Fiction 2015 / Issues / Spring 2015 / Volume 45

The Language of Blood — Zan Bockes

If she were back in Wisconsin, Lisa reflected, this November Friday evening would be spent curled under her grandmother’s afghan on the couch with a current bestseller, listening to the wind spitting snowflakes against the window.  But here on Guam, every twilight was the same–thick and heavy with humidity, an endless summer that Lisa would forever associate with 1993, her first year of teaching elementary school after college.

Lisa piled wet clothes into a basket and carried them to the open garage, where she began hanging them on sagging lines.   Her dresses felt heavy in her hands as she clothespinned them up, standing on her tiptoes.  Loud music–the gunshot voice of a rap singer snapping out words that she couldn’t understand–blared from a house across the street, where a few native Chamorro boys on skateboards clattered in the driveway.  Cars rushed past on their way down the steep hill to the nightlife in Agana, the capital.

Lisa’s roommates, Gustav and Karen, were away at the university’s marine lab, where they spent almost every evening.  Lisa supposed they were researching the mating habits of sea cucumbers, and she briefly pictured the older, bearded

Gustav and the young, slim Karen stealing kisses over spiny black sea urchins in a bubbling tank.

She thought of Clark Thurmond, her old boyfriend at the university in Wisconsin, with his wry smile and sky-blue eyes.  The last time they made love, a handful of quarters, dimes and nickels fell out of Clark’s pockets, and they joked about rolling in money.  When she moved out of that apartment, she found a nickel between the mattress and box spring, long after they’d broken up and she’d signed the contract to teach first grade on Guam.  She donated the nickel to the Red Cross, feeding it carefully into the slot of a plastic box at a Seven-Eleven.

The rap music across the street stopped abruptly, then started up again.  The teenagers lit a string of firecrackers.  At the rapid blasts, Lisa stood still for a moment, glaring at them with a damp tank top in her hands.  After only two months of teaching, she already speculated which boys in her class would, ten years later, join their friends in gang-related mayhem, spraying walls with graffiti, fighting in the dark streets.  The thoughts of three little boys in particular gave her a sad and desperate feeling, for she knew she could never have enough impact to turn their lives around for them.  She pictured their bright faces, their darting brown eyes.

Even her favorite student, (though she tried to avoid picking favorites), little Nacrina Cruz, had a rough road ahead, with her parents separated and her mother diabetic and pregnant again.  She lived in a corrugated metal shack with fifteen members of an extended Chamorro family.  Nacrina was smart, shy and beautiful–always clean, always careful.  She occasionally brought Lisa fresh mangoes from a tree in her yard.  Lisa had high hopes for her–that she would someday escape Guam and the trap of poverty.

Lisa smelled the salty, acrid odor of gunpowder as another round of firecrackers went off.  She clenched her teeth until the popping ceased.  How could anyone be expected to sleep with all this noise?  She briefly imagined crossing the street and screaming incoherently at the boys, but she realized that more noise was not the solution.

She let the screen door slam behind her as she went inside.  She needed a diversion.  Sparked by a sudden dark energy and an impulse to do something bold, she grabbed her address book and looked up the number of a teacher from Iowa whom she’d met when she first arrived on Guam in August.  At the Palmridge Hotel, Diana was immediately notorious.  She called herself a “wild howlie,” taking pride in the term, haole, which designated her and many other new teachers as an “outsider,” a white person from “off island,” a minority in this population of Chamorros, Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, Micronesians.

Diana seemed to meet new people (especially men) as easily as she acquired a tan after only a few days on the beach.  She had parties in her hotel room nightly, inviting a concatenation of “friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends” until Lisa suspected that Diana had entertained the entire population of the island.

Lisa avoided the parties down the hall, annoyed at the laughter and the hot bodies crammed onto the double bed and overflowing into the hallway, everyone with a drink and a loud voice, full of pickup lines and lies.  It reminded her of her freshman year in the university dorm, and how she’d tried to prepare for exams when it seemed no one else had any intention of studying.  She felt the same secret envy of those who were passionately “living it up,” not afraid to embrace caprice and fickle fate, while she toiled in solitary towards a goal that she questioned as frivolous, considering the unpredictable nature of life itself, after all.

When she met Clark in Madison at the Brown Bottle Tavern her junior year, she realized she had never been the only one to feel this way.  Here was a soulmate, an intelligent, good looking, free spirit in his early twenties who’d asked himself similar questions and valued the fact that she’d done the same.

But, as Clark had said, “All work and no play makes every day gray.”  He was no stranger to hard work, but he maintained a giddiness and impulsivity in his quest for adventure, and Lisa admired this greatly, embracing his love of discovery.  She longed to reach out, albeit blindly, and seize the day, climb on its back and ride.

It was this energy that had led her to Guam–by sheer whim she talked with a recruiter at the Teachers’ Fair and signed up for two years.  Her breakup with Clark was a factor–she wanted to put as much distance between them as possible.  Moving halfway across the world to an unfamiliar place would help her heal.

Although she and Diana were mere acquaintances, Lisa’s need for some kind of dramatic stimulation spurred her on.  She was determined to plunge ahead and see what developed.

When Lisa identified herself, Diana laughed with relief.  “I thought you were a parent!  Like telling me I screwed up or something!”

Lisa laughed politely, wondering what kind of teacher Diana was, to be concerned about a reprimand from a parent.  Maybe her move to Guam was tough on her, too.  Even though Diana tended to monopolize conversation, Lisa was willing to listen if it meant a lull in the loneliness. She asked Diana if they could get together sometime soon to “compare notes on island life,” but she was unsure whether Diana was interested in what she had to say.  She half expected Diana to put her off with the lame “too busy” excuse.

To her surprise, Diana responded with enthusiasm.  “How about tonight?  My roommate and I are meeting at the Mabuhay.  Come have a drink with us.  We’ll pick up a couple of guys and show them what haole girls are really like.”  Diana’s voice sounded gay and breathless, as though she were throwing herself into the ocean off the Talafofo Bungie Jump.  When Lisa hung up, she felt equally giddy with the “lust for life” Clark had often inspired in her.  Maybe she’d meet a man as good looking as he was and instead be the one who skinny dipped by moonlight, leaving Diana seething with jealousy.

She put on a loose-fitting sun dress that exposed her white, rounded shoulders and covered half of her thick calves.  She spent little time looking in the bathroom mirror–just enough to notice the bright colors of the dress as she put on makeup lightly over the eyes and cheeks and lips, not really focusing on the whole of her reflection.  She never did particularly like what she glimpsed–a pale, chunky (“Rubenesque,” Clark had called her), naive-looking woman with freckles and thin brown hair.

A haole.

The word crossed her mind again.  Just that afternoon at school, little Nacrina Cruz had approached her and asked softly, “Miss?  Are you a haole?”

At that point, the term seemed innocent enough–the way Diana had used it, it suggested uniqueness and solidarity with fellow caucasians who had traveled far beyond this tiny island.

Lisa had smiled widely at Nacrina.  “Yes!  I am a haole…”

Suddenly a cloud passed over Nacrina’s face–a narrowing of the eyes, a wariness–and Lisa glimpsed that haole, to Nacrina and others, was possibly an insult.

Lisa recalled the incident with embarrassment, reflecting on other instances where she, as a minority who spoke only English, found herself isolated from so much around her.  A few weeks ago, she’d been nibbling her lunch in the teachers’ lounge–a wedge of quiche she’d made from her mother’s recipe.  Carmen, a large Chamorro kindergarten teacher, asked her what it was.

When Lisa told her, the three others in the room laughed.

“Keesh!” Mr. Calvo cried.  “It’s kee-chee!  Gimme some of that kee-chee!”

Carmen later told Lisa that “quiche,” in the Chamorro language, meant “oral sex.”  Lisa got the feeling that, as the only white woman at the small school, she was the target of many other jokes and ridicule.  It would be nice to see Diana and talk about these things.  Maybe she felt the same way.

Al’s Mabuhay Lounge, Lisa knew, was a squat concrete building on Agana Bay.  The second floor had been ripped away in Typhoon Omar, leaving a flat concrete roof spiked with rusted rebar.  She’d passed it many times on Marine Drive, Guam’s main artery–six lanes running the length of the island from the naval base to Anderson Air Force Base.  Mahbuhay, she’d learned, was a Filipino greeting, painted above the tinted windows in bright, swirling letters.  She’d never been inside, but she imagined the bar as dim and cool, with comfortable chairs overlooking the bay.  Lisa picked up her purse and went out to her car.

On Marine Drive, lights flitted and flashed–the neon and piercing headlights and traffic signals all jangled for attention, while the waving palms tossed their fronds into a sky glittering with stars.  Lisa felt as though she were on some sort of tightrope between land and sea, neither familiar, both with their hazards.  Agana Bay seethed with rip currents and tides that could slam a swimmer against the jetty and suck her remains far out into the Philippine Sea.  Lisa didn’t like to be reminded that she was surrounded by this dark power, trapped on this tiny speck of land–a piece of flotsam that she clung to with cramping hands.

Al’s Mabuhay was not far, and Lisa realized that Diana and her roommate’s drive would be a bit longer, as they had to come down several miles from the village of Dededo.  She thought of driving home again and waiting longer so she would not be the first to arrive, but she decided against that.  Tonight she was going to cut loose–have a few drinks, be wild and funny and entertaining, tell Diana about her students, Gustav and Karen, her apartment in Sinajana, the places she hoped to travel.

Lisa walked hesitantly into the lounge, pleased with the cool air conditioning but dismayed that there was not a big crowd to blend into.  A few people sat at the bar–an African-American man in a Navy uniform and a petite Chamorro woman; two Japanese women who giggled and chattered quietly with each other; and a young, dark-skinned man in dirty painters’ overalls who sat alone at the end.  The Filipino bartender, whom Leissa guessed was Al, stood talking to the Filipina waitress as he lit a cigarette on the end of his last one.

Lisa remembered Nacrina’s question, which had upset the confidence Lisa tried to cultivate in herself.  The incident seemed to assault her identity on some basic level.  She recognized immediately her singular lack of power, how she stuck out like a “sore thumb” with her light skin and mousey hair.  The danger of it sent prickles across the back of her neck.  She thought of waiting for Diana outside, but the “air con” inside felt good against her sweat-damp skin.  She settled in a booth near the door.

The place was not what she expected.  Smoky mirrors on the walls looked smudged and grimy.  The vinyl booth had a slit in the seat, where dirty foam rubber gaped like a picture Clark had shown her in a Hustler magazine.  An old pool table sat at the back under a dome of hazy light from a plastic beer advertisement.  The table felt sticky under Lisa’s arms, and her nose curled at the odor of beer-soaked carpet, cigarette smoke and stale popcorn. Was she in the right place?  Why had Diana wanted to meet here, when there were plenty of nice, clean hotel bars on Tumon Bay?  Sure, the drinks were more expensive there, but didn’t atmosphere count for anything?

When the girlish waitress came over, Lisa ordered a Mai Tai.  Soft, twangy music began to play from two huge speakers near the bar, and Lisa winced at the off-key woman’s voice singing what sounded like a sad Hawaiian love song.  She looked around for the juke box and wondered if the record was warped.

The waitress brought the drink in a tall, sweating glass with orange slices and cherries jammed onto a little plastic sword.  Lisa paid her, relieved that the price was relatively low, for Guam.

Clark had introduced her to Mai Tais shortly after they met.  He took her to wonderful Madison bars where there was live music and dancing.  He introduced her to blues, fusion jazz and ribbed condoms.  She introduced him to Lana Holthaus, a mistake she would never forget.

It had been amazing, Lisa thought, that her Lutheran, God-fearing parents had put up more protest about her moving to Madison than Guam, trying to talk her into a small Lutheran college close by.  And they had been more agreeable to Guam than Clark.  After meeting him once for less than ten minutes, they sniffed and called him “too worldly,” as evidenced by his long hair and beret.

But that was what she loved about him–his way of initiating her to things that she was too cautious to approach on her own.  And when Lana came along, Clark introduced her to heartbreak as well.  Lisa sipped her drink, wondering how her life would have been different if she’d followed her parents’ wishes.

By the time the ice rattled in the bottom of her glass, Diana had still not arrived.  Lisa looked at her watch and couldn’t remember what time she’d walked into the Mabuhay.  She suspected Diana’s lateness might be typical.  Or maybe she’d already forgotten or changed her mind, suggesting to Lisa that she possibly had not wanted her company to begin with.

The waitress appeared again with a loose leaf notebook full of song titles.  Lisa selected a song, “Stairway to Heaven,” thinking how nice it was that they would play this song on the juke box for her.  It was a favorite song of hers, and it reminded her of her freshman year at the university, living in the dorm and hearing that song drift down the hallway while she lay in bed on Friday nights.

Suddenly the waitress was handing her a microphone and pointing to a television behind the bar.  Lisa heard the first few notes of the song, and she turned to the waitress in confusion.

“You must sing,” the Filipina said in a thick accent.  “You pick the song, you sing the song.”

“I didn’t know I had to sing,” Lisa protested.  “I don’t want to sing.  I can’t sing.”

“Look.”  The waitress pointed her braceleted arm at the TV.  “Follow the words.  Sing.”

Lisa saw the words appearing across the screen as the music played.  She panicked.  “No,” she said, trying to hand the microphone back.

The waitress pushed her hand away and walked back up to the bar.  The other people looked at Lisa, smiling, sipping their drinks.  “Come on, Little Lady,” the Navy guy called.  “It can’t hurt to try.”

Lisa began the second verse in a wavery, timid voice, staring at the words as they ran across the screen.  She couldn’t tell whether she was singing well or off-key, but she hoped her voice was not as loud as the others’ had been, realizing for the first time that the previous singers were the other people at the bar.  She tried not to think about her embarrassment, or about the fact that this would be a horrible time for Diana and her friend to arrive.  When she sang the last words and the music faded away, the other patrons turned to look at her, clapping politely.  Lisa smiled sheepishly and ducked her head, returning the microphone to the bar.

Another Mai Tai arrived when she sat back down, and the waitress indicated that the man in painters’ overalls had paid for it.  Lisa noticed him now, stealing looks at him in the mirror behind the bar.  He looked maybe 25 years old, slender and well-muscled, with strong white teeth that flashed at her when she mouthed a “thank you” to him.  He sat with his thick legs spread on the bar stool, hunched over a bottle of Miller Lite.  Lisa caught him staring at her reflection–she was taken aback by the unabashed boldness in his eyes, their whites matching his teeth.

The two Japanese women began singing, both close to the mic.  Their voices were high and clear, harmonizing the words that sounded so unfamiliar to Lisa.  She waited to see if the painter would buy them drinks too, but before they were finished, he came over to her booth.  He nodded, grinning, and sat down across from her.

Lisa smiled uncertainly.  He leaned forward rather clumsily, gazing into her eyes.  Lisa could smell the beer on his breath.

“Thanks for the drink,” she said, looking away.

“I think you are beautiful,” he said, slowly pronouncing each word.  “Pretty voice.  Pretty lady.”  He said “pretty” as though it rhymed with “meaty.”

Lisa looked down.  “Thanks.”  She wanted to gag at his pick up line, its untruth.  In the smoky mirror, a thin strand of her hair had strayed from its part.

“Sorry,” the painter said.  “English, it’s new on me.  I come from Chuuk.”

“Chuuk?  That’s another island, isn’t it?”

“Island.  Yes.  Beautiful island.”  He smiled eagerly, showing his large teeth.  His skin was a dark coffee brown, his black hair slightly curled around his open face.  His shoulders were bare, covered only by the straps of the overalls, the biceps swelling as he lifted his bottle to his lips.  He continued to beam at her, his eyes sending out a heat that Lisa felt on her face.

When he told her his name, it sounded something like “Dee-lo,” though Lisa couldn’t be sure.

“Your name is?” he said.

“Lisa.”

“Ahhh, Leeessa.  Preety name, preety lady.”  Lisa noticed a tattoo on his left arm–a dragon with wings that curled up past his elbow.  The dragon’s mouth spit tendrils of red and blue flames that she tried not to stare at.  But Dilo’s vigilant brown eyes made her nervous.

“I’m waiting for someone,” she said, looking at her watch.

“Pardon?  Say again?”

“I’m waiting for some friends.”

Dilo shrugged, shaking his head.

“Some friends said they’d meet me here.”

“Ahh, friends.”  Dilo grinned shyly.  “You should have many.”

Lisa smiled at his awkwardness.  There was something charming and sweet about his wide eyes and gentle voice, his genuine interest in her.

“So,” he asked, “You’re from the States?  America?”

Lisa began to feel a warmth toward him that seemed to pass from his handsome smile into a place down between her legs, a dark, damp jungle that Clark had explored with his gentle fingers.  At first she thought she could introduce Dilo to Diana, in the same way that one might dangle a wedding ring in front of a jealous rival.  For a second she imagined taking him home, making love to him while the scent of gardenias poured through the windows.  She had not spent the night with a man since Clark.

“Yes, I’m from the States,” she finally remembered to say.  “Wisconsin.”

“Cold there?  Snow, yes?”

Lisa nodded.  “Lots of snow.  Very cold.”

Dilo grinned.  “No snow here.  Always warm, always beautiful.  A place to love,” and he added with a slight slur, “….to…fall…in love.”

“I suppose,” Lisa mused.  She noticed that the cleft of his chin held a tiny white scar.  She wanted to touch it, to make it blend in with the brown of his face.     “I miss the snow,” she said.

“Homesick.  I miss my home too,” Dilo said.  Suddenly he reached across the table and grasped her hand.  “I miss my island.  Beautiful island.  You must come to my island!”

Lisa drew back, startled at his intensity, but his fingers gripped her wrist.  His eyes drilled her face.  She was frightened of what she saw there–a sudden, mesmerizing power.  His thick fingers dug in like a steel trap, and Lisa noticed with panic that his little finger was missing.

“Sorry,” Dilo said.  He withdrew his hand and took a sip of beer.  A long moment passed, during which the Japanese women sang another song.  The Navy officer and the slender Chamorro woman got up to leave, the man brushing a wide hand across her butt.  Lisa thought of following them out, but when she looked at Dilo again, he was smiling as though nothing at all had happened.

“So, Miss, you work?”

“I’m a teacher,” Lisa said proudly, remembering her students.  “I teach first grade at Taitano Elementary.”

“Ahhh…”

“And you must be a painter?” she asked.

“Yes.  I paint.”

“Houses, or…?”

“Yes.  Houses, buildings…”

An awkward silence ensued.  Lisa ate the cherry off the little sword in her drink and laid it in front of her.  Dilo smiled and picked it up, twirling it between his thumb and the nub of his missing finger.  He watched his hand as though it functioned independently, a small animal performing tricks.

Lisa wondered what had happened to the finger–she imagined some sort of Chuukese sacrifice or rite of passage.  Maybe Dilo had even cut it off himself.

He continued to play with the sword, brandishing it under her nose in mock aggression, then offering it back to her.

“You married, Miss?” he asked.

Lisa thought for a moment.  In the mirror behind him, her image seemed to waver, the back of Dilo’s head leaning forward to block her own reflection.  She felt slightly dizzy and her caution began creeping back.  She plucked the sword from his fingers and set it down next to her drink.

“Yes,” she lied.  “I am married.”

Dilo indicated her hands, which were curled around her glass.  “No ring?”

“I don’t wear rings.”

“Pardon?”

“No rings.  They get lost and caught on things,” she explained.  The words felt slippery, tumbling off her lips.

Whether he understood or not, he nodded again, smiling brightly.  “Children?”

“No.”  She began to feel impatient with the questions.  Where was Diana?  She looked at her watch.  It was well after ten p.m. and she was suddenly exhausted, her anger at Diana renewed for ruining this evening of fun and adventure.  She took a big sip of the Mai Tai, and then another.

“But you want children.  Don’t you?”

“I suppose.  Sometime.”

“Lots of children?”

“Maybe.”  It occurred to Lisa now that she was perhaps in the wrong Mabuhay, that there was another one in the Hilton Hotel several miles north, where she’d heard other teachers sometimes met.

“Your husband,” Dilo said, looking at her curiously, “where is he?”

Lisa frowned, then finished her Mai Tai.  She stood up, looking around for the women’s restroom.

Dilo’s eyes seemed to claw at her–the Mai Tais enhanced the sensation–and she pulled herself away, stumbling toward a dim door labeled, “Ladies.”  She fumbled for the light switch, her hands urgently searching the walls on both sides of the door.  She discovered a pull string above the sink, and the stark bulb exposed two stalls with no doors and a rusty drain in the middle of the chipped linoleum floor.  The smell of urine and disinfectant nearly overpowered her.

Worried that someone might come in, she hastily used the toilet, but a thick swatch of menstrual blood had stained her underwear.  With irritation she folded a pad of toilet paper and stuffed it between her legs, then remembered she had a tampon in her purse.

But where was her purse?  Had she brought it in with her?  Had she left it on the table?  Could Dilo have taken it?

Horrified, she exited the bathroom and hurried back to the booth, where Dilo was still sitting.  Her purse was on her seat, undisturbed.

Dilo drained his beer bottle.  “Another drink?”

“No, thanks,” Lisa said, grabbing her purse.

“I buy?”

“No,” she said firmly, feeling cruel.

“Don’t go,” Dilo said, rising.  “I buy you another drink.”  He slipped his wallet from his back pocket, clumsily pulling out a wad of dollar bills.

“No.  I have to go.”  She turned abruptly and went out the door, relieved that Dilo didn’t follow.

The parking lot was dark, and beyond it Lisa saw palm trees and the beach, where the ocean tumbled like a restless lover.  Out past the reef, it surged–an incubus destroying all safety of land and day and familiar certainties, prying loose her grip from sharp coral.

She searched her purse for her keys, then unlocked her car door, fumbling several times.  She got in and started the engine.

She jumped when she saw Dilo at the window.  He knocked politely, another  beer bottle in his disfigured hand.  Annoyed, Lisa lowered the electric window.

“Can you ride me to my place?” he said.

“What?”

“A ride.  To my home.  Can you take me?”

“Sorry,” she said.  “No.”

Her temper flared at Diana, at this situation.  She jammed her finger against the window button and put the car in reverse.  Dilo’s arm came through the open window at the same instant, grabbing for her hair.  The window nearly caught the tips of his fingers as he pulled back, shouting something in Chuukese.  He smashed the bottle against the door of the car, screaming, “Haole bitch!”

Lisa backed out and pulled away, engine racing and tires squealing, glancing at his angry figure in the rear view mirror.  Her heart crashed against her ribs, and her legs felt weak, rubbery.

When she pulled safely into her own driveway, tears came to her eyes.  She stayed in the car for awhile, hands gripping the steering wheel, and took several deep breaths, exhaling slowly.

She squinted at her watch but couldn’t see the time.  Gustav and Karen’s car was there, the house dark.  She imagined them making love, slipping kisses all over each other in the sweaty darkness–that ancient language so often misunderstood.  She thought of her initial reaction to Dilo and the thrill between her legs.  Now her abdomen felt sodden and heavy, a precursor to menstrual cramps.  She was reluctant to get out of the car, yet she wanted the safety of her own bedroom with its soft pillows and clean sheets.  Finally, she got out.

In the faint light from the street, she saw smears of something shiny on her car door.  It looked like tar or dirty motor oil, and she touched it, wondering what it was.  At the same instant, she recognized that it was Dilo’s blood, and she recoiled with a slight gasp.

At the edge of darkness, the banana trees rustled their huge, thick leaves in a rippling breeze.  Her laundry stirred on the line, floating like ghosts on the waves of the surrounding ocean.

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