Tamara G. Oakman: Nothing. Everything.
When we touch we enter touch entirely. –Anne Sexton, The Truth the Dead Know
Decaying houses fill Adina’s dark brown pupils, the backbones, or flanks missing. It looks post blitzkrieg—the miscellanies of the former inhabitants discarded—clothes, lost toys, kitchenware, bathtubs still nailed into place, full of grime. There are no shopping centers, no banks, only pawnshops, corner stores. Adina feels remote hiking from second and Lehigh to Broad Street. It is like climbing through a pauper’s cemetery of unmarked stone, where the forgotten lay trapped in oblivion.
Her terminus is the orange line of the subway train, a long trek from Taller Puertorriqueño, a community center that annually hosts stilt walkers in the Puerto Rican parade. She volunteers three days a week, uses techniques acquired while earning her MFA, fashions masterpieces similar to those she whips up during the day working as a designer for Bon!
She leaves her company car in the garage in Ardmore, where she lives and works, because theft and vandalism dog this neighborhood. She knows, because her grandmother still lives in the area. Adina’s husband, Robert—please call me Bobbie—drives her to her volunteer work and picks her up most days. When his work schedule permits it, he picks her up from Bon! as a surprise, and treats her to impromptu dinners at swank restaurants.
But today she walks to the Orange line, where she will have to transfer to Blue, before making it to the regional rail that will return her to Ardmore. But she doesn’t mind. She enjoys the time to herself in which she travels.
“Adina,” a male voice calls. Not Bobbie’s. She treads faster, the frigid air hammering her reedy body.
“You are from Taller, si?” the voice continues. He’s beside her now, reaching out an arm. She stops. His aroma glides into her nose, mango. She knows him, sort of. He joined the stilt-walking troupe today to train the neighborhood youth.
“Tomás,” he answers.
“You scared me.”
“It is not too safe out here for a lady, unh?” They walk forward, he a little close. “You are shivering.” He edges closer.
“It got chilly.” She rubs her turtleneck-clad arms.
“Si.” He pulls off his navy blue blazer. “Put this on.”
“Oh, no, I’m alright, really.”
“Adina.” He says her name in such a way, chestnut eyes glistening like wet sparrow wings caught in sunlight. She allows him to slip the blazer over her shoulders.
As they reach Broad Street, she turns to him.
“Gracias,” she breathes.
“De nada.” He places a delicate kiss on both her flushed cheeks.
Later that night, Bobbie scrambles on top of her and she sees Tomás’ face. She sees his black mustache-beard combo, shaping his upside down triangle jawline. Afterwards, she clambers out of bed and wanders downstairs where she plops on their couch. She sighs. She reaches for her mahogany-colored glasses case on the table beside the couch and pulls out Armani glasses. Normally she would turn on the television in search of something to take her mind off the whole situation. She cannot. She lies down. Delicate fibers of the lemon ochre cushions caress her nude skin. She rubs her calloused hands through her kinky, light brown sugar hair. She knows it is not possible to be in love with a man after an eight-block walk and a 45-minute subway ride.
Tomás has her wanting. He has her wanting out—out of her marriage. But how? What had he said? Nothing. Everything. He’d talked about stilt walking and how it felt to be new at Taller. He’d talked about his mother who has a hard time keeping her nursing position because of ‘her trouble with inglès.’ What had she seen, felt? What had he moved in her, in the depths of her secret self in minutes, in one frivolous hour?
“Hon,” Bobbie calls from the top of the staircase. She hears his familiar thuds on the stairs. “You coming back to bed?”
She raises her lean but curvy body grudgingly, and moves towards the stairs where he stands. He smiles and turns. She drifts behind him, sluggish, bothered for the first time by how skinny his long, pale legs are, the awkward positioning of his feet. They’re not quite pigeon-toed, but one foot points slightly inward. And that butt or lack of, or his waist, too thin. Repugnant. Why hadn’t I seen it all before?
Diaz Pirandello, a cocaine addicted fashion mogul from the seventies, thought it grand to paint the Bon! warehouse eggshell, inside and out, so that its designers would appreciate color’s beauty. It looks like a mental hospital, ironically revealing the core of its workers. Most of the employees are on some combination of psych meds. Those who aren’t should be. The staff of fifteen— six gentlemen, nine ladies—make for a bunch of borderlines that want things to their feverish tastes. Vulgar arguments ensue, competitive designs slashed, and the occasional form is glued to some ill-starred victim’s desk.
Iris, her straw-thin fashion assistant says, “Oh, you can’t be serious,” while devouring a Ziploc bag of baby carrots and celery sticks. She fills up her cheeks, munching like a gerbil. “You can’t quit. They need you at Taller.” Her dark lips purse as if she awaits a kiss. Her eggplant skin and smooth head gleam in the overhead lights. The long, white, false eyelashes and white eyebrows give her ovular face an ethereal air.
Adina breathes deeply.
“I’m in love.”
Adina looks at the form, clothed in a black cocktail dress with large magenta polka dots.
“You’ve known him for a day,” Iris says.
“An hour, actually. I think it needs a hat. You think? An oversized fedora?”
“You’re not in love. You’re in revenge.”
“I’m not looking for revenge.”
“Good thing there’s only one you.” Adina spins the form around. “Magenta and black striped wedges?”
“If my hubby was doing some Playboy Bunny, I’d murder them both.” Iris stares at the form. “No stripes. So last fall.”
“You threw a brick through her window.”
“Someone had to. It was your idea.”
Adina sits down at her desk to sketch more details onto the look.
“A long string of silver pearls,” Iris says, “big ones, past the hips.”
“Well, I wasn’t really in a good space at the time, if you recall. And you always listen to drunks?”
“Listened to my father. Don’t use a hat. Use the scarf, like the ones from the twenties. Mesh.”
“I hate mesh.”
Iris snatches the drawing pencil from Adina’s hand and slides her denim-clad bottom onto her desk. Her red, strappy stilettos dangle from her toes. She locks eyes with Adina while handing back the pencil.
“Do the guy. It’ll be the first thing you’ve ever done for yourself.”
“What about Bobbie?” Adina asks. Iris slides off the desk and tugs the dummy’s sleeves.
“I won’t tell.”
Adina catches herself watching Tomás. A smile spreads on her round face. His hair, in thick spirals, is shiny and black as squid ink. His eyes, bright orbs of mystery, half laugh, half mourn some unspoken thing. She wants to taste his laugh, devour his sadness, feel his flirt crawl up her skin. The intensity excites and terrifies her. She concentrates hard on costume sketches, tries to ignore the melody of his scent. For all the while, his presence sings, sings, sings to her heart. His feet squeak across the worn floorboards. She stays chained to her seat until he is beside her brewing her—and what? What is he asking beneath the lure of his Columbian accent? On my ear, my God his lips, on my ear, his mouth.
Words cork in her throat. She fishes in her black Coach bag for her pack, pulls out a Marlboro. He reaches past her. His mango bouquet enfolds her as he lifts the diet Coca Cola from her desk. He drinks the last swig, full of her backwash. Crushing the can, he tosses it into the trash bin beside her desk. Silence. She cannot meet his eyes.
He says, “You need a break.”
“Come on, girl, have uno cigarillo with me.”
August humidity lays heavy on her yellow sundress. A crescent moon smiles in the azure sky. Tomás stands close enough for Adina to smell his peppermint chewing gum, his tropical, fruity scent, again, again. He towers over her, nearly a foot. His Tom Cruise teeth shine as he pulls her red cardigan down and off her arms.
“Now, lollipop, it is so warm.”
He drapes the cardigan over his arm like a matador’s cape. He looks down into her face, pierces her, his wide eyes filling and emptying her at the same time, touches her without touching. He has no shame. His face says what he wants. Sweat beads build in the space between her dainty shoulder blades, drip down.
She says, “I have to get back to work.” A whisper.
“You know what I think?” he asks. “I feel yo no lo puedo explicar whenever near you. I lose control.” She fumbles for the pack of Marlboros in her pocket blindly. He stretches over, slips them out with ease. He moves close, seats the cigarette between her lips.
“I forgot my light,” she says. “Inside.”
He pulls out a booklet of matches, strikes one. She takes a drag. He seizes the cigarette, takes a drag, throws it down, and moves close. He grips her by the back of her neck one-handed. She lets out the puff of smoke, ready to speak opposition, but he is already penetrating her mouth, her heart. He grips her shoulders, pulls her up up, into the kiss. Her feet slip from her red heels. He places one hand behind her head and the other around her petite waist pulling her onto him. The noise of the cars is an ocean breeze, the surroundings, graffiti, and neighborhood punks disappear. The background collapses inside itself. Her heart rips. She quakes. He bares her spirit. She is stripped! Stripped before him. When he pulls out of the kiss, she feels mint moisture on her full brown lips cooling in a gentle updraft. She wavers from side to side staring up at him. She is ruined.
“I’m married.” Immediately she feels operatic.
“But are you happy in that marriage, mi corazón?” How can she answer with him pouring into her? How can she sum up her nine-year mess with Bobbie? She had been happy. Now he’s thirty-five and she thirty-two. When she married Bobbie, she was nineteen, a virgin. He was twenty and working at Outback Steakhouse to put himself through undergrad. He joined the Marines to pay for law school, did four back-to-back tours in Iraq, came back changed, horrifically changed. First, there was excessive drinking followed by cheating and fits of rage. Is she happy? She won’t confess their last argument. It led to Bobbie chipping a bone fragment in her knee.
She buries herself into his chest and asks, “Can’t you see how happy I am?” He holds all of her to his heat, sighs, kisses the top of her head.
“Mi amor,” he lulls. “Give me all of your troubles.” His toffee hands wipe her face.
“I can’t do this.” She sniffles, shrugs away.
“Adina, he does not give you what you need, or you would not be standing here with me, looking at me with such sad eyes.” She turns her back to him, starts for the metal door.
“We won’t say anything about the kiss, right?” He turns her around. Tears christen her cheeks. He plants a kiss on both cheeks. He blesses them, each.
“Not even to each other?”
He kisses her again, on her brown lips, soft, soft and deep.
“Si. We shall not.”
Adina tosses a white feather boa over an emerald-studded jade dress. Iris removes the boa and takes it to her side of the cubicle, disappearing behind its white.
“The sex will be mind-blowing,” Iris says in answer to Adina’s comment that Tomás’ kiss outshines Bobbie’s anything.
“I’ve never been with anyone, but Bobbie.” Iris tosses the boa back over the dress, now with diamond studs. Simultaneously they say, “faux fur pumps,” and laugh.
“A faux fur clutch,” Iris says. She pauses before continuing; “I didn’t say a thing when you came in here looking like somebody played kick-the-can on your face. Hell, if I knew what makes you think you oughta keep taking what he’s dishing…” She sighs. “He hurts you.” Adina moves over to the other side of the cubicle where she sees Iris quickly wiping her eyes. “For five years, I let my man kick the crap outta me. I let him. Course I was scared to leave, he said he’d kill me if I did, but…I don’t know.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” Adina kneels and throws both her arms over Iris. “What happened to you was not your fault. Men like him—” Iris wrenches away.
“But Bobbie…” Iris, for the first time since Adina met her seven years ago, looks up at her without a smile. “What you have with Bobbie reached its expiration date the first time he put his hands on you.”
“Is he in therapy? Is he taking meds?” Silence. “Right. I think Tomás is worth investigating.”
After work, Adina takes the elevator down to the garage, the streets bled tar all day from the heat, but the September night is breezy. Her car, a gold Lexus Navigator, awarded by Bon! as a perk, glides down the street like a silk negligee over a body. She pulls onto the corner of Cinnaminson, Tomás’ street, and calls him on her cell phone. The treetops wade lewdly in the dark sky. They swish, gossiping, gossiping.
“Hola,” he says. “Que paso?”
“Go for a ride?” she asks.
“Lollipop, it is so late in the night.”
“I don’t want to beg. I’m already embarrassed.”
“Where do I meet you?”
“The corner of your block.”
“Ah, mi. Just…just stay there for the moment.”
Fifteen minutes creak by. She knows she heard another voice, a woman’s voice, say his name. She should go. She can’t go. Finally, she sees him scuttling to the car. He reaches through the open window and unlocks the door, slides onto the seat wearing tight black denim and a black fitted V-neck. His arms and legs have definition from working the stilts. The slight curvature at his waist reminds her of inverted parenthesis.
“Are you married?”
“How did you get my address, niña?”
“The registry at Taller.”
“You feel the same, then?”
“I—I don’t know.”
“So, what are you doing? In that?” He points to her clothes. She’d slipped into the dress lifted from the form she and Iris had worked on that evening. Now, her tan body sits under the steering wheel donned in a jade, skintight, emerald studded dress worth thousands of dollars. What am I doing? The trees whisper to the cicadas. They rattle back.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.” Tears spill. She doesn’t know why.
“I know a place. Let me have you.”
“Do not think about it. Come. Let me drive.” He starts for the door handle.
“What about your wife?”
“What about your husband?” With that, they exit the car, reenter, he pulls off.
Adina has never been to a place like this before, a place hidden in the gloom of West Philadelphia called the Blue Moon Hotel. They could have afforded something upscale, but agreed it was better not to run into anybody they know. She tells Bobbie she’s working overnight at Bon! Tomás’ wife, he explains, thinks one of his friends is having an emergency. He shuts the door, locks it. The room is musky. Last night’s visitors haven’t been washed out of the sheets. She sits on the opposite side of the bed. He removes his shirt, undoes his pants.
She laughs. “I’ve never done this before. I mean, with anyone besides my husband.”
“Stand up for me,” Tomás says.
She stands. He unzips the dress, tugs it over her, gently, carefully lays it across the coffee-colored chair in the corner of the elfin room. Watching her face intently, he unsnaps her delicate plum brassiere from the front, undoes her matching garters, sliding down her lace panties, allowing her to place her hands on his shoulders as he slips them over her feet. Nude, save for her sheer thigh highs, and entirely embarrassed, she flits into bed under its stiff quilt. The pillow smells of old sweat. Darkness swallows the room. His clothes rustle to the floor. He moves in beside her. His mercury skin rubs against hers. His hand breathes down her body all soft, all tender.
“Te amo,” he says. He kisses her shoulder, her back, pulls her against him. “From now on, you are mine.”
He runs his hands down her velvety inner thighs. They spread like the wings of a Goliath Birdwing Butterfly. She inhales the air departing his lungs. She quivers in quiet, everything hushed except the whisk of cars driving past the hotel window, past the pulse of their breaths. Her meek moans fill the room when he enters her, but soon break into cries.
When the sun takes the stage, she leaves him at the corner of his block. They say nothing. He exits the car. She watches him until he disappears behind the door of his quaint brick house. Adina opens the front door of her house, spent. Bobbie stands by the oak door, thin, blond hair mussed atop his head.
“I heard you pull up,” he says looking her over. He is wearing Hanes briefs.
“Late night,” she says.
“I called Bon!, but got the voicemail.” She moves around him, walks to the edge of the stairs. She keeps her back to him. “I called your cell.”
“I fell asleep.”
“You were never a good liar.” Silence. “You’re done with this guy?”
“Get a shower. You smell.”
Out of the shower, she lies down on the bed, nude, without pulling the covers back. He enters the dark bedroom and does not turn on the light, merely slips in beside her, covering her back. She hates him for not needing to know. She remembers needing to know every detail. When they have sex she thinks; did he do that? Kiss her there? Stroke her here? What did he say? Where did he take her? Does she like his Jambalaya? What secrets shared? What personal jokes? Does he say bad things about me? How much he hates his wife, how I can’t cook, or never gave a good blowjob? Does he love her? Does he tell her so, whether it’s false or not? Is he guilty or does he feel justified? And why, why does he hurt me when I love him so terribly? And why? Because he “thought he wasn’t happy.” What a foul excuse. What a—how can he—Does he know how many times I could have done the same? She hates him even more for not caring. For not throwing things around the room as she had. For not screaming so that the neighbors could hear every word of his humiliation. For not drinking excessively and losing himself in pain and wrath. She despises him.
She looks up from her desk at Bon! to see Tomás. A year later, and she feels exactly as she had the last time.
“Hola, niña.” Her breath stops. She turns around in her white button down Sweetheart dress.
Finally, she says, “Hola, Tomás.”
He takes the wine glass she had been sipping on from her hand, finishes her Merlot in one swig, and sets it on her desk. Violin plays quietly in the background from her iPod. They look at each other.
“I need you,” Tomás says. His eyes shine like copper.
“How did you get in here?” Adina asks?
“The security guard.”
“My divorce, it is final.”
She inhales him, a mixture of Merlot and mango.
Her avid heart beats fast. He steps closer. She doesn’t move.
She asks, “You just did that? You just did that and thought what?”
It can’t be more insane than her thinking she saw him in every face she passed by for the past twelve months. That she wrote letters, countless letters to him, hid them in a drawer. That her undying love for him, that his power over her is why she was and is afraid. She’d left Taller. She’d ignored his calls, deleted his texts. After a while the calls stopped. So did the texts. Now, he has returned, unrelenting like an ocean wave.
“I just tell my husband I’m leaving?”
“A dog does not love the master that beats him.”
“First of all, I’m not a dog. And second, I hardly know you.”
“Oh, I think you know me quite well.” Her face flushes. “Ah, Adina, come on.” She steps back.
“What you deserve,” he says closing the distance, “is to be loved always.” He rubs his warm hands down her arms. “I can see the bruise on your cheek under that rouge. That is not love, what you two are doing. It is not loyalty. He is no longer capable of giving you what you need. Let me give it to you.”
“Did your wife love you? Did you give her what she needed? Did you love her?”
“I am not a fool to force a thing that does not want to be.”
“I can’t have children,” she blurts.
“Who suggested that? I have never.”
“It would be wrong to leave him, to abandon him like this.”
“Yes, but, what about you? He has abandoned you long ago.”
Adina holds Tomás’ gaze with a certain defiance, challenging him to continue. The warehouse door slams ringing and they back away from each other like repelling magnets. Adina looks up to see Bobbie frozen by the entrance, before he strides across the room towards them. He had surprised her, to take her out for dinner. His arm immediately finds Adina’s waist, and pulls her towards him in a rough way.
“What the fuck?” Bobbie asks.
Tomás extends his hand. “I am Tomás.” Bobbie does not move. Tomás brings his hand down awkwardly.
“Let’s go,” Bobbie barks. He grabs Adina’s arm, and then practically drags her across the warehouse floor, the click of her white heels echoing off the walls. She and Tomás make fleeting eye contact before she disappears through the doorway.
In the car, Bobbie says nothing, just stares out of the front window. Raindrops fuse on the windshield. The wipers click on. At home, he follows her into their bedroom.
“You love him?” he asks, swaying. He removes his grey suit jacket.
“No,” she says. She sits on the edge of their lavender bed.
“That’s the guy you fucked last year?” Long pause. He stands in front of her. She looks down at the floor. “You’ve no courage you little shit stained half breed.”
He snatches open the drawer to her night table, easily breaking the small lock. Letters take wing and flutter to the floor. She rises. He slaps everything off both dressers. Hers, near the bathroom, and his on the other side of the room. He grabs her face; his hands moist like his forehead. The stench of his alcohol breath assaults her nose.
“You’re drunk,” he repeats. “You cheated in the worst way, with your heart. And you lie. I saw the guilt on your face at Bon!. I see it now. You love him!” He shoves her back down on the bed facedown. She corkscrews, looks up at him. He kicks over a floor lamp tearing it out of the socket.
“How many times did you fuck him, whore?”
Once, just once.”
“Liar! Here, in our bed!”
“He’s never been here,” she cries.
He dives for the box in the bottom of the closet. She shoots off like a Terrier. Faster, faster, she runs, despite her trembling knees. She gets to the front door. The key is gone. She pulls her cell phone out of her pocket; scrolls to Tomás’ number. She hears Bobbie galloping towards her.
“He’s going to kill me!”
“632 Walnut Lane.” She shoves the phone inside her pocket. She gets to the dark kitchen, pulls the brass knob on the back door. Nothing happens. She touches the empty keyhole.
“Turn around,” he says. She faces him. “You want to leave me?”
He lunges at her throat, both hands open, chokes her, cracks her head against the glass of the cabinets. The cabinet doors shatter above her. He lets her fall to the floor and crawl through his legs over the glass, which tears at her stockings, shredding her knees. He kicks her in the side. She curls into a fetal position, in an attempt to protect herself, clutching her side. He grabs the back of her dress, lifts her, throws her against the wall, and whips her around to face him.
“Where are you going? Huh?” She stares into his steely eyes, blond strands of hair plastered to his face with sweat. “You and that fucking spick.” He pulls his standard size Army knife from his pocket, drags the tip down the center of her dress. Buttons rapid-fire on the floor. It splits open.
“Bobbie, please,” he mocks.
He carves through her dress. When he misses fabric, he slices her skin. She feels an itchy sting on her torso. She shrieks. The dress falls around her ankles in shreds. He slaps her. She shrieks. He chops her in the throat with his hand. She gags, coughs.
“Doesn’t…matter…what…I say.” He punches her hard in the stomach and she crumbles to the floor. She wraps her arms around his legs, weakly sobbing. Her shirt is slowly becoming drenched, the wetness stemming from her stomach.
“DO YOU LOVE HIM?”
The wall phone rings. He stares at it for a moment, blinking. Confusion crosses his face. It rings again; then, he moves to answer it. She feels dazed.
“Hello?” She looks down, her blood drenched hands.
“Yes, that was Adina.” So much blood.
“A mouse.” She touches her hands to her stomach. He hasn’t punched her—
“Women, right?”—He’s stabbed her.
“—So sorry we disturbed you.” She looks down at the small puddle of blood around her feet.
“Sure, of course.” She backs herself against the bottom cabinet doors.
“Okay then.” She searches for a weapon.
Pieces of glass nick her fingers as she searches the ground by feel for a larger shard. He goes to return the receiver, and her heart skips a beat before he pulls it back to his ear.
“What’s that? Yeah, okay. I’ll tell her.”—Grips it—
“Uh huh.”—Feeling it cut through the skin of her palm—
“Um hmm.”—She brings it around—
“Okay then, goodnight.”—Holding it firmly behind her back. He places the phone on the hook.
He tears the phone out of the wall, waltzes over with it in one hand, and drags her up from the floor with the other by her neck. Her feet dangle. She doesn’t see the knife. He hits her hard in the nose with the phone. It makes a sound like chicken hit with a mallet. She stabs wild, out of control, until the glass sticks. She falls to the floor inches below him, gasping for enough air to get away. Bobbie, despite the glass stuck in the side of his stomach, continues to stand. She stares up at him, disbelief morphing into horror on his face. He rips the glass out, and lets it drop to the tiled floor where it splinters into two parts. Blood gathers and moves quickly across his shirt as it becomes saturated. She sees the knife in his side pocket, grabs it, stabs him in the right side of his chest. He grabs at his chest, falls to his knees. The blood-spattered phone tumbles out of his hand.
“Adina,” he gurgles, inching toward her, spitting blood. Blood and tears cover her face like a mask. He lies down. She feels his hot breath on her bare foot, his large, deep breaths. He gags, bloody spittle creating a film over his mouth. He reaches towards her, as a sanguine puddle engulfs the floor, mixing with her blood.
“Adina.” He reaches towards her, face lying sideways. He looks as if he is going to swim away. Sirens screech in the distance. Perhaps mere blocks away. He grabs her foot and pulls himself forward. She slumps over, everything numb.
She looks down at him; he’s laid his head in her lap, but he’s not facing her. She strokes the side of his face weakly. Bobbie’s back moves up and down, slower and slower winding down like a mechanical thing as the strain to continue the movements grows. Her panties are soaked in their sticky blood. She feels sleepy, numb.
“I love you,” he whispers.
“I love you,” she says.
“Yes,” he says. She tries to move. Nothing happens. “Please.” He inhales deeply.
“Please what?” Silence. His back becomes still. His lungs have shut down.. She continues to stroke his face. She closes her eyes.
“Adina?” Mango. “In here, quick.”
“Tomás?” she asks, her voice tiny.
“You are safe now.”
She has something to say, she thinks, after they take Bobbie out of her arms. The paramedics are already bustling around her in a sudden outbreak of noise. They lift her body onto a gurney, prod, secure her, dress her wounds in frenzied precision, and ask her a flurry of orientation questions.
“Thank you,” she says to Tomás whom she cannot see behind the paramedics.
An anonymous paramedic’s hearty voice answers that she is welcome and will be fine. Her friend is outside with the police, he continues, answering questions, and will meet her at the hospital. He doesn’t tell her that her husband is dead. She knows this, so she doesn’t ask. Then the thought, bound in an unexpected tincture of guilt and bliss—It’s over. All of it.
She is face up when they load her into the ambulance, face up, and she can see every star flicker at her like thousands of tiny lighthouses in the sky’s oceanic expanse. Tears stream down her face, from relief.