Beautiful Wreckage by Jeffrey Ethan Lee
Every ex I ever had hated any trace of anyone before her. One was even fond of going through my old things, including the most mysterious objects. This was how I lost the most unique and strangely beautiful memento of someone I ever had.
It was a parking meter head that had washed ashore in Key West after a long time at sea—its back half had fallen off, its old mechanical parts were barnacle-encrusted, and white sand had calcified the metal parts. The see-through plastic window was faded, abraded and cracked. The dial still turned a little, but the red line on the remaining time was frozen. The blue metallic tint of the casing had absorbed the highlights of warm shallows and clear skies, and it felt impossibly light after changing in the sea. All together it looked like an abstract horseshoe crab with no tail.
When Gloria held it out to me as a farewell gift, I was stunned more than pleased. I was thinking then, as their farewell party was ending and the guests were starting to go, how much I wanted to see Gloria again. She asked me to stay longer, and I thought she was making the goodbye even harder than it already was.
She was wearing her long black dress so that the parking meter head shined against the soft dark folds of velvet. The ankle-length dress could have been worn by Frida Kahlo on a sad occasion—it was elegant and buttoned to a closed collar. It seemed entirely wrong for her body, but then after a while, it seemed completely right for her personality. It made an impression on me that was indelible. She was just twenty-eight, seven years older than me then.
Gloria told me how much she and Susan had contemplated the parking meter head that had washed ashore. They believed it had some special power. She had contemplated how the body held the traces of its history—a hurricane powerful enough not only to break it off but to shatter its seam. Or maybe the back had shattered when something struck. Or perhaps years at sea had slowly separated the halves, the screws eroding till nothing held them together anymore. The interior had been exposed for years. The shell had somehow eroded inside without rusting the still lustrous outer metal.
Gloria even went into their bedroom to dig up a photo of how it looked when she had first discovered it. It was like any Key West postcard—a gorgeous beach and brilliant waves, but the highlight was this decapitated parking meter head, half-buried in wet sand. They half-joked that it was an otherworldly transmitter—as if it contained not just the sound of the sea but messages we needed to hear from afar. Gloria herself didn’t know why it was so compelling to her, and Susan shared in her strange worship of this thing.
While their other friends from the restaurant were still saying their goodbyes, I was sitting by the stereo, looking at the music on the bottom shelf. Gloria and I both loved Keith Jarrett’s live concerts. Gloria came and stood so close to me that her hem brushed against me.
When I turned to her and looked up at her sly smile, she was almost whispering, “Feel how soft this fabric is. Wanna feel it?” I didn’t get a chance to answer because she was lifting the velvet into my hands and stepping closer—it turned out that the dress was slit over the knee. Then she lifted more fabric to me—the slit went much higher along her left thigh. “Feel how soft it is inside? See?” Her flashing soft white skin there and the silky rubbing across my fingers made my mouth drop open. “You can feel it up higher,” she was laughing lightly at me —she was enjoying this too much.
I looked up again into her face, and that only made it even more impossible to say anything.
The first time I saw her face it was one of those rare, terrible moments in my life when I sensed that everything I thought I loved was about to be eclipsed. Instead of everything I thought I loved, here was this new reality that revolved around this gorgeous Cuban-German profile, this lean and voluptuous smoldering, relentlessly intuitive person. She was just wearing jeans, a tee shirt, and dark shades (inside the restaurant kitchen, no less), but the aura of her passions was so strong it didn’t matter what she was wearing. I flashed a grin in self defense. She smiled back and quickly looked down and away.
It was devastating to learn that she was in a relationship for years with Susan, who also worked in the kitchen as a cook like Gloria. I just washed the dishes.
It was very confusing when Gloria asked me to work around her while she was peeling carrots one afternoon at the big deep twin sinks in the kitchen. She said softly, “You can work around me.”
She was standing up against the steel edge of the one empty sink, and then she leaned slightly over to peel the carrots. With this little adjustment of her body, I understood that she was inviting me to stand directly behind her to take the dishes from the sink full of suds on the right with my right hand, rinse them in front of her under the one jet of water, and lay them to her left with my left hand, for that was the way the dishes were done there. This meant I had to stand so close to her that I knew she could feel my breath all down her body even though I never touched her.
I couldn’t resist her invitation, but I couldn’t understand why she wanted me to do this. I kept soaping and rinsing the plates as though nothing had changed, and she kept peeling the carrots as though nothing had changed. I could feel her body heat rising—I almost felt her inhale, almost felt her tremulous breathing because I had to stand so near her to share the hot jetting water. I knew she felt my exhales down her back like warm waterfalls. My long arms were encircling her as though she were much smaller and clasped in a tango only we could hear.
The ribbons of fresh carrot shooting down, stroke after stroke, and the oozing suds on the dishes made the rhythm of her hands stammer. Her carrot grew wobbly, and the rhythm of the ribbons faltered—then she totally stopped. She let out a great, sundering breath from her diaphragm, and it was as though I felt her breathing straight through me—a tingling went through my whole torso and then down to the base of my spine.
That was when I knew.
There were earlier signs that I should have figured out. One night when we were finishing work, I was changing into a clean tee shirt in the bathroom. I thought the door was locked, but it swung briefly open and I saw her face gazing at me through the door, her mouth dropping open. I pulled my tee shirt down and closed the door to finish changing. When I got out, she couldn’t stop herself from asking, “How small is your waist?” When I told her, she gasped, “That’s as small asmine.” After a very long pause, she asked, “Can I see it again?”
I was a little surprised, so she quickly explained, “I want Susan to see it.” She called Susan over and asked me to lift up my shirt. They were so impressed they started speculating about whether I could fit into their dresses.
On another late night near closing time, when we were alone in the kitchen, she helped me roll up my sleeves, which was hard for me to do on the left sleeve because of how my right hand only partly worked. I was caught off guard by how gently and slowly her fingers moved around my arm, how she lowered her voice so I had to lean closer in to hear her. As I leaned closer, I forgot to listen to any of her words, but their warm music made the floor gently quake.
On the other hand, I never got the full picture of who she was; I saw so many sides of her—the cook who worked so hard in her thoughtful silences, the social worker whose tough street “kids” adored her, the Zen student, the strident self-identified dyke, the innocent lesbian surprised that I was so innocent that I didn’t know what a “dyke” was.
One night she came into the restaurant when she wasn’t working. I didn’t even recognize her, maybe because I needed glasses and had no money. Or maybe it was her reading glasses, which I’d never seen before. Or maybe it was the fact that she was sitting all by herself as far away from everyone as she could be. Oddly, without knowing who she was, I found myself looking at her. I wondered who was this lonely brunette with shoulder length hair and fair features taking so long to eat so little? I almost never saw a woman eating alone there. I wished that I could do something for her, but I thought I’d never seen her before and would probably never see her again.
A year later over a distance phone call I’d learn that she had come that night because she needed to just see me even though she never said a word to me. The waitress was the only person she talked to that night.
In a way, the parking meter head came to carry not just its own story but all of our stories. Even at the moment when Gloria handed it to me, I knew it meant a great deal to her. She didn’t actually say so, but I got the feeling that part of her life story was embodied in it. Then I felt I didn’t deserve it since we’d only known each other for a few months. They, on the other hand, having been together for years as a couple—with all the wear and tear and weariness of long relationships that are certainly going to end—may have felt that they didn’t deserve it either.
The only gift I’d thought to bring was in my head, a scrap of poetry by Lorca:
Pintame con tu boca ensangrentada
en cielo del amor
en un fondo de carne la morada
l’estrella de dolor
I wrote this for Gloria on the back of a paper plate and gave it to her. She was quite moved and then smiled, asking me if I knew what it meant. I had read the translation and thought of it as this statement of ultimate passionate love. She asked if I understood the mouth and the word“ensangrentada” together. She said “ensangrentada” was very strange Spanish, and you couldn’t really translate it except as, maybe, “bloodidated.”
Still not connecting the dots, I said, “That’s a pretty funny word.”
Finally, when everyone else was gone except Gloria and Susan and me, they asked me to do three things. But before they asked the big questions, in their little living room they kissed me. First, Gloria took my hands in hers as though we were dancing gracefully, swinging her arms into mine to pull me closer. She was so smooth that she made it feel like we had done this all of our lives. She kissed my mouth in a way that somehow gave more pleasure than any other kiss I had ever had. Her eyes were yearning when she let me go. That was the first question.
Susan kissed and hugged me, also, for an even longer time than Gloria. This was her way of saying, yes, this is really okay.
The second thing they asked me to do was to go live with them in Key West—they’d even support me until I could support myself. But it all seemed slightly askew, impossible to sustain, and wrong. The wrong part for me was that they loved each other, yet they somehow wanted to include me. I was sure that if I went with them they’d break up, sooner or later.
The last thing they asked me to do was to keep the parking meter head, this beautiful wreckage left by an ocean surge.
After they were gone for a long time, and after I lost a few jobs, nearly starved for a few months, and endured a bunch of other ordeals, I ended up in a cold garret with bullet holes in the windows and rain-stained bare plaster walls. I was eating on less than a few dollars a day.
I thought about Gloria almost every night in the cold in my brown sleeping bag, wide awake beside the parking meter head. I kept it close because it had been hers—I held it sometimes as if it were a pocket radio. By this point, I believed in its mysterious character, too.
Late at night, without making any outward sound, I cried out her name over and over inside my head—my voice was a goblet of boiling nails. I imagined my calling out searing across fourteen-hundred miles between Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Key West, Florida. Even my inner voice grew hoarse from straining so long. But it was closer to prayer, prayer at a moment of pure despair. For even then I knew she was just as human as me, unable to save herself or me or anyone else. I couldn’t help it anyway. I cried out to her for so many nights that winter. A few times I was even sure she heard me and answered in her own way.
Gloria sent me beautiful letters, cards and presents from Key West, and after she separated from Susan and found another beautiful woman, she was confessing over the phone, openly, for the first time, how much she loved me. She sounded very drunk, actually. She was drunk enough to even ask me about the inner voice. “You called out to me, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, surprised. It was a relief to know at least one other person in the world was as crazy as I was.
“And you knew, too,” she said, wanting to make sure.
“Yes,” I said.
“It woke me up.... I knew it was you.... Nothing like that ever happened to me before.”
“Me either,” I said.
Later, when she burst out, “I love you!” I realized that she had never actually told me this before.
I was happy and sad that she still loved me—I was afraid then that her new love would be as fragile as the last, and I didn’t want her to suffer more. Worse, though, was the fact that she was telling me all of this when it was too late—and from fourteen-hundred miles away. If we had ever had a chance, it would have been when we were living in the same place, long ago, before all the things we didn’t know about ourselves would make us break away.
© Jeffrey Ethan Lee 2013
Jeffrey Ethan Lee published towards euphoria (2011 Seven Kitchens Press Editor’s Prize co-winner), identity papers (2006 CO Book Award finalist), invisible sister (2003 Many Mountains Moving Press poetry book prize finalist), The Sylf (2001 Sow's Ear Poetry chapbook prize winner), identity papers (2002 Drimala CD); Strangers in a Homeland (2001 Ashland Poetry Press chapbook). Teaching at Temple University, he has a Ph.D. and MFA from NYU. In 2006 he volunteered to help MMM Press survive.
Beautiful Wreckage was read by Max Woertendyke for the Invention & Discovery Show on 5th June 2013