For the past four days the message had been Stay calm, everybody calm, this is not a big deal. On a bus, he himself had witnessed the pseudo-calm of skepticism: a street peddler had boarded the bus selling bottles of bubble gel; he blew into a plastic ring and little solar systems sailed down the aisle, oscillating, suspended, landing on people without bursting. Gel bubbles, he said, last far longer than soap bubbles, you can play with them, and he took a few between his fingers, jiggled, pressed and puffed. One popped on a man’s forehead. And just then the penny dropped: the bubble was full of air and spit from a stranger’s mouth. A rictus of icy panic spread across the passengers’ faces; the man got up and said Get the fuck off, the peddler stammered What’s the problem, friend, no need to act like that, but the guy was already on him. When the guy lifted him up by his sweater the driver slowed – just a bit – and opened the doors so the vendor and his bottles could be tossed to the curb. Then he closed the doors and sped back up. And no one said a word. Not even him.
But at the time, they could still think they’d escaped the danger. Last night’s news was no longer a dodge. The story had been picked up everywhere: two men in a restaurant, total strangers, started spitting blood almost simultaneously and collapsed over their tables. That was when the government came out and admitted: We believe the epidemic – and that was the first time they used the word – may be a tad more aggressive than we’d initially thought, we believe it can only be transmitted by mosquitos – EGYPTIAN mosquitos, they underscored – tho there have been a couple of cases that appear to have been spread by other means, so while we are ruling out whatever we can rule out it’s best to stop everything, tho really there’s no cause for concern, we have the best and brightest tracking down whatever this is, and of course we have hospitals, too, but, just in case, you know, best to stay home and not kiss anybody or touch anybody and to cover your nose and your mouth and report any symptoms, but the main thing is Stay Calm. Which, logically, was taken to mean Lock yourself up or this fucker will take you down, because we’ve unleashed some serious wrath.
He opened the Big House door again, took two steps out and was thrust back by the reek of abandonment on the street. Almost imperceptibly his frame flexed, anxious, updown updown, Fuckit fuckit fuckit, what do I do, and then he felt something brush his neck and he slapped his skin and looked at his hand, stained with insect blood. He stepped back, slammed the door and stood staring at his palm, transfixed.
What’s going on? he heard behind him. He turned to see Three Times Blonde at the end of the hall. Half her body hanging out of her apartment, swinging from the jamb with one hand.
He took two steps toward her, wiping his hand on his pants.
What’s that? she asked.
Three Times Blonde relaxed a bit and asked again.
What’s going on out there?
Nothing, he replied. And I mean not a thing.
She nodded. She’d probably been watching the news without daring to believe it.
Good morning, he said.
Afternoon, you mean, Three Times Blonde fired back. She blinked silently at the ground, an outburst held in, and then added I got no credit on my phone.
Take some of mine, he offered immediately, as tho gravity itself forced him to say such things in the presence of a woman.
Three Times Blonde stood aside, and tho they could have done the deal in the hall she ticked her head toward her place. Her apartment gloried in its own good taste: purple love seat, poster of a blonde on an armchair not unlike the love seat, blue rug. He asked if he might possibly have a glass of water, thinking she was the sort who put stock in proper talk, but she just shot him a strange look.
They trafficked his time and she turned her back to make her call.
Three Times Blonde’s pants rode her all over. He ogled her like she was in a window display, seized by the urge to devour her, to gorge himself on her thighs and her back and her tongue and then ask for her bones in a little bag to go. He pulled her blue pants down slow and trembling – but no, he didn’t lift a finger; he inhaled the nape of her neck and kissed the three-times-blonde hair on it – but no, his hands stayed folded before him like the tea-sipping innocent he knew he could pass for. She was on the phone saying So what’s going to happen, are we going to die or what? Then why won’t you come over? But you have a car, you don’t have to see a soul . . . Oh. And there’s nobody that can stay with them? Whatever. Well if you don’t come now it’s going to get worse and then you really will be stuck there forever with your mother and your sisters, yeah, yeah, I know, it’ll all be over soon, fine, okay, yeah, love you too, kiss-kiss.
She turned back around. He’s not coming.
He should have taken off right then, should have said You’re welcome – tho she hadn’t said thanks – and split. But his will wasn’t his own.
Let’s watch TV, she said, and went into her bedroom.
He approached, not daring to cross the threshold. The room was pink and pillowed. She sat on the edge of the bed and turned on the TV and patted the mattress. Come.
Suddenly he began to salivate, his mouth no longer a desert with buzzards circling his tongue but a choking street, a flooded sewer. He obeyed and instructed himself to move no further. The newscaster on TV was talking about the airborne monster, its body a shiny striped black bullet, six very long fuzzy legs humped over itself, and above the hump a little round head with antennae casting out into space and two tubular mouths. A bona fide sonofabitch, apparently.
Looks pretty determined, don’t you think? she asked.
He nodded yes and swallowed spit, then said But who knows if that’s even the one, maybe they just found a fall guy, maybe this bug’s taking the rap for another bug’s dirty work.
It was a joke, but Three Times Blonde turned to him wide-eyed and said You are so right it’s scary.
She was convinced. Maybe it was true, maybe he was right.
Then the power went out. Three Times Blonde’s apartment, just like his, got no natural light since they were at the back of the Big House, so suddenly it was dead of night. She said Yikes! and then fell silent, they both fell silent, a sensual silence, surreptitious: no need to do a thing. No need for phony swagger and no need to shoot her sidelong glances as if the door were half-open, just sit tight, knowing she’s within kissing distance, even if no one else knows it and even if you can’t prove it, it’s a leap of faith.
So that was what it felt like: not always thinking about the moment to come, wasting each moment thinking about the moment to come, always the coming moment. So that was what it felt like to incubate, to settle in with yourself and hope the light stays off. And astonishingly, like a miracle, she said: I think this is what we were like before we were babies, don’t you? Little larvae, sitting quietly in the dark.
He said nothing. Her voice had brought him back to the mattress, there in her pillowed room. Again he wanted to touch her and again he lacked someone to loan him the will.
You want a drink?
Oooh, yeah, I could go for a vodka.
I got mezcal.
He pictured her twisting her lips.
Well. You got to try everything once, right?
They got up off the bed and she placed one hand on his arm and one on his back.
Don’t fall. If you conk out I won’t be able to pick you up. He let himself be led slower than necessary so she’d have to keep holding on. She opened the door and a square of light appeared from the small window in the door at the end of the hall.
Be right back.
He made it to the table in his apartment without fumbling, snatched up the bottle, and, with the skill of someone who’s come home sloshed more than once, located the shot glasses. Before going back he walked to the end of the hall and looked out. He saw that the mosquitos had abandoned their puddle and what he’d thought was blood was in fact black floating scum. He recalled that on previous days he’d spotted several puddles covered in whitish membranes. This was the first black one he’d seen.
The city was still silent, overtaken by sinister insects.
On his way back he guided himself by the little inferno of her oven. The backlit blue silhouette of Three Times Blonde could be seen as she cut cheese, tomato and chipotle.
We’re going to have something to eat, so I don’t get silly when I drink.
They flipped and double-flipped and then folded the tortillas. Ate standing up. Then began to drink.
So how come nobody ever comes to visit you? she asked.
Everyone’s fine right where they are, he replied. And me and mezcal don’t talk shop.
Lonely people lose their minds, she said.
He always found it a miracle that anyone wanted his company. Women especially – men will cuddle a rock. When he first started getting laid he couldn’t quite believe that the women in his bed weren’t there by mistake. Sometimes he’d leave the room and then peer back in, and then peer in again, incredulous that a woman was actually lying there naked, waiting for him. As if. In time he found his thing: fly in like a fool to start, then turn on the silver tongue. Talk and cock, talk and cock, yessir. One time a girl confessed that Vicky, his friend the nurse, had given her a warning before she introduced them. Take one look and if you don’t like what you see don’t even say hi or you’ll end up wanting to fuck. Best thing anyone ever said about him. It didn’t matter that they never came back, or rarely. He didn’t mind being disposable.
Three Times Blonde told him about her family. About a brother she never saw since he was a bad drunk and a hophead and when he was off his face he said awful things. About her mother, who introduced her to guys from work. Total scum. To illustrate what these people were like, honestly, she described their defining details: a lawyer from the office who would jam a napkin up his gums after eating and then put it back on the table, or this one guy who could never sit still and would readjust himself every other second saying, I swear, my balls are just too damn big.
Can you imagine? she asked. I mean these people. Honestly.
His type of people. Those were his kind, the kind he rubbed shoulders with, did deals with every day, the nous of his entre nous, his tribe.
Which is why it’s so wondrous, he thought, why it’s so weird, to be this close to her when we’re from such different dirt. As Three Times Blonde spoke the whole house echoed in the absence of noise from outside, and for a minute he felt that now, really, all they had was time, and he got a good kind of creeps and was flooded with a patience he didn’t know he possessed. But then she started talking about her boyfriend, as if he was different from all the others, If only you knew him. And using a new sound as an excuse he said Be right back, and went out into the hall.
He opened the door. There stood the anemic student, hunched, pale, dank hair dripping down his forehead like dirty bathwater. No doubt the guy hadn’t ventured out in days and the smell of quesadillas had gotten to him. For a second he considered saying Come on in, compadre, fix you something right up. If he’d been another class of man or arrived at another class of time he would have, but all he said was Go home, you’ll catch cold. He closed the door and went back to Three Times Blonde. Ha.
Three Times Blonde had put out a couple scented candles and was kicking it in the purple den. He poured her a second mescal and they toasted, did it right, eyes on the shot glass – none of this staring into one another’s eyes as if already wounded – and he downed it in one. Mezcal, so good so true. Distilled filth to filter his filth inside. He slammed the glass on the table and poured a third. Shots made him a better man: his teeth whitened, his wit quickened, his stiff hair stayed kempt and acted like it gave a shit. She didn’t need it, of course, she was rosy-cheeked and graceful sans hoodwinkery, but she too downed hers in one. I always assumed mezcal was slimy since they make it with dead worms, she said. And him: No, the worm is what gives it life.
Like the nose on a u, she said.
You know how it has those two dots when it really sounds like u?
The nose on a u. When it’s with a q the u doesn’t breathe, only when it’s far from q, and it doesn’t need a nose there. But I always put one on anyway.
She traced the letter in the air with one finger and dotted it.
He poured her one more and this time they did look into each other’s eyes before down-the-hatching. She glistened like a wet street. This might be the last woman I’m ever with in my life, he said to himself. He said that every time because, like all men, he couldn’t get enough, and because, like all men, he was convinced he deserved to get laid one more time before he died.
A flat silence slipped in from outside, the hours on the street withering in abandonment, while those in the house were watered in mezcal. But the mezcal was running low.
He had an emergency bottle at home. But what if the anemic student was there, curled up by the door waiting for them to toss him a tortilla. He was determined to hold out until the bastard had slunk back to his doghouse.
Sometimes I go outside in the middle of the night, said Three Times Blonde. If there’s not much light you can see the stars. No way we can do that now.
He looked up a lot too, nights when he was still on the grind at dawn and the streets were deserted. But he kept that quiet, she’d never buy it.
So you were telling me about Prince Charming, he said; and she said Foo don’t be mean.
He’s very refined, she said. This is my first boyfriend, my first really real one.
Then she started saying she’d met him at a party, fighting to defend the honour of a girl being bothered by two drunks and she fell head over heels just like that; okay, she admitted, he’s a bit cocky, and yeah he sometimes raises his voice, and sure he’s insanely jealous and sometimes drinks a lot and fusses too much over Bronco—
His car, silly.
He named his car?
Yeah, see he takes such good care of it. But when it’s just the two of us alone together he is so sweet, if you could only see him.
Good grief. Little slickster alias Angelface.
Something in the air swished a candle, flicking light onto Three Times Blonde’s shoulder and suddenly he envisioned her unwrapped. Without thinking his hand reached out and very gently squeezed.
We went to the beach last week, she said, looking at him like he wasn’t touching her.
With the other hand he turned her slightly and began, ever so softly, to squeeze more as her skin surrendered.
Mmm, that feels nice, she said. Keep doing that.
He kept doing it, inwardly faster and outwardly keener, with a tremble he fought by staring only at his next little crest of flesh. And then he began with his mouth. Just peeling off the wrapper and popping each little crest into his mouth. She cocked her head slightly to glance from the corner of her eye and said You are insane, you know that? He said Nnnf and kept at it.
When he got to her shoulder blade he came upon a scar like a line upturned at the ends, deep. He traced it with one finger.
How’d you get that?
My fucking deranged brother. When we were kids one day he lost his shit and tried to knife me with a spoon.
I’m telling you he’s deranged.
He stopped touching the scar carefully, as tho afraid it might come off, and kissed it. She arched her back. He pulled down one spaghetti strap but before peeling off the rest traced his fingertips along the sierra of her spine. No longer leaning over to squeeze small folds of her, he slid across as if his arms were too short and he had to scoot right up to reach. As he kneaded another knot, almost to the edge of her back, he lowered the other hand to her hip and pulled her to him gently. For the first time she tensed.
You and me don’t even know each other.
He stopped moving his hands but didn’t take them off or release the pressure on her hip.
That’s the best part, he said.
And even before he said what he said next, he could tell the bastard was back. Bastard alias the Romantic.
It’s the best part, because affection is exactly what we need. Can you imagine what it would be like if instead of killing we cuddled? You seen how many people are out there hurting each other without even knowing who they’re shooting at?
He believed that, he really did, and yet he was still a bastard because he’d said it like a man paying off the popo to disappear a ticket. Obviously he couldn’t let this chance slip by. But still: bastard.
Three Times Blonde turned to look at him like he’d said something unforgivable. She stared tremulously a couple of seconds, then pulled him in by the neck and kissed him, sweeping her tongue across his as if surveying a new possession, marking more than kissing him, and he, already overexcited, had no idea what to do, but his left hand, which had twisted with her waist, and his right hand, which had landed on her belly, lent him the will that had wavered. He slipped his hands beneath her top and uncovered her breasts. They weren’t like he’d imagined them, with his hands and his head, so many times: they’re never the way you imagine them, they were smaller and pointier and one was slightly inverted as tho ordering him to suck it out, and as he obeyed he was shocked that Three Times Blonde started taking off his shirt, that she wanted it too.
He frenzied from breast to breast, undone by the inability to tongue them both at the same time. He licked his way down the almost-invisible trail of three-times-blonde peach fuzz that crept into her pants, which he unbuttoned, but before pulling them off he slipped a hand through her thong to finger her curls. He stood, fearful in that half-second she’d be overcome with ambivalence as he took off his own pants, but she was already stroking his stomach with the tip of one toe. He dropped everything but his unsexy underwear, knelt, and as he started to tug her panties aside heard Three Times Blonde ask What’s my name?
He raised his head, racing breakneck through half-a-dozen idiotic replies.
Like you know mine.
That’s not the same, you swine.
He’d had the good sense not to stop moving his fingers for the duration of that exchange and by the end Three Times Blonde had stopped worrying about names and he let his tongue revel the way a tongue can only revel when nobody’s asking it for words. As soon as he sensed he didn’t need further permission he pulled off her panties and got naked and pulled her to him by the hips but then she said Where’s the condom?
Motherfuck the condom. He’d asked himself the same thing and had answered himself Don’t fuckin worry about it right now.
He put his pants back on, said Don’t move.
He stepped into the hall barefoot. The anemic student was nowhere to be seen.
He ran into his apartment reciting the prayer of the over-heated horndog:
Oh please, oh please, oh please
May he, the drunken me
May he, the dumbfuck me
May he, the me who never ever ever knows where shit is
May he have saved one
Lubricated or corrugated
Colored or flavored
Magnum or tight-fit
Holy Saint of horndogs
Grant me just one condom
But he knew there were none. He’d used that prayer the last time, months ago, and managed to unearth one under the bed, gleaming and glorious as a national hero. The very last one. This was not a time for heroes or miracles. Fear was what had granted him these hours of intimacy but now it was showing its virulent side. Go on, off to the shop, ladykiller.
Across the street was an old-school pharmacy run by little old men who still wrapped condoms and sanitary napkins in brown paper so the customer need not feel self-conscious on the way out, but in the mental photo he’d taken that morning the metal awning was down. He triangulated the hood in his head, locating shops and less-far pharmacies and said to himself, Be right back, no big deal. He walked out of his place and before walking back into Three Times Blonde’s saw the anemic student at the end of the hall, staring at him, fiery-eyed, glassy, on his way out the door.
Three Times Blonde was still splayed across the love seat, transfixed by the shadows cast by the candle. He told her what he’d told himself:
Be right back, there’s a pharmacy close by.
She sat straight up on the couch.
No no no, how could you leave with that thing out there, it’s not like we’re that desperate.
Evidently she knew nothing about him. In other circumstances he wouldn’t have listened, but the current circumstance, the one that concerned him, wasn’t the epidemic so much as Three Times Blonde herself, naked before him, adamant, insisting Come. That was all. No pharmacies and no condoms. Locked up with a woman who was calling him.
Like a wrestler, he said to himself, I surrender. He approached and attacked her tongue as he once more undressed and then she said We can’t get comfy out here and led him into the bedroom where at first she just let him adore her unwrapped three-times-very-taut skin and run his lips across it and his fingers inside it, but then she put her mouth to his cock, no talk; they rolled around clutching bony and fleshy backs, round and skinny buttocks, until there in the center of it all he felt her so wet and so ready and so present that he just slid inside. It was worth it, no matter the price, just to feel her drawing his cock in from the deepest part of her body, even if only for an instant. He did it fast but in that time a million epidemics came and went, through a million deserted cities in which the only sounds were deep sighs, and then she, once more, looked at him like he’d done something unforgiveable, a thing that for one very long minute he did not want to end: she trapped him with the lips of her sex, with her legs, with her fingernails, and then said, in a steady but almost inaudible voice, Off.
He pulled out and slumped beside her. He thought she’d kick him out and told himself the same thing he’d told himself so many times in so many situations: All good things are but a part of something terrible. But instead of shouting at him she reached out a hand and took hold of his cock, squeezing and stroking steadily until he came, tho he begged Wait wait wait, stop, because he had his hopes set on who knows what.
Photograph © Jeff Kubina
The above is taken from The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and forthcoming from And Other Stories.