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       Unspeakable, p.3

           Erika Rummel
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THE SUN HAS gone down. It’s chilly. I don’t object to Luis putting an arm around my shoulder and offering me body heat. I’ve noticed it before: something happens when you touch. It makes you want to confide. You are almost embarrassed to have secrets. All sorts of feelings are attached to that carnal touch. It’s not just a sex thing. You feel a surge of curiosity. You want to capture the whole person attached to the body: his mind, his spirit, his soul. That’s what’s happening to me at any rate when Luis puts his arm around my shoulders and presses his body against mine, and a scent of sweat and spices catches up with me. A bit of caution is mixed in with my desire to feel his touch. My middle-aged brain tries to overrule my desire, flashing Zee’s name, remember what happened last night? But I shake off the prompts. I don’t want to think of Zee – that’s his handle, that’s what the tattoo on his neck stands for, a “Z” in the shape of a snake. His real name is Joey, but he hates it. He says it sounds like a kangaroo. Zee drove me out to the desert, and the only reason why he didn’t hurt me was that he couldn’t. He was wasted. That’s how I got away.

  I should be scared of men now, but I’ve been rubbing at that spot in my memory, trying to rub out what happened last night. You have to distinguish between good and bad memories. Some make you feel so good you want to perma-bond them to your eyelids. Others eat into your flesh and leave runny sores. You want to ream them out before they turn septic. I want to forget what happened with Zee or laugh it off. It was comical, wasn’t it? Zee couldn’t get it up. I take a deep breath and shape it into a laugh. Do you hear me, Zee? I’m laughing at you!

  So now there is this other body close to mine. The nasty face of Zee collides with the soft eyes of Luis, and the present wins out over the past. In the darkness Luis nuzzles me and makes me queasy with longing. A craving lurks in the pit of my stomach waiting to break out and take over.

  “So how did you get lost, Melanie?”

  “Well, I–”. It’s a complicated story, and I start at the beginning, hoping to improve on it as I go along. “I work in a warehouse two days a week. They pay me 8 Dollars an hour to keep track of the inventory on the computer.”

  Luis is patient. He doesn’t say: what has that got to do with you being here? He says: “You aren’t old enough to work.”

  “I’m just earning pocket money,” I say. I realize I’m an illegal like Luis. “So, anyway: yesterday the owner wasn’t there. His son was in charge. He asked me to help him load boxes into the truck.”

  “He asked a shrimp like you?”

  “They weren’t heavy boxes, just awkward for one person to handle. Then he asked me to come along and help him unload at the other end, in Twentynine Palms.”

  You ever been to Twentynine Palms? Zee said to me. I shook my head. My parents didn’t take me to a lot of places. It was too painful to explain my condition to friendly strangers.

  It’s a nice place, Zee said. I’ll buy you lunch. I wasn’t sure what to think. I had my suspicions. Zee usually picked on me and now he was suddenly making nice. But I pushed away my suspicions. I like it if a guy pays attention to me, even if it’s Zee, who has a bobbling Adam’s apple and a face that hangs slack.

  Next thing: Zee makes room for me on the bench seat of the truck, sweeping unidentified crumbs and paper trash to the floor. I get in, and he starts driving. There’s a vibe inside me, an alert when I look at Zee’s profile, but I tell myself not to worry and see things from his side. That’s my mom’s advice: Melo – I hate it when she calls me Melo – try to see things from the other person’s perspective. That’s how relationships are formed. So I try. I know Zee has issues and gets angry sometimes, like the time when he put his fist through a window pane, and his father hauled him into the office and screamed at him: What the fuck are you on this time? So I know: Zee has his troubles, too. I settle back, and he puts in a CD of Big Boi, which I hate, but I try to be understanding.

  In Twentynine Palms, we deliver the boxes, and pick up a friend of Zee’s – Mark, a guy with a silver stud in one ear and the physique of a quarterback. He seems to take a friendly interest in me, and he is definitely better looking than Zee. He smiles up at me sitting in the truck and says “Hey”. Later I realize it’s an idiot grin that’s permanently painted on Mark’s face, and he laughs at the end of every sentence. It’s like an exclamation point. He and Zee roughhouse a bit and punch each other in a friendly way, then Mark gets into the truck with us. He has brought two bottles of vodka and some “kick-ass” weed. I sit between Zee and Mark, wedged in the middle. When Zee turns off the highway and drives out into the desert, I get scared. I take out the pad and pencil I always carry in my back pocket and write on it: Where are we going? I show it to Mark.

  She wants to know where you’re going, Mark says to Zee.

  The desert, Zee says. It’s party time. He moves his shoulders back and forth in locomotion.

  I wish I hadn’t left my phone back in the warehouse. It’s in my locker, with my wallet and ID. Things get stolen if you leave them in your desk. You go to the washroom, and someone rifles through the drawers. For smokes. For spare change. Anything of value.

  I write on my pad: I have to text my mom if we are going to be late. Can I use your phone?

  Mark says: She wants to use your phone to text her mom.

  Aw, Melo baby wants her mommy, Zee says.

  I can see the phone in his back pocket and make a grab for it, but he slaps me away. I remonstrate in the way I know works best: flailing and hissing.

  Hey, calm your tits, Mark says. And to Zee: What’s the matter with her? Is she some kind of retard?

  Yeah, Zee says. She’s weird, but I didn’t think she’d give us trouble. He leans over and takes a roll of duct tape from the glove compartment.

  Tie her up, he says, and Mark laughs, brays like an ass, comes over me with his quarterback body and tapes my wrists and ankles with duct tape. I haven’t got a chance against him. He’s got the moves down pat, as if they were part of football practice. Maybe he’s done this sort of thing before. Maybe it’s his idea of a joke. Zee turns up the CD to a shuddering killer volume, even though there is no one who can hear me scream. We drive further into the desert in the gloom of the dying day and stop out in nowhere.

  Zee has brought along kindling and a couple of logs. The two of them leave me in the truck while they start a camp fire. Then Zee lifts me out of the truck and drops me like a bundle he might collect or discard later. My body hits the ground with a thud. He sits me up and offers me a smoke. I shake my head. He tilts the bottle toward me. I don’t want that either, but he pours some into my mouth, and I spit it out.

  Don’t waste it on her, Mark says, and they party on their own.

  I don’t tell the details to Luis, I don’t want to put ideas into his head. I was hoping to improve on the story, turn it into a sad romance, but the truth is gelling in my brain against my will. Putting the story into words will harden it and give it a permanent place inside me. I don’t want to hear myself talking about the two of them. I don’t want to repeat their words, Zee saying to Mark, take the tape off her legs. His voice is jittery aggressive, but his face is blank, his eyes dead. He looks almost bored, but I can see something crawling under his skin, something obnoxious, a twittering muscle on his pallid face. I have a plunging sensation. My courage collapses when I look into Zee’s face and see it will make no difference whether I stay mute or scream or let the miracle of words happen right now. There is no dialogue between his and my face. And Mark, who is all mellow by now, won’t lift a finger in my defense. He just says: Man, that mute is freaking me out. Leave her alone. After that he pays no more attention to us. Zee rips the tape off my ankles. I scramble up, and for a moment, I think I have a chance of running. Zee is unsteady on his feet. We circle each other like boxers in a ring. Then he dives at me and slugs me in the stomach. My knees buckle, and he pins me down. My taped hands are fisted and make a bump between his and my chest. He pulls at my jeans, tries to get them off. I kick, and he slaps my fa
ce, and I feel like dying on a video game. I hear myself gasp and yelp, and then my image desaturates. I stop fighting Zee and think now it’s going to happen, he’s going to do it to me. But he can’t. He can’t get it up. Suddenly Mark is there. His sodden face appears over Zee’s shoulder. He pulls him off me.

  Shit, man, he says. What are you – some kind of pervert? She’s a retard. It’s like screwing a kid.

  Zee says Shut your fucking mouth or I’ll smash your teeth in, and Mark says Don’t dick with me, wanker.

  They stare each other down. Then Mark says: Let’s drive back.

  No way, Zee says. If I get a DUI or wreck the truck, the old man’s gonna kill me.

  They sit down again by the fire and drink and smoke some more. Mark is lying on his back. Zee sits slumped forward, his head on his knees. Then he keels over sideways and stays on the ground.

  I’m where Zee left me, outside the circle of light. I’m folded in on myself, knees pulled up, making myself very small and keeping very still so I won’t attract any more attention, and bit by bit, the life force comes back, bubbling up. I know exactly what I have to do. I chew on the duct tape that’s tying up my wrists and wrench it off with my teeth. I pull up my jeans and bellycrawl to the truck, roll under it to the far side, open the door as quietly as I can, and get in. The key is in the ignition. I don’t know how to drive. I can’t take off on Zee, but I can lock him out.

  Zee sits up. He has heard something. He looks over to the truck and sees me sitting behind the wheel. He staggers up, does a loping dance to the truck, and pulls at the handle of the door. Fuck, he says in a junkie slur, the bitch has locked the doors. I am afraid he’ll smash the window, but he does nothing. He totters back to the fire and stretches out on the ground. Mark hasn’t even moved.

  After a while, when I see how stupefied they are, I creep out on the far side of the truck, drop to the ground and walk away in the direction of the highway. I think it’s just a matter of following the tire tracks, but the ground is too hard and it’s too dark to make out the tracks. I walk on anyway. I’m determined to get back to Twentynine Palms and report them to the police.

  But I don’t tell Luis any of that. I can’t stop thinking about last night, but I won’t dirty my mouth with it. I want those memories to stay in the dark, shrivel, and go away. Thoughts are bad enough, but once you let them out, once you say them aloud, they turn into something monstrous. They become visible, expand, suck up the oxygen in the room. They leave you breathless. They force their way back inside, re-entering through your ears, deafening you to all comfort, squatting in your brain, ballooning, taking up permanent residence. You will never get rid of them! So I just tell Luis:

  “But instead of driving me back, Zee picked up a pal and they got drunk. They wanted to party in the desert. I don’t like that sort of thing, so I walked away from them. That’s how I got lost.”

  It’s too dark to see Luis’ reaction. He only repeats “that’s how you got lost” – with an uptick at the end as if he didn’t believe me, as if he was busy trying to fill in the blanks and guess all the things I haven’t told him. I don’t leave any space for questions. I go right on, asking him the first thing that comes to my mind:

  “And where are you from originally?”

  “A place called Riito, in Sonora,” he says, and lets go of my story just as I was hoping he would. We are into the story of his life now.

  Luis isn’t the first man with whom I’ve had a conversation. I’ve tested my word power before, at the local mall, talking to strangers, to people in the line-up at McDonald’s, to supermarket cashiers who looked tolerant of uncertain speech. I chat up women in washrooms while they check their hair in the mirror or put on lipstick, when they have no time to watch me and notice my stage fright. On the way home from the mall, I talk to dog-walkers distracted by tangled leashes and Philippine nannies pushing baby carriages. Especially Philippine nannies. They have an endless supply of smiles rosy with good will, and they don’t mind listening to random words. But I never talk at home. I need more time to practise, or more courage to come out to my mother. She’ll cry, she’ll fuss. She’ll want an explanation. I’m not sure I’m ready for her.

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