The first time we had sex, my lover whispered, “I have never made love in English before.”
I came as if everything were pouring out of me, and afterwards, with our foreheads touching, I sighed, “Que cosa mas linda.” I don’t speak Spanish.
“What did I just say?”
“It means the prettiest thing,” he smiled.
I looked up at the ceiling as if I could see through it to the sky.
He slid his hand gently over my breast. “Sadie, you are espactacular,” he said, and I believed him.
When my lover was fourteen, in Santiago de Chile, he and his novia decided to make love. Both virgins, they searched for a place to perform the passionate operation. They rejected a park bench, an alley, then a bush, all of which were deemed too public or too dirty (this is characteristic of my lover, who is fastidious and also a gentlemen). It grew late, the curfew horn blew, the yellow street lamps shown on empty sidewalks, but their passion over-ruled their sense.
I’ve never been to Santiago, but sometimes I picture it cool and foggy like summer mornings here on the central coast of California. Or, I imagine the young couple holding hands, wandering through billowing fog in an old black and white movie.
Finally, they climbed under a bridge. My lover had just pressed his lips to his novia’s breast when a military police officer exposed them with his flashlight. This was during the dictatorship, and people their age were both blowing up bridges and disappearing for doing nothing at all.
My lover stood in front of his novia in the harsh circle of light while she arranged her shirt. He told the armed officer that the girl had lost her bracelet over the bridge-- they were looking for it. She held up her empty wrist for proof. The officer, who was also young, smirked and trained his flashlight on her misbuttoned blouse.
They were all quiet while she re-buttoned, and the officer reached his decision. He shrugged and waved them off, his gun still holstered.
At sun-up they found themselves dispiritedly jerking each other off on the park bench they had earlier rejected.
This novia wore a scent that drove my lover wild. He remembers it was by Avon, but not the name. He says that if I find this scent and wear it, he will marry me. He says this lightly, with a laugh. We never talk about the fact that his research fellowship, and thus his visa, runs out in three months.
My lover sends me torrid emails about the ferocity of his love: “Sadie,” he writes, “I just wanted you to have a message when you open your email. Not just any message but one that could convey the exhilaration and happiness I felt yesterday. It is as if you were nuclear charged and your sexy particles were spreading all over around me. Do you think our love is like C14 and will last thousands of years, so that the beasts or whatever the hell is still living in the planet by then will know that one day, one morning, I felt your love and loved you?”
I send an email to Avon: “I have a very particular question for you. What fruity fragrance would have been popular around 1979 in Chile? You see, the man I am seeing cannot forget this scent that he once smelled on a girlfriend all those years ago. He says that if I can find that perfume, he will marry me. He doesn’t remember the name, but he knows it was Avon. Any leads at all would be most helpful.”
My lover wonders, what if on that night with his novia, the military police had not discovered him? What if he and his novia had successfully completed the unprotected act, what if she had gotten pregnant? He would have married at sixteen. He would now be living with five loud children and an exhausted wife in a crowded apartment in Santiago, working a government job, instead of studying on a one-year post-graduate fellowship here at the university in this pretty honky-tonk tourist town on the coast of California. He would never have met me.
I used the money my grandpa Albert left me to open my own place, Bierce Park Books. I carry used books and videos. My Jewish immigrant grandfather was a journalist, plus he had a sense of humor, so I think he would have liked my store: two saggy green velvet arm chairs, wooden shelves a friend built for me, an old cash register I found at the flea market, books stacked in the bathroom, the whole place smelling slightly of mold and dust. It’s comfortable, and everything’s arranged in my own way. Like, say you’re searching for the old children’s book, The Secret Garden. You’ll find it in the section labeled, “Great Escapes and Hidden Hideaways” along with the 1993 film with Maggie Smith, the one with the beautiful time lapse photography of the plants growing, Miraculous Escapes, a short story collection by local writer
Dave Tanaka, the 30th anniversary edition dvd of Alive The Mysterious Disappearance of Ambrose Bierce, an illustrated biography of Houdini, Edward Said’s Orientalism and My Secret Garden, an anthology of women’s sexual fantasies.
I’ve spent six days a week in my store for the past two years, wearing jeans or long skirts and sweaters, drinking tea, listening to world music, arranging and rearranging my things.
That’s how we met. He came in while I was cataloguing. He said, “How ridiculous. So Gringolandia, so California. This is a search engine masquerading as a used book store.” I’m used to new customers’ irritation or confusion, but his voice sounded delighted, and I looked up.
I don’t know why it happens this way. Why you can go years, and then one man wakes your heart up with a painful jolt. I can admit there are men who are more handsome, at least in the movies, but he appeared back lit. There was a precision and clarity to him--his smile, his long-lashed brown eyes, each with a sunburst of gold at the center, his thick, dark hair beginning to recede in the front. He made the rest of the world turn foggy and grey.
When I ask him about Chile, he leans back in his chair, crosses his ankles, and says, “You would love the food, mi reina.”
You can buy empanadas right off the street on the way to classes at the university, little golden turnovers filled with savory meat, egg, olives and raisins. Or buy Italianos outside the National Library, hot dogs with mayonnaise, tomato and mashed avocado. At home, the angelic, hard working mother will make soup with squash, spaghetti and meat, and rosquitas, sweet little donuts flavored with lemon or orange. She will keep them warm until you return after a long day of studying. Next day she’ll wake at five am to make breakfast while you begin to read. Soft boiled eggs and pieces of bread mixed with oil and salt in a cup. Strong tea with lots of sugar.
He calls his mother every Sunday and asks first, “Mami, what are you cooking today?”
He’s studying U.S. fusion cuisine, who eats it, who cooks it, and why. He spends a lot of time in back kitchens with his tape recorder, talking to Mexican workers. I help with his research. We go to Japanese restaurants and order cream cheese and lox sushi. We go to Mexican restaurants and eat organic Thai burritos. He shakes his head, laughs, and writes pages of notes in his little book. My brother Isaac’s wife Diane is the chef/owner of a ‘California Umami’ restaurant. I take him there, we sit at a candlelit table, and he says, “These people carry their homeland on their backs. They cook in the third world and the food magically appears in the first.”
I say, “What about Diane? She cooks back there.”
He says, “Of course, the head chef is white, but after that it’s white waiters in the front, Latino kitchen help in the back. Forget the Rio Grande. That’s the true border, right there, the door between the kitchen and the dining room.”
His own apartment is not a fusion of anything. It’s pure Costco. He has huge boxes of cereal and tubs of margarine and his freezer is filled with frozen dinners. The only furniture is a cot and a foosball table he bought at Costco. We play all the time. He always wins, and then he flashes his triumphant smile, a wall of perfectly white teeth, but I don’t give up.
The third Avon representative I have been forwarded to writes back, “It’s not surprising that your Señor recalls a sweet perfume in 1979 in Chile, because if I remember my history, 1979 stunk in Chile. White Shoulders, Whisper and My Lady were the best-selling Avon scents in 1979, but I don’t know if we exported them to Chile. I’ll forward your email to someone who might.”
“Did 1979 stink in Chile?” I ask my lover. “And do these names mean anything to you: White Shoulders, Whisper, My Lady?”
“Yes,” he says, “it stunk like death, and no, the names mean nothing to me.” He has two months left on his visa.
He’s teaching me Spanish. He writes the words on yellow Post-its from the giant batch he bought at Costco. We tape them all over my house. On the cup, taza, on the bed, cama, the door--puerta. The television, televisión.
He holds me with his eyes, says each word slowly, as if it were a magic incantation that will coax a golden coin from my mouth. He looks so hopeful and watches my mouth so intently it makes me laugh instead of speak Spanish.
He bounces on his toes, laughs too, but says, “Please, mi gringuita, try.”
“Puerta,” I say, the middle of the word twisting awkwardly in my mouth.
He’s bouncing again. “Excellent! Perfecto! That’s it! That’s it!”
I say, “You know very well that’s not perfecto. You’re so god damn cheerful and bouncy. You remind me of Tigger in Winnie the Pooh. Did you ever read Winnie the Pooh?”
“Of course. You’d be piglet.”
He looks so hopeful and watches my mouth so intently it makes me laugh instead of speak Spanish.
“I’m not a pink little wimp.”
“Oh, yes, you are.”
I write Bouncy Bouncy Bouncy on a post-it and smack it on his butt.
He writes Cerdito, Little Pig, and posts it on my forehead.
I post Winnie The Poop on his shoulder.
He posts The Honey Pot between my legs.
We look at each other, smiling.
“Now you’ll see,” he says.
“So will you.”
We both begin writing on post-its.
Then we hold our message hidden in our hands and face each other. “Let me see what you wrote,” he says.
He presses his gently onto my chest. It says, Te amo in his upright writing.
I stick mine on his chest, which says I love you.
When we kiss the sound of two small pieces of paper brushing against each other comes up from our hearts.
I cc everyone at Avon who has passed me on: “I’m not sure if you realize the gravity of the situation. If I do not discover the name of the fruity fragrance popular around 1979 in Chile I may lose my lover forever. Please help. This is not a joke.”
We are walking downtown at night, holding hands, past a clown singing, “You are the Sunshine of My Life,” past a man sliding enormous bubbles out of a silver hoop, past gaggles of young boys with sagging shorts and skateboards, past dread locked white girls in ripped hemp, while low riders parade past us.
He says, “Maybe you just love me because I’m Latin-American. I’m your Zorro, your Don Juan. My brutal English turns you on.”
“Do you love me because I’m Jewish,” I answer back, quick. But I look at his face and he’s holding his mouth in a soft, damaged way, like a listing life raft, and I try to really think about the question. I say, “I love you because you love things. You love books, you love food, you love women, you love me. Things surprise you, they delight you. So many men I know don’t love anything. We’re the whatever generation.”
“I’m not a whatever kind of man,” he says, and kisses me right there on the street in a not whatever way.
"So many men I know don’t love anything. We’re the whatever generation.”
We’re eating dinner at my house, take-out from a Pan-Asian restaurant, and he tells me he read that a British academic journal decided to boycott Israel, and then fired two American Jews on its board in order to honor the boycott. He shakes his head, says, “Absurd,” and laughs. He seems, as usual, delighted.
My face gets hot, and I say, “Sometimes I think the left is as anti-Semitic as the right.”
“That’s crazy,” he laughs. He covers my big hand with his small hand. They are almost exactly the same size, except his is tan with dark hair and mine is pink and hairless. “The left stands for freedom and human rights. There are so many Jews on the left.”
I take my hand away and dig my fork around in my bowl. “How many Jews have you even met in your entire life?”
He tells me about this Chilean-Jewish scientist he was introduced to at a party at the university who supports a Palestinian state.
“How is that even relevant?” I ask. “From what I’ve heard there are a lot more Nazis than Jews in Chile anyway.”
His fork is arrested in mid-air, dangling noodles. He says, “It’s not the Nazis that nearly destroyed my country, it’s the United States. The U.S. is supporting the
Israeli fascist regime just like they supported Pinochet in my country and apartheid in South Africa.”
“Yes, Israel needs a two-state solution, but Ariel Sharon is not Pinochet. You don’t understand Jewish history.”
“This is a ridiculous conversation. You’re not even really Jewish, you don’t even go to Jewish church.”
“Over a hundred years ago, my Grandpa Albert’s grandfather sat him on his knee and told him, ‘Never forget you are a Jew.’ Then Grandpa Albert left Warsaw with his mother and sister. His grandfather died of starvation in the Warsaw ghetto.” I’m almost crying. “We gave you Freud, Marx, Einstein, Emma Goldman, we even gave you God. We’ve given everything we have, and it’s still not enough. You just turn your backs on us and walk away.”
“What are we talking about here?” he says.
“I don’t know. Everything.”
“Everything is more than enough,” he says, and touches my cheek.
Finally, an Avon representative emails me. There were three scents put out in the 1970’s that were exported to Chile:
1. Sweet Honesty, 1973
“Floral fragrance of rose, hyacinth, musk, amber and spices”
2. Timeless, 1974
“Subtle spices and florals with ambery undertones, warm moss and wood notes; nuances of incense enhance its long-lasting qualities”
3. Candid, 1977
“Long lasting creation of Jasmine, tuberose and ylang-ylang is underscored by the warm nuances of sandalwood oakmoss and vetiver”
I hope this helps!” are the last words from Avon.
I forward the Avon email to him and he responds quickly: “I am sure it was Sweet Honesty! Or at least that’s what I want to believe, more than anything. I love you sweetly and honestly.”
I close the store early and go home to make a celebratory dinner. I cook empanadas and matzah ball soup. It takes me the rest of the day. When he comes over he brings me a new CD, an anthology of love songs from around the world. My empanadas are a little thick skinned, but he says they’re muy rica for a first try. He has three bowls of soup and says he loves my “hard, little balls.” The wine is Chilean and reminds me of blackberries. A Hawaiian love song comes on and we both get up and begin to hula. He moves his arms in two little waves and frisks his hips. The next track begins, and it is a gravelly male voice moaning “Quiero Bailar Slow with You Tonight,” fingers aching over a steel string guitar. I run to my bedroom and come back.
I turn over my wrists to him and he lifts each one, presses his nose to it, and breathes deeply. Then he pushes my hips against the kitchen counter and breathes into my neck. “Yes, this is it, this is it. I want to dance slow with you tonight.” His hips hula hard and slow against mine. “And I will talk to my department about extending my research fellowship.”
A few days later, four to be exact, he calls me from his office, right when I’m about to leave for the store, and tells me that he needs to talk to me. He’ll come by around noon. His voice sounds echoey and weird. I think, Do not be paranoid. Then I think, I am not going to let him screw this up.
I pull on my new knee high black boots that he hasn’t seen yet, then a short skirt. I do that elegant thing where you spritz the air with perfume and walk through it, but then I get nervous that it’s too subtle and squeeze the Sweet Honesty on my neck, hair and wrists, too.
When I get to the store, I play my new world love sampler CD, loudish. All morning, while I’m going over my inventory, fragments of arguments sift through my head: But you promised. I found the perfume. You said you loved me. You have a major mother complex you need to escape. Or simply, Don’t leave me.
Mr. Nowicki, an old man they call the mayor of Bierce Park, comes in. He shows up every few weeks to complain about the store, never buys anything, but this time he asks for Miraculous Escapes by Dave Tanaka. I show him where it is, invite him to peruse the whole section.
Ridiculous, he says, but then, miraculously, he peruses. I pull out the big picture book on Houdini to show him. I tell him my grandpa Albert interviewed Houdini back in the day.
“This is a children’s book,” he says. “You can’t mix kids’ books in with grown-up books, that will attract perverts.”
I’m looking at him and my thinking goes something like—children’s books, children, babies, a baby. A baby.
I know it’s a desperate thought, and I try to disown it. But it’s such a solid, old-fashioned argument, one Mr. Nowicki himself might approve. And my lover is a gentleman, so I know he’d recognize its worth.
Then the little bell on the door tinkles. I say excuse me to Mr. Nowicki and turn and there he is. As soon as I look at the damaged way he’s holding his mouth I know I was right to be prepared.
The first thing he says is, “Where did you get those boots? They remind me of the military.” He walks behind the counter and lets himself fall onto a wooden chair, and before I can begin my defense, of my boots, of our relationship, of the United States, he says, “I cannot leave my country. I can’t do it.” He begins to cry quietly. He sits there sagging, his glasses dirty. “This place is a wonderful carnival, but it is not my home.”
“Don’t say that.” My mind’s all jumbled up. I don’t know what to say first.
“There were these Australian photographers,” he says, “traveling all around the world. In each place they would put a notice in the paper: ‘Come at 8AM to have a group portrait of your country taken, naked’. More people came out in Chile than any other country. My whole family went, and all our friends, almost our whole neighborhood. It was a cold day, winter, drizzling, and there we were, rubbing our hands together, making jokes. Right at 8AM we all undressed, our jeans and suits and dresses lying at our feet, thousands of us, all together for the world to see. Laughing and freezing desnudos.” He looks at me. “I cannot forget that.” His voice turns into a mumble then, but I think I hear him say, Mi Mama, and then the Andes, which I have never heard him mention before, and finally, incomprehensibly, the subway system in Santiago and the proliferation of cheap, natural juices.
I hear myself say, “I’ll go with you. To Santiago.” The city tastes acidic in my mouth.
“What about your store? You would lose everything.”
I literally get down on my knees, then, my stiff new black boots cutting into my legs, and put my clasped hands in his lap. “I have something to tell you.”
He takes notice. “What?”
I think a lot of things, quickly, as you can imagine: crowded apartments, crowds of people, I wonder if there were pregnant naked women in the Chilean photograph. But mostly I think of his novia, how her memory still smells sweet because of what didn’t happen.
I look up from my position on the floor and Mr. Nowicki is standing on the other side of the counter. “How much are these books? They don’t even have prices on them.”
“You can have them,” I say.
He looks surprised.
“Go ahead, it’s fine, take them.”
“No way to run a business,” he says. We both watch him limp out the door.
I get up off the floor and sit in the chair.
“What did you want to say?” he asks.
I realize I have allowed my whole store to reek of cheap perfume. I answer, “Nothing. Just that you are so old-fashioned. Don’t you know that borders have no meaning anymore? What about Tarzan, the Disney version? Jane stays in the jungle.”
Surprisingly, he shoots back that in Pocahontas, the Disney version, Pocahontas remains with her people.
“Aha!” I say, gaining a little ground, “but in real life she went with Captain Smith to England and married and had a baby.”
“And died there, homesick and alone.” He smiles sadly. “That’s the real story.”
At the airport, I wave and he waves, all through the security check. They stop him for a pat down and I can see him roll his golden eyes. I have a sudden wild hope that they will return him to me. Then it’s over, they hurry him on. He turns and mouths, “Sadie, I love you.”
Two hours later he calls me from Texas, the layover. We talk until they call last boarding for his plane. He has to hang up in a hurry. He says, “We will be together, again. I’ll call you from home.” He sounds honest, and sweet. I sit in my sagging green velvet chair, alone in my closed store and cry. It sounds loud and ugly. I think bitterly, This is the real world music.
But I don’t believe that, or at least, I don’t believe only that. In fact, my favorite Spanish word is Ojalá. It has such a breathy, warm, open sound. It has Arabic roots, from pre-1492 Spain where once upon a time Jews and Arabs and Latinos all lived together, surrounded by arches and mosaic tiles, by the smell of rose, hyacinth, musk and amber. Oh, Allah, it comes from, Oh Allah, I entreat you. It means hope.
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