“I dreamed of a woman with no mouth, says the man in bed. I couldn’t help smiling. The piston forces the images up again. Look, he tells her, I know another story that’s just as sad. He’s a writer who lives on the edge of town…” - Antwerp, Roberto Bolaño
I am the woman who the writer could not earn enough money to see. He never finished the stories, nor the political articles. He never arrived on the train, we never stayed at the hotel. We were dating at a time when I hated the idea of old age. In other words, I was happy. When we were apart, I’d get sick with thoughts of him. There was a joke between us: he was among the horses, while I was in the stables—too many words for I was trapped.
In college I wrote letters to the writer across state lines. I told him about my days, the classes I took and the books I read. He wrote back to tell me he was voraciously writing. Anything to get paid, and to get to me sooner. Like the girl I was, I believed him. He promised me a healthy marriage. I promised nothing but my acceptance. I waited four years, and he never came.
It did not matter that I was careful. Careful with my promises, and more importantly, my skin. I wanted to be a young wife forever. I avoided the outside world by reading books recommended by the writer about histories that didn’t interest me. I sucked water from a straw to contour my face. I floated one foot over the other to strengthen my thighs. Now I relax in the sun all day. I eat well and move fluidly.
The writer was the man I should have married. In his absence I carried on. There was another man, a man who has just left me, this morning, without turning back. I do not consider my story with this man as sad as the story of the writer and me, our lost love.
No matter all that—I am a young woman who is alone, but it doesn’t feel that way. I have my blue dining chairs, a birch wood table for eating, and a full bed dressed in white. The cabinets are emptied of the leaving man and soon I will be too.
I am also the woman with no mouth. It was hard for my therapist to believe that I had no mouth. A nose and legs and eyes, and, yes, a mouth, but a barely formed one. I told her on the phone that I have no mouth as punishment for lying so much that the man has left me. I had told him I loved him. She told me: “If you have no mouth then find another way.”
To learn how to write about my no-mouth, I went to a triangular building in town made of concrete and glass with 12 stacks of books. I walked through the desert and parking lots and fast-food drive-throughs. I asked the receptionist at the library, a woman even younger than me, to find books with characters who cannot speak.
She presented four books like bottles of wine. I was drawn to one the size of a postcard. On its cover were three purple boxes. Each box had different lines: straight lines, soft waves like the ocean, and jagged lines like the one that reads the heart. I picked this book first because today I was feeling soft and wavy like the ocean. While flipping through the pages I landed on stories that are just like mine. Stories of men who never loved women.
After checking out the book and one other, I went to a cafe that sells iced tea for $1.25. Before the stories of the postcard book start, the writer tells the reader that the book is for ghosts because they exist outside of time. I live in the desert, and this is true. Time stopped a long time ago. I wish I could say how long. The writer of the postcard book starts his small stories in their middle, and they never end. I like this because in life we don’t get relief. One story barely gets to closing while the others start rapidly opening.
The second book I opened was about an abandoned city on another planet. A city saturated red with limited language because someone had taken it away. Instead, the citizens communicate with their bodies. Liquid bodies with which upon meeting they dance. They kiss and spectate. I read for hours and went nowhere but between their limbs.
Returning home, the sun had risen above the mountains and a pregnant woman was in the pool. Her belly button bloomed in the water, which gave her relief from the big ball. I wanted to love the pregnant woman in her full glory. The stretched red bikini and weed-littered water. Expanding my stomach, I imagined myself in her form. I didn’t mind the shape.
I live in an apartment complex that is a pink extension of an old church. The extension was once a motel and a liquor store. There are weathered bottles beside miniature sculptures of Christ in the property manager’s office. I live in a converted motel with all the windows facing the pool, and often I’ll catch a round face watching me.
No one uses the old church, and no one comes to the pool except for me, the pregnant woman, and my neighbor, who I argue with. I don’t speak with him. Instead, I write notes that I leave under his doormat about the hours his wife blow dries her hair on the other side of my wall. I drafted a note today because I had been trying to talk to my friend, Ava, on the phone about the man who has left me. I couldn’t hear Ava because of the blowing. These walls are like paper.
After I hung up, through sheer curtains I saw my neighbors at the kitchen table. His wife’s hair was tied up in a towel. Johnny Cash’s voice arrived like an old dog. After slipping the note under the mat, I made eye contact with the wife. She narrowed her eyes. The pregnant woman lay flat on the water like an animal playing dead.
Often, I’ll pause in the middle of living—eating a peach over the sink, putting groceries in the fridge—and it’s like I’ve caught myself. I told this to my therapist once in the chair on her patio at the base of a mountain.
“Caught yourself not reacting?” she asked.
“No, that’s not it.” She put the butt of a pen to her temple. “The writer?”
I shook my head. He was always her response when she couldn’t find the answer.
Regularly the landline rings in the middle of our sessions. I worry of calls gone unanswered by the more seriously ill. I tell her to get up and she shakes her head. She shushes me. The neighbor’s dog barks. She says a bobcat drinks water from the pool but I’ve yet to see it.
“Like I’ve caught myself existing?” I answered. I’ve preferred to be swept softly neither here nor there.
Her eyebrows raised and her mouth made a downward motion like, “could be.” Most of our sessions go like this: I’m grasping at straws, and she’s handing me objects at random.
My taking of my one friend Ava under my wing was overcompensation for wanting her dead. She is younger than me and even prettier. Ava comes over most afternoons, like today, to sit by the pool. She tells me I need to protect my skin. She says that every time we see each other I have more white circles on my chest. Little red dots, too. Touching her knuckles to my shoulder she says, “see where the skin is loosening?”
Today I ignore her. I tell her about the writer, how my life would have been much better if I had married him instead of the man who has left me. I tell this to her as I rub sunscreen on the top of her feet and between her toes, getting every freckle. I use coconut oil on my own body. I let the jar sit in the sun, so that it melts, then lather it on.
Today the neighbor I argue with sat in a lounge chair opposite us and waited for Ava to do something other than fan her face with a magazine. She smiled a big one at him from across the pool. He loves her, I can tell.
It’s for this reason that I don’t tell Ava more about the writer. Such as the edge of the town he lived in, why his story was so sad. Our story, really. I can imagine her traveling to the seaside where she would find the writer at a local coffee shop. The writer used to write by hand, most days. Very short stories about forests.
Today I let something about the writer slip: he also spent many hours every day at the gym.
“Really?” Ava asked. I was quiet afterwards. I dunked my head beneath the water and held my breath. “Why don’t you write to the writer?” Ava asked when I resurfaced.
The truth is that I’m not certain the writer would remember me. Ten years here in the desert could be 100 elsewhere. Time is slow. In this way, the writer could have died decades ago.
“This writer,” Ava said, resting a Big Gulp on her belly, “just represents all the things you wish you had done.”
I considered this, tapping my fingertips on the pool’s surface. “But what would I have done?”