Still Life

I lie and say this scar’s a gift from my cat. Three inches long, hypertrophic, silver and purple; it’s like the hidden seam in taxidermy, only inside out. People look doubtful—including Ana who’s got more scars than a lightning tree—but when they meet my cat, wild thing, they believe. She’s feral with six toes, a clipped left ear and a face like a chupacabra. I put food out for her on the window sill when I hear her purring, then see those glowing lantern eyes in the night. She doesn’t like to be touched. Only when she steps through the window onto the kitchen table and pushes her fanged face into my hand, do I run my fingers through her matted tabby coat. I click my tongue for her, my wild thing. She disappears for months at a time then suddenly shows up. She’s like Ana in that way. 

Ana was wild with excitement when she called me out of the blue, this after a year of giving me a cold shoulder. She told me she was engaged to Jake. Truth told, I’d been waiting for her to dump that fool. You see, Ana’s my girl, somos guanaca-americanas. First generation Salvadoreñas born in the empire. I’ve known Ana since I was twelve years old.  We met in the 90’s in San Francisco, at a free summer day-camp—provided by the city to keep kids like us from spending our whole vacation on the couch in front of a TV. In my case, a plastic chair in a hospital lounge, waiting for Ma to finish her chemo treatments. At camp, a smiling woman with a long blonde braid, taught us how to draw dogs with #2 pencils: two ovals, a circle for the head, triangles for ears, a trapezoid nose, add the legs and a tail. I colored my dog pink and silver, Ana’s had blood dripping from its mouth; we looked at each other and saw artists. By fall, we moved through the world like conjoined twins: Raquel and Ana, a four-armed two-headed beast tumbling down the halls of our Junior High School. We dressed in black, wore purple lipstick, got sugar high on gas station icees and scribbled live wild and die free on bus station shelters. I knew Ana like I knew myself. 

Problem was, I knew Jake, too. Met him a few years ago, when he answered my ad: caramel skinned seductress, girlfriend experience.  I waited for him on 43rd in my high-tops and cotton dress, surprised by his dopey smile. The springy way he walked in his leather oxfords as we passed the 90 cents a minute jack-off booths and the I <3 New York T-shirt shops, up to Martina’s apartment. The apartment had a king-sized bed in the living room, a side table with vanilla scented candles and a glass vase filled with marbles, for the occasional rose. The deadbolt-locked bedroom door, where Martina lived hid behind a velvet curtain. Jake wanted me to spoon him, he wanted to brush my long black hair, he wanted to practice his Spanish pointing to different parts of my body with a crooked index finger. “Comeré el dedo,” I said and bared my teeth. Then, he slapped me. 

Flipping burgers. That’s most of the guys I see. You want cheese on that? No one had slapped me before. Ears still ringing, I pulled my scalpel from under the pillow and growled, leave now. “Guess you don’t like it rough,” he said and put his hands up with a smirk. But I saw fear flash in his eyes; didn’t take him long to get dressed. What would he know about what I like? I’m not in the business to make friends or get disrespected; I’m in it to pay the bills, and I won’t see just anyone. There are women who will. One girl saw all the black-listed clients. She took pride in it, like she was tougher than the rest of us. She wore scarves to cover up the bruises around her neck, but she’d vanished. No one could find her and not because we hadn’t looked.

That’s how it is: People come and they go. Who knows where. I came to New York to work on my art, and ‘cause Ana’s here. Eventually, I’ll live in the desert with solar panels and a house made from mud. Belong to no government, spend no money, make no profit for myself or anyone else. Una mujer salvaje. When I disappear, you’ll never find me. 
 

Not long after she’d broken up with Mauricio, Ana brought that baboso, Jake, to my group show in Chelsea. My piece Deer/man came from an ongoing series about the legacy of war, something we Salvadoreñas know a lot about.  Ana’s mother left El Salvador after her daughter, Ana’s sister, was murdered and her husband disappeared by el escuadrón de la muerte. The death squads. Wiped off the face of the knowable earth.Deer/man had the head of a stag attached to a silicon torso of a man. The deer skin tapered into a v at the solar plexus. The hunted and the hunter stitched together. Deer/man protruded from a mirrored wall-mount shaped like a crest. I wanted people to see their expressions as they thought, poor deer. 

While explaining my work in rogue taxidermy to another artist ––how I take my scalpel and shave away bits of fat and sticky veins before rubbing salt into the hide; how I carefully diagram muscle structure before making a plaster cast–– I saw Ana from across the gallery, and waved her over. Ana’s beautiful: Full-lipped, gallon-sized breasts, wide hips, narrow but soft waist. A two-hourglass figure. She popped out of the crowd by my side, then Jake by hers. 

When I saw him, my cheek burned and my mouth went dry, as though someone had stuffed a stocking down my throat. She introduced me and I smiled helplessly, thinking, of all the eight million people in New York, how the fuck did this creep sniff out my girl? Not to mention, I’d never told Ana how I butter my bread. She whispered in my ear, “He’s the one,” but I could barely hear over the sound of my heartbeat. I excused myself and turned back to the artist, loudly continuing to tell her how I dismember the cadavers, the difficulty of removing the cheeks. She patted my shoulder and headed to the bar. 

“No, no,” Ana was saying to Jake, as I turned back to them. “Raquel’s sculptures are about embodiment. About historical memory.”  

“It’s animal abuse,” Jake said pushing his sorry hands into the pockets of his prep-school khaki’s. He ignored me and stared at Ana with an expression like he’d hung a vacancy sign in the blue windows of his eyes.

I explained that factory farming was animal abuse. That I only used road kill. For conceptual and ethical reasons.

“Ethical?” he asked. “So, do you make enough money to support yourself with your art?”

My face flushed and I grabbed Ana’s hand.  “¿Como lo conociste?” 

“The internets.”

“He reminds me of Mauricio,” I said. Ana dropped my hand and shot me a wounded look—those doll-eyes wide, lips parted like I’d stuck her with a knife. Two years later when I ran into her, after she’d married Jake, I’d remember that look. Betrayal. But, by then, she knew what she’d been stuck with.  

If I’d been thinking clearly, I would have pulled the gag out that night in the Chelsea.  I’d never told Ana about my work ‘cause every time I thought about coming clean, I’d remember all the afternoons we spent side by side on the pink carpet of my Ma’s living room floor pretending to do homework, but actually plotting our art world establishment takeover. She went on to work for an arts non- profit for the children of immigrants. I wanted her to think of me as the artist, not the puta. But I wasn’t thinking clearly.  

I called her up a few days later to apologize, knowing she’d be pissed I’d brought up Mauricio.  Ana had been with him for years. When I moved to New York in 2005, I took the train over to South Slope, where they lived together. I’d found their building and walked up the four flights of stairs, expecting to be warmed by the face of an old friend. Together again! But, Ana stood at the door cold and thin, too thin, and pale. Only her eyes gave heat, but not the warming kind. I didn’t see Mauricio that day, but I saw his bruises on Ana’s arms. Deep purple thumb prints on her bicep. I’d run my fingers across the ragged cuts that scarred her wrist. “I didn’t do it to hurt myself,” she said. “I did it to hurt him.”

I tried to warn Ana, “That guy Jake es malo. I can see it in his eyes.”

“No, girl,” Ana said. “You’re not seeing what I’m seeing.”  

Jake sent me an email to my work account asking for my “professional discretion in the matter.” He promised they really were in love. That she needed his help. I couldn’t imagine what she needed him for, so I didn’t reply. I tried calling Ana a few more times, suggested hang outs, but she was always too busy. Even though I worried about her, I kept my distance. I wanted her to be Ana, to stand on her own two feet, not wrapped around somebody else’s.
 

A few weeks after running into Jake, I saw another ex-client out in the world. Michael. After working at Martina’s, I sometimes went for dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Theater District. A place I couldn’t actually afford, but justified as “self-care.” I looked up from my food to see him with a woman his age and two teenage kids, sitting right across the restaurant from me. I’d seen Michael every week for two years before he disappeared. He’d told me he was single. He’d said something about moving to Westchester to be near his dying mother. I can’t remember. What I did remember, while watching him delicately slice his steak, was the hotel on Lexington. A cold light beamed through a floor to ceiling window. I laid my hand on his warm chest and watched his breath quicken and tears stream out of his eyes. “I didn’t know I could feel this way again,” he said.

“I’m so glad you can feel,” I replied and let my eyes beam with joy. Not for his emotions, but ‘cause I knew each tear would turn to money in my hand. Michael and his family all looked unhappy, like no one could bother to think of anything to say.  The woman, especially. She stared at the single noodle skewered on her fork, apparently lacking all appetite.  

The teenage girl knocked over her water glass, and the woman chucked a napkin at her. Michael looked up with a face full of desperation. He saw me: The secret. He met my eyes, but looked right through. 

It scared me. The secrecy of the secret. I felt my body slide out of focus. Could anyone actually see me? Was I disappearing from the knowable earth? I decided then, the next time Ana came around I’d tell her everything. But almost a year went by until she called, and a lot happened that year. 

I had two shows, and started with a new instructor who would say things like taxidermy is a still life that used to have a heartbeat.  I’d look at the piles of fur and tooth and glass eyes. I’d think about Ana, our after school adventures, that moment she turned into the sun, squinted her eyes and sent me a purple lipstick air kiss through the wind. I’d imagine Ma, still a girl, in the bed of a pick up truck tracing the constellations with her eyes. She rode North—to the very country funding the violence she’d escaped from—carrying with her a civil war in her own body; the sleeping cancer cells awoke and grew wild.  

I called Ma, who I’d barely spoken to since leaving California five years earlier. When I left, she had remission status, three triumphant daughters, one tit, a mountain of medical bills, and a lab technician’s cell phone number. That number was the only thing on her mind. 

She didn’t sound happy to hear from me. “Vos sabes que your sisters are driving me crazy,” she said and made a sound like a whimper. “You’re the only one of all the girls who can make it on her own.”

“You ok?”

“Come back. Aqui te esperamos.”

“Mamá, no. I’m moving to the desert.”

“Don’t let your ideas get in the way of our life. Besides, how will you make money in a desert?”

My younger sister called me later that week to tell me the cancer had returned. She asked if I could send more money. So, I started seeing guys I’d never usually see. One of them, a doctor, wrote me a prescription for tiny, oval-shaped pills that rolled all the secrets right off my skin, like water off of waxed hide. Every centavo went to Ma. 
 

When Ana finally called it was a freak snow storm in spring. She told me she was getting married, and her voice sparkled like she’d done something bad and gotten away with it. I invited her over to drink her excitement away.  Through the glass window of the building’s door, I saw her waiting on the snowy stoop, looking like a lady who buys her clothes at department stores instead of thrift shops. Her tangled chocolate hair covered in flurry, bare hands flaunting a glistening diamond ring. She should’ve worn gloves on such a cold day. Even though it was the middle of April.

“Raquel!” Ana said throwing her arms over my shoulders. The icy flakes on her wool scarf melted against my cheek. “Where have you been?” 

As happy as I was to see her again, something inside me, a small but well-armored door, slammed shut. I shuffled in slippers back towards my apartment. “Right here,” I said. “But you have the exciting news.” 

Ana threw her coat over the arm chair by the radiator and held out her hand. “My Christmas present,” she said. But all I could see were the shiny scars cross-hatched along her inner arm. 

“Christmas present?” I said. “So you got engaged months ago. Everything must be going well.” I headed to the refrigerator. “Want a beer? Or, I can mix a vodka something.”

Ana pulled two bottles of sparkling wine from her purse. “This is a celebration, right?” She yanked out a cork, which shot off and smacked the ceiling. We sat around the wood table in the kitchen, next to the open window. I hadn’t seen my wild thing for a few days. Her kibble sat untouched. I called out to her, worried that she’d froze to death. Wild thing! The only sound outside was the pat, pat of snow falling on more snow. Ana poured the pretty liquid into mugs. The bubbles puffed in applause. 

I asked her about wedding plans.

“All we know for sure is that we’re going to Cancún for our honeymoon,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied. “How’s Jake’s Spanish?”

Ana reached over to the open window and yanked it closed. “It’s too cold in here.” 

“So how did this happen? Why Jake? I mean he’s so––”

“Girl, I’m in love.” Ana’s eyes seemed suddenly vulnerable. “Can you believe it?”

I put down my mug of wine, ready to tell her everything. But my stomach knotted and my hands tingled with nerves. I reached into my purse, fingered around for an oval pill, found one, and swallowed it with my spit.  As soon as it touched my tongue, I started to relax. “I have something you should try on.” From my closet, I pulled out a black garment bag, and hooked it over the bathroom door. The dress is cut like a calla lily, simple, an immaculate white,  embroidered with swanlike patterns.   

“Que fancy,” Ana said. “Where’d it come from?”

“Michael bought if for me.” 

I handed it to her; the weight felt satisfyingly heavy like a thick chain. She took the dress and it caught the sunlight from the window and glowed like something holy. Or maybe that was just the pill working. 

“Who’s Michael?”

I took another sip of wine and Ana wrestled off her tight blue jeans, flashing me a ludicrous pair of floral print undies. I scanned the back of her body for purple and blue signs of Jake’s hands. I saw nothing. Michael had taken me shopping for an outfit to wear to dinner.  I’d tried on that white dress and fell in love. All the sales guys asked if Michael and I were getting married, and he blushed like a bolo. I chose a pair of black stilettos to wear with it, but had to sell them when I came up short on rent one month. To me, they’d matched perfectly: The matte black and violent heel punctured the heart of the innocent dress.  

Ana pulled the thin straps over her shoulders. I zipped her up, and the fabric sucked tight against her curves. She twisted her hair on top of her head, held it with one hand, the other posed on her hip. “Would you marry this?”   

“Hell no,” I smiled. 

Ana stuck her tongue out, then made her face real serious. She walked barefoot across the hardwood floors toward the full-length mirror, like an enchanted girl in a story book. Like a bride. The mirror stands beside my desk, and I followed Ana there. The room smells musty in that corner, an inside smell. The sculpture I was working on then was a flying raccoon. Balanced on her hind legs, human-like paws groping in front of her as though sleep walking.  I’d run a thick metal wire through the scavenger’s back where eventually the wings would go. I made the wings myself from the feathers of four different birds: rusty brown turkey feathers, speckled quail, zebra- striped ewing, and dagger-red pheasant plumes.

Ana walked back to the table and popped the other bottle, white smoke curled around her hand. 

“Ana,” I said. “There’s something I need to tell you.” I imagined my body as it had been, half a life time ago. The tightly compressed knots of passion that sprang out like cactus flowers in spring. That day, it was spring and still snowing. “I’m a sex worker.” I thought saying sex worker would make it sound like a white collar job.

She put on a disbelieving smile. “You’re selling pupusa?  Are you for real?”

I explained that I’d never be able to make my art and send money home if I wasn’t sellin’ pupusa. How actually, it’s a great job with the exception of a few shitty guys. 

“But at least I’m getting paid to deal with them,” I said. 

The air in the room suddenly went still. I told her the dress she had on was a gift from a client, she touched the fabric on her hips. “But it’s so classy.” 

She tugged the zipper down and turned her back to me. But, I saw. On the thickest part of her thick brown thighs, scars piled in a lumpy keloid mess. Line upon line, some as wide as a finger, some as thin as a scalpel blade.  

“Don’t tell me Jake did that.”

“I did.” she said casually as she hung the dress back in the garment bag. “We all have our secrets.”  

I’ve seen her undressed a hundred times before, but right then her body felt like an extension of my own that had been amputated. A ghost limb. I reached out my hand to touch the scars. They were smooth. Topographical. An overgrown thicket of feeling. My skin tore from voice box to vulva, my insides crawled slowly onto my lap. I grabbed my bag and dug around for another white pill. I never took two. Especially after drinking. 

“You started dating Jake too soon after Mauricio. I knew it was a bad idea.” 

She’d put her clothes back on, and sat in the arm chair tying her boots. She shook her head, and said nothing. 

“Why Jake, Ana? I know guys like that.”

I tried to stand but the room blurred. I steadied myself against the window, then flung it open. Fresh snow fluttered in. 

“What’s wrong with you?” Ana asked. “Where are you?”

“I know Jake,” I said, settling myself back in the chair like the mess I was.  

“You think you’re funny, but actually you’re fucked up. For real.”

“It’s true.” I said, “Ask him.”

“I’m out.” I heard Ana’s voice float around me, but she’d disappeared. Or maybe I had. It’s ok. Everywhere, everyday, people, relationships, memories, they disappear. Maybe someday they emerge out of nothing, like they’d been there all along. Like they’d been sleeping and now they’re awake. Like they were just waiting to be found. That night, I reappeared on the floor next to the kitchen table. Wild thing lay on my chest, her sharp claws grasping and contracting into my skin. She put her muzzle up to mine, yellow fangs bared, her soft breath tickled my nose. 

“You ok?” I asked her. “I thought I’d lost you.
In July, Ma sent me a picture from the wedding. She’d been taking her mandatory walk on South Van Ness and seen the procession coming out of a church.  Ana wore a shimmering ankle length dress with a beaded shawl across her shoulders. Her smiling idiot husband held her left arm and her stone-faced mother the right. Ma wrote, You should have been there, hija. Dónde estás? My cheek stung like I’d been slapped, again.

Months later, I ran into Ana on the street. We stopped and stared like we’d seen ghosts, before grabbing each other into a breathless hug.  I told her about the picture. That she had looked happy on her wedding day. She shrugged and told me the news. Her mother had been contacted by her cuñada. Ana’s father’s remains were identified in an unmarked grave with the bodies of other resistance fighters. Her mother was traveling back to El Salvador for the first time since she left thirty years before.

“No shit,” I said. “Aren’t you going with her?”

“I can’t get away,” Ana replied. Then she asked me if I still planned to run away to the desert.

“Some day.” 

“Tell me when.” She squeezed my arm. “I’ll meet you there.”

But the July night Ma sent me their wedding picture, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see Ana again. I tried the dress on. It glided over me with a sensual slickness, but the rigidity of the embroidery was armor-thick. I walked around the apartment on my tippy toes pretending to be a bride ’til I got bored. Early in May, I’d flushed all the pills down the toilet and tried sobriety on for size. It fit for a while. I drank two cups of black coffee, took the dress off and kicked it across the wood floor. Naked, in front of the mirror, I wondered at the outside of my body: brown eyes, black hairs, purple labia, amber skin.  I saw beneath the skin too: The bald red muscles and the network of veins and organs. Everything, really, is beneath the skin. 

I took the scalpel from my desk and sat at the kitchen table, set the cold, thin blade just below my elbow and pressed down. I felt the skin split before the electric shock of pain shot up my arm and around my skull. My head filled with a sound like metallic waves; my fingers pulled the blade towards my wrist for the length of an exhale. Blood slowly rose to the surface. I peered inside, wishing I could see all the pieces of Ana that are stitched into me. My wild thing purred at the window. She looked in with her huge eyes and walked delicately onto the table, tail swishing side to side. She sat long enough to know my secret, then turned around, hopped off the window ledge and into the night.

 

 


Image Credits: romana klee