Jack, Words and Pictures, The Externalist, Grasslimb, A Little Poetry, Her Circle, The Centrifugal Eye, Red River Review, 5 Trope, Velvet Avalanche Anthology, TRIM Anthology, The Cherry Blossom Review, and Mindfire Renewed, Forthcoming: Panamowa. Farrago’s Wainscot.