Traffic came to a stop as soon as I exited the highway for home that night. I could see the ambulance strobe long before I was close enough to see the ambulance itself. First we stopped, then crawled over the hot asphalt by painful inches, squeezing from two lanes down to one, past where the chain link fence between highway and outer road gives way to textured concrete wall, every panel embossed with an outline of the great state of Texas, and I had plenty of time to feel years disappear and the crowding darkness pressing air from my lungs.
The mowers had left their job undone, and an uprising of queen anne’s lace choked a painted wooden sign that promised the huge corner lot would be reborn as Dallas Soccer Fields, a worthwhile promise in our neighborhood of new homes and pricey condos, but a promise yet unkept and now unkempt as well. What did I care for soccer or wild carrots when I saw EMTs in a knot on the pavement behind a wall of police, their strobe lights mesmerizing me and stealing my breath and reminding me of dark things all too eager to fill the void, of days I thought were finally behind me.
Every driver looked as we passed the scene, looked to the bad luck of others as proof of our own favor in the scheme of things, me more than many, as I’d dared begin hoping for favor after years of banishment to a desert of soul. I looked. I looked for proof of my own freedom from the past, for the life I was promised. The gurney was just disappearing into the back of the ambulance. The form it carried, strapped on and covered by a blanket, was small, short, perhaps a child. Thank God, I thought, thank God.
I could breathe.
I collected my mail from the kiosk in the manicured parking lot of my apartment complex and scanned bills and catalogs as I walked toward my building. There were people on the lawn between me and the stairs to my front door. I recognized my downstairs neighbor Lila Mendez among them, her white hair braided back from her face, the smallest Mendez baby in her arms.
I nodded to her and she nodded back. She might wear baggy jeans and tacky tee shirts sent by her grandson the Marine as souvenirs from his varied ports of call, but she had the power of all the Mendez women in her black eyes. Usually, I had the feeling she pitied me. Tonight, she didn’t spare me pity. She seemed far away, though there were children clinging to her jeans, more Mendezes. I didn’t see Lila’s son Arturo or his wife Paulina, the parents of many of these children. Something was amiss. I didn’t know how to ask. I climbed the stairs. The sound of a diesel truck in the parking lot followed me to the door of my apartment from the parking lot below, but it was the ambulance strobes that followed me inside.
Our bedroom smelled of apples and pears — huge boxes of fruit on the floor, part of John’s glorious mess, of the endless favors he was doing for others and they for him. He kissed me. I inhaled his hair, his skin. The bed was unmade. His beard made a cushion for our kisses. So wet. So soft. He held me. He stroked goosebumps on my flesh as clothing melted away. I wasn’t on the Pill any more, but it didn’t matter — I never could say no to him. Soft sounds. Smiles. His mouth on my neck, my throat, my chest, my breasts. Gifts from a lover enamored of me, of us, of love.
It was all I could do to drag myself from bed in the morning and go to the office. When I came home, there was no crowd on the lawn, just a lone figure lounging under my stairs beside the Mendez’ front door. He touched the brim of his cowboy hat in respect as he saw me through the open risers of my stairs.
“Is that Jesus Mendez?” I asked.
He nodded and came out from under the stairs where I could see him, the Marine grandson, Lila Mendez’ pride and joy. He wore a white dress shirt and black dress pants with a narrow black belt and simple silver buckle. “Ms. Murphey,” he said. We’d met just a couple of times in spite of the fact he allegedly lived there with his grandmother. No surprise, he wasn’t around much. Tonight, his round face darkly somber, his eyes even more serious, he seemed to vibrate with unvoiced emotion. I couldn’t ask Lila Mendez what was wrong, but I could ask her grandson.
“My little sister, Jenny,” he said. “Struck down as she was walking home from the store.” His voice was hoarse. I flashed on the ambulance, the traffic, my inability to breathe.
“Yesterday?” I asked.
“Is she going to be okay?” I asked.
He pulled at the brim of his hat and said nothing. She was not going to be okay. Jesus wasn’t all dressed up for the hospital.
We stood in silence a moment. I remembered being glad it was Jenny, glad it wasn’t someone John’s size to take me back into darkness.
I looked at Jesus, big, broad shouldered and built to Marine specs and, tonight, looking older than his years. “Come upstairs, Jesus,” I said. I didn’t know where the words had come from — I’d had no intention of inviting grief home with me, as I’d had enough of my own. But the words came and he followed.
I kept a bottle of Herradura Reposado in the pantry, a relic from a time when pain came so near the surface, I wanted to put my face through it and drown. Drowning in tequila was a less permanent death, and it could make me feel warm and sexy and worth living for, especially good tequila. I offered Jesus a glass and we finished the bottle.
He had Semper Fi tattooed on his arm, the Lady in Blue on his chest and a tiger on his hip bone. We wrestled on the sheets with a fierceness that made me shout. He apologized for hurting me and I laughed and sang to the tiger and drew shouts from him in turn.
When I woke with a head full of stale tequila, my young lover was gone. He’d left a note by my pillow that simply read, Thank you, Jesus. Made me laugh. But having a real lover in my bed changed my day, changed my laugh, even changed my body. I felt warm inside in a way that had nothing to do with tequila.
And John had stayed away. Even with the freshness of the Mendez loss in my arms, John had stayed away.
Thank you, Jesus.
Jenny Mendez had been walking home with bags of groceries. She was eleven years old. The entire Mendez clan gathered for the funeral and spilled across my building’s lawn afterward. It was after midnight when Jesus knocked on my door. “I can’t stay there,” he said and I knew he meant downstairs, “and I can’t leave.” His dress clothes had a limpness to them that spoke of an endless day.
“I’m already in bed,” I told him. “Why don’t you join me?” I wrapped his hard body in my arms and he melted against me, asleep before I had the sheets over us.
I stared dully at the television. Did I even want to be a wife? To run around after him and help him remember things? No, that was a dream. John didn’t talk about marriage, only love, only music. He kissed me and we laughed about the dream and he said being a rock and roll wife would suffocate me. I didn’t believe him. I couldn’t. I loved him too much. “You don’t have to run around after me,” he said. “I’ll find you. Haven’t I always found you?” My heart stopped to see the depth of truth in his beautiful brown eyes. I buried my face in his neck and pressed my body close so his heart could beat for both of us.
His skin still smelled of other people’s cigarettes and he still woke up hard, eager, playful, needy — in some ways more boy than man. He liked to roll on top of me and tease me with his long hair and tickle me with his beard, but not this morning. This morning, he lapped at my neck and along my collar bone and nuzzled into every hollow. It was so sweet, I closed my eyes and almost didn’t notice as I began to throb, as we moved against each other, as moisture accumulated between my legs to welcome him.
He kissed me and I was startled to find he had shaved his beard. I opened my eyes and fell into his. Deep. Brown. Intense. My heart stopped. This was not John. This was no dream. Jesus Mendez had become part of my body. I could feel him inside me, moving steadily. His face studied mine. He stroked my cheek, still moving, still thrusting, and kissed me again. So warm. So alive. I buried fingers in his short-cropped hair and kissed him with everything I had. I kissed him until neither of us could breathe, our hearts skittering inside our skins and against each other’s, my legs wrapped around his muscular body with him firmly inside me. I kept us breathless until our bodies crashed together in oxygen-deprived climax and he made small noises like an injured puppy and I held him to my sweat-slicked body and rocked him until he wept.
I saw John on my way to work, passed him as he was driving a Volvo station wagon — a match so absurd, its impossibility distracted me from the shock of seeing him. I stared into my rear view mirror. He wasn’t wearing a shoulder belt. Why should he. He was already dead.
A honking horn drew my eyes forward again. I was drifting. I was approaching an underpass and drifting toward the abutment. I jerked the wheel and nearly hit the Volvo.
My office suite mate kept asking if I were alright. I said I just needed to switch to decaf, but I was worried, too. John had haunted me for years after the accident. He was everywhere. My office. My trips to the dry cleaner or grocery store or just around the neighborhood. Even after I moved across town, I got the shakes every time I saw a highway bridge abutment. I thought I’d finally escaped him, or at least confined him to my dreams.
Jesus waited for me to come home that day, the next day, the next week, sweet and strong and silent and solid, but I didn’t invite him up. I couldn’t. I had no room for him. He wore jeans and tee shirts fitted to show off his fighting-trim physique. He looked every bit the Marine and I felt every bit ten years his senior. I turned him away again and went upstairs alone, feeling those hurt brown eyes follow me home.
It was months before I saw him again.
“What is age?” John said. “A number. It means nothing.” I was twenty-five the weekend I gave him my virginity and we drove four hours to help his big sister move out of her college apartment. John and I got a hotel for the night. I couldn’t remove the contraceptive sponge so we sat under twinkling artificial starlight drinking wine in a bar that played Billy Holiday tracks until I could relax enough to let him try. Spelunking, he’d called it afterward. I laughed, but I was embarrassed and he’d gone to great lengths to prove to me he liked everything about the job. The view. The scent. The journey. Even after I was on the Pill, he demonstrated his spelunking, especially with his tongue.
“You have great taste,” he said, smiling up at me from between my bent legs. My wrists were tied to the headboard, in part because I liked being restrained during sex, in part because John got tired of me pushing his head away when I got too excited. Best of both worlds. He licked the underside of my knee and bit the inside of my thigh and settled to work between my legs until I was writhing in my bonds and begging to reciprocate. He turned around to lay on top of me with my ankles held in iron fists, his face between my legs and too much of a good thing in my mouth. His greatest pleasure was deep penetration. I was bound, with no way to control how much I took or for how long. He was unable to see my panic. I tried to kick, but he held my ankles. I tried to pull my hands free, but I was firmly tied. I lifted my hips and his tongue plunged deep inside me. The thrill of being captive to desire raced along my spine in a delicious, dangerous shivers and I sucked until my vision darkened, by body arching up against him, begging for release I hoped he’d never give but rather leave me here on the edge, trembling with fear and oxygen starvation, my hard nipples pressing red indentations in his flesh, my taut belly drawing up in a knot of power and want and surrender.
I was still wet and shaking when I woke. I nearly fell over as I tried to rise. The sheet was soaked with blood. I staggered to the bathroom to vomit, but nothing came. I hated this. My period had stopped altogether for nearly a year following John’s death. Even now, I never knew when it was coming, but when it hit, it hit hard. I went to the office, ate nothing all day and felt awful as I found myself knocking at Lila Mendez’ door.
A Mendez child whose name I couldn’t remember invited me in. I could see recently bereaved mother Paulina inside amidst a raft of children and I tried to pull back. Lila saw me and stood up and so I couldn’t leave. Something was cooking and the smell made me ask for their bathroom where once again I was unable to vomit.
I remained on my knees, shaking and unwilling to face the grieving family. I couldn’t imagine what had brought me to Lila’s door. Even if Jesus were still interested, I wasn’t. Not now, anyway. Not shaking and bleeding and empty.
There was a knock at the bathroom door and Lila Mendez came in without being asked, but then, I hadn’t locked the door. Her thick braid of white hair lay atop a white blouse she’d buttoned up to her throat. She looked like a wise Native American woman, and it occurred to me she was. Native, if not to Texas. The Mendezes had ruddy skin and round faces and most of them were short except for Jesus. Mayan. Lila said, “How long had you been pregnant?”
“I’m not pregnant.”
“No,” she said.
“I’m just having a heavy day,” I said.
“How heavy?” she asked.
I told her about the sheets and my unsteadiness while part of my brain complained that she was not my doctor and it was really none of her business, but the part that had me on my knees firmly locked the other part in the basement until it could promise to behave.
“Come with me,” Lila said.
I followed meekly to the tiny kitchen while Paulina sat on the blue living room sofa staring at the television. She never moved, hardly blinked, as if she were in a waking coma.
I’d never been inside Lila Mendez’ apartment, though I recognized the layout as identical to my own — two bedrooms separated from the main living area by a long hallway. The kitchen had no counter space, no room for more than one person at a time and a nearly unusable pantry that got too hot in the summertime to risk any actual food. Lila Mendez clearly struggled with the space as I had. Canisters and boxes with pictures of food and colorful Spanish labels vied with the coffee maker and microwave and toaster oven for counter space. The sill of the little window that overlooked her apartment’s patio was jammed with books and crockery. Whatever was simmering on the stove smelled rich and fertile and a little dangerous. It no longer made me want to vomit.
Lila took an egg from the refrigerator. She said, “If the bleeding hasn’t stopped in two days’ time, swallow this raw. It will help.”
I felt confused and her talk of eating raw eggs was making my stomach uncomfortable again. I nodded and took the egg from her, thinking it’d be faster than arguing. “Thank you, Mrs. Mendez,” I said, “I heard about your granddaughter. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“And I for yours,” she said. “Losing a child is a hard thing.”
I lay in bed that night, unable to sleep. Had I been pregnant? There had been no one in my bed for years. Jesus had used a condom. It was impossible. Lila Mendez was wrong. How could she know I was bleeding, anyway?
Two days later, I’d bled so much I wondered whether I needed to go to the hospital. I cracked Lila’s egg into a coffee mug and tried to swallow as fast as possible and not think about the little bits of blood inside the shell.
I woke gasping on my kitchen floor, my nose pressed against the door of the dishwasher. Pottery fragments covered the floor. Someone was knocking. It took me several eons to stagger the thirty feet around the kitchen half-wall and throw the deadbolt, but I was determined. I didn’t want to die alone.
I’ll find you. Don’t I always find you?
Jesus stood there holding the handles of the type of brown paper bags I recognized from my own trips to Whole Foods Market. My mouth opened. Nothing came in. Nothing escaped. My throat felt dry and blocked. He set the bags on my little concrete landing and cupped my face in both hands as if to kiss me. I still struggled to breathe. His eyes bored into mine. His thumb passed over my lips. I gasped. My throat relaxed. I sagged into his hands. He caught me in his arms instead. He fed me brown rice and beans. He brewed herbal teas and gave me organic yogurt. He made frequent phone calls in Spanish to his abuela downstairs but he didn’t leave. I felt embarrassed and grateful and confused as he told me stories of his travels and of people he’d met. He’d had to return to his post, he said, but came as soon as he’d heard. Heard what, he didn’t say and I hadn’t the courage to ask. He spoke softly and touched me frequently, my hair, my face, my hands. When I slept, he slept beside me, often holding my hand. He was my only constant as I lost the ability to track time and still I bled, though not as heavily.
I found an egg in the bathroom that had been delicate and smooth and perfect before it had been smashed against the porcelain. I fingered a piece of its shattered shell, my chest tight, but John took it away from me. “She would have suffocated you,” he said. “She would have taken your breath away.” He led me to bed. I was afraid but I couldn’t say no to him, I could never say no to him. I wondered whether the egg had felt anything. I wondered whether she’d cried as he’d crushed the life from her. He began kissing my belly, his mouth hot and wet as he went spelunking and I tried to push his head away but he held me down while blood poured from his lips to scald my skin and soak the sheets. I screamed.
When I woke, Lila Mendez stood over my bed holding a whole, solid egg in her hand, singing. She climbed into bed beside me, petting me like a small animal or a child and singing in Spanish and I cried as she broke the egg into a cup — cried as I swallowed the raw mess and chased it with weak broth that Jesus gave me. Sitting there in my pajamas beside the old woman, I cried and I couldn’t stop. Jesus left the bedroom and I heard the front door close. Lila rocked me in her arms, singing in soft round syllables of lullaby, of requiem, of grief. My grief joined hers, tears to her music, and we clung to one another for a long time until I came to rest on the bottom of a drained well.
Lila must have sensed the change in me. She stopped singing. “You’d better get dressed,” she said, “it’s time to go.”
I didn’t question her. I dressed, choosing a full, gauzy sundress that was so cheery I’d never understood my impulse to buy it. The bleeding seemed to have stopped. I put on a fresh pad anyway. When I checked the mirror, my eyes were neither swollen nor red. Come to that, there was no headache, no congestion in my face or raw hollow in my chest. I felt scrubbed clean. I brushed my hair for the first time in days and put on a touch of lipstick.
Lila wore baggy jeans and a Come-to-Maui tee shirt stained with my tears. She was beautiful. We went downstairs. Jesus helped us into the cab of his big diesel pickup truck and drove us up the street to the spot where Jenny Mendez had been killed. Jesus hurried around to help his abuela down from the truck and looked at me with soulful brown eyes so different from the ones I’d loved all these wasted years. I nodded for him to go ahead. He took something from the bed of his truck, a wooden cross cut at one end as a yard stake, something else in his other hand, and joined Lila.
I scrambled out of the truck, suddenly unwilling to be alone.
Mowers had been by since the accident, sanitizing death with the look of suburban green lawn. The cross Jesus held was pure white. He pressed the sharpened end against the grass and under his strong hands, it sank into the earth. The Mendezes went to their knees on the grass and I did too, though I stayed a few yards back to respect their family moment. Lila set a jar candle in front of the cross. Jesus added a picture of Jenny, a smiling, round-faced, eleven-year-old version of her mother. He lit the candle while his grandmother sang.
At this spot, Jenny Mendez’ human bonds had been broken abruptly, unexpectedly. I didn’t have to have known Jenny to know how that felt.
“Do you know why we plant los descansos?” Lila asked me as we returned to Jesus’ truck.
“The memorial cross,” said Jesus. He opened the door and I climbed into the truck’s back seat. He helped Lila into the front.
“To remember?” I said.
“Of course,” Lila said, “but there is another reason.” She turned in her shoulder harness to look at me with all the weight of the Mendez women’s wisdom and I held my breath to hear what she had to say, but Lila said nothing on the half-mile drive back to the apartment complex, merely watching me until I ran out of breath and gasped and started breathing again.
Her grandson helped her down from the truck. “You know the other reason,” Lila said to me. “Stay with Jesus. He’ll take you wherever you need to go.”
I was confused.
She touched my hand. I saw disappointment, but no pity in her eyes. Lila Mendez had planted her share of memorial crosses. “We pin something to the earth,” she said, “so it doesn’t follow us around.”
Jesus and I sat in his parked truck long after Lila Mendez had gone into her apartment. He seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I seemed to be waiting for my heart to resume function.
I’ll find you. Don’t I always find you?
I told Jesus where I needed to go. On the drive, he told me his tour with the Marines was up in eleven months. “If we marry then, we can try again right away,” he said.
Death all around us, and Jesus was talking about babies, about marriage? He deserved a future, not a bag of bones. He was too young to settle for a bag of bones and I was too old to be pressed into marriage by an outdated idea of honor.
“It was an accident, Jesus,” I said. “We needed one another. We were there for one another and I’ll forever be grateful.” I squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry about it.”
“It was no accident,” he said in a very different voice than the one he’d used to tell me stories and nurse me through the blood. It sent a shiver up my spine that excited me in ways I didn’t understand. This voice would never lie or cajole or offer me a rock and roll life. “There are no accidents,” he said. I wondered whether he might be right. I wondered whether things break for a reason.
As we approached the place I’d once relocated to avoid, the site where my love had been ripped from me, I lost the ability to speak. My throat dried to a leathered knot, trapping my pulse beneath my ribcage. I waved my hands and Jesus understood or at least pulled over which is what mattered. There was another memorial cross in the bed of his truck, just as white and clean as the one they had planted for Jenny, but the road’s shoulder was asphalt and gravel here and a wooden descansos was out of the question.
I ran my hands over the massive gray pillar that had ended John’s life. His little Toyota truck had been doing an estimated eighty miles an hour, but the concrete wasn’t even chipped. There was no outward sign of his impact.
“You can’t keep running after me, John,” I whispered as my pulse pushed against the chilly concrete. “I don’t need you to help me remember.” I took my lipstick from the pocket of my sundress and drew a cross on the smooth gray surface. It was red, red as the blood that had robbed me of another life, another love, a daughter to take my breath away. I drew a second cross on the concrete, a smaller one, and pressed my lips against it.
I set a prayer candle at the base of the pillar, white wax inside a frosted jar with the likeness of the Lady in Blue and lit it with the lighter Jesus had give me before I’d left him standing alone.
“You won’t find me anymore, John,” I said, my voice getting stronger.
“You’re dead,” I said and I heard the truth in my words, felt my own hot blood in my veins, my own breath cycling steadily. I stared at the yellow flame and the softly glowing picture of the Lady in Blue that embraced it. I felt I might shout. Or sing. Or even try again.
No accidents. Thank God, I thought, thank God.
Copyright 2004 Sarah Felt
Previously appeared in The Big Book of Erotic Ghost Stories. Ed. Greg Wharton. : Bookspan/Venus Book Club, 2004, reissued by Blue Moon Books, 2005