Land of Disappointment, by Joseph Eastburn

Mina raised her eyes and saw faces glowing above a sea of champagne flutes. The glasses wavered in the candlelight as if an imaginary wind had invaded the small house. She glanced out the window, just to check, and saw the canals were dead still. It was winter in LA. Sun going down and still sweltering. A party between Christmas and New Year’s. In Venice.

At the buffet, female bodies were poised over the pâtés, the smoked oysters, the spicy chicken-fingers skewered on black Vietnamese bamboo. Just like me, she thought. I wish. She wedged herself between two ladies pawing baked brie.

She placed a carne asada on the side of her plate; it was enclosed in a doughy envelope that reminded her of a child’s hand. She spread pepper cheese on a pricey stone-wheat cracker and laughed at the short, fat guy with the kinky hair who was tracking her like a bloodhound. The Italian weave shirt made him look heavier; in fact, he had tits. She chose not to mention this as he pried his overpackaged, high-fat-content body next to hers and almost did the limbo when one of the ladies swung her sleeve by his face.

Gene, she thought his name was. He had been reciting jokes of a sexual nature from the moment she walked in. She teased him with a smile, graced his lewd grin with an eyebrow that suggested conspiracy, then, to her own surprise, felt trapped when she couldn’t control his accelerated ardor. She had only flirted with him because she wanted something to happen; lately, she left parties feeling dismal, needing a vacation from her own leisure.

With a bottle of Moët, the hostess sailed around the room, pausing briefly to top each guest’s flute. Mina whispered, “Just get me to the other side of the room,” and grabbed the woman’s arm. The lady of the house recognized her panic as a maritime signal and pulled Mina like the tide, leaving Mr. Kink Head’s smile blinking on the horizon, a solitary beacon.

The hostess introduced Mina to a pair of blond shrinks from South Pasadena who talked about their freeway commute. She met their cousin, visiting from Indiana, who wore fingerless gloves, a floor-length gown, black lipstick, and talked up the benefits of a whole-food supplement. In quick succession, she greeted a knot of people who came late from some office: secretaries, receptionists, all raising the noise level and the stakes, as she calculated the ratio in the room: about like Surf City—two girls for every boy. Always the short end of the bamboo. Were they all off in Afghanistan? Or, all gay? She flirted briefly with the heavyset Texan, but lost interest when he mentioned firearms as alternative to the spoken word.

She knew this was going to be one of those nights when nothing could happen. She downed the rest of the flute. She didn’t know what she was hoping would happen, but she mused about falling in love—like the heroine in a Marjorie Powers novel—her brassiere effusive under a taut, sweaty bicep, her neck thrown back, ready to be kissed and kissed hard. She thought of her own freeway commute and the endless workdays stretching out ahead of her: the phone ringing, the computer humming, her desk-unit at the production company—it was called a module—gleaming in various shades of gray under the fluorescent light.

Then her body relaxed. Her distraction had just walked into the room. He was tall, lanky, wore a beige cotton suit, v-neck T-shirt underneath, sandals, no socks. All earth tones. Let’s not forget the chest hair, mustache, and dark skin. Was he Mediterranean? No, just a tanned WASP.

Of course, he was balding, but one can’t be choosy, given the ratios, she told herself—already sidling up to him. When she got closer, she realized he was with a woman; tall, long brown hair, attractive, in a flower-print ’50s June Cleaver summer dress, and talking about the hors d’oeuvres. Doesn’t take much to please her, Mina thought. Yes, it’s goat cheese, so spread it on nice and thick. She was going to get her coat and leave, but found herself reaching through a gap, into another world, a place where animation, thoughts, and nightmares meet; a place where too much champagne blurs the space-time continuum—speed of light—memory lapse of the girl.

She put her hand inside of his. But so no one could see.

He put down his Wheat Thin, clutched his champagne flute. Looked vaguely shocked. Glanced at the wife hovering over the cheese tray, and looked uneasy as Mina reached her lips up to whisper something in his ear. She didn’t know what she was going to say as she felt herself moving through the expanse between them, the abyss which was her life.

“Meet me outside” was all she could manage. She let go of his hand, but held his dark eyes for a long moment, then dropped them, turned, and gulped kinky hair. Gene was mid-dirty joke, as if their conversation had never ended.

“Wait, you gotta listen to this, wha’ was your name? Hey!”

She brushed by him, turning back to see that the mystery man was still looking, his eyes burning at her, now dropped to allow sophistication.

 

The sun was down, and within minutes it was cold outside, like the surface of Mars. Still, there was a lingering heat baking off the sidewalk beside the canal. She took her shoes off. The tops of her feet cool, the bottoms hot. Thank God she had stopped at the bar. What’s it been now, like fifteen minutes? She was three houses down Linnie Canal, leaning against a peach tree that had white pin lights in the branches. The lights reflected onto the water. She imagined that the peaches were mandragora—which would produce healing sleep—and that she was in some Islamic country, wearing silk pantaloons outside a sheik’s harem. She had never been out of Southern California, but, hey, you’ve seen one desert, you’ve seen them all. She had to fantasize in different centuries now. That was the currency of her disappointment. To pull a shroud of exotica over this sullen, lonely city. She imagined herself eating the fruit, the juice dripping down her chin and hands, the sheik standing over her, observing his vessel of pleasure. And why not? Better than tomorrow at nine, the Mac on top of the module reflecting back her desolate life. Module, module on the wall.

She wanted to take off her clothes. But it was too cold.

No one in sight but a valet parking guy in the alley. He was visible between two canal houses, smiling at her, making her nervous. She didn’t speak Spanish. How could she say—please don’t embarrass me and stare when I’m trying to get laid; this is hard work.

Then she saw him. He had walked out onto the back porch of the little house. He glanced along the canal, saw her out of the corner of his eye, then pretended not to notice, lifted his dark chin as if trying to get a moon-tan. She saw the self-consciousness of this gesture even from where she was standing—from that distant century she inhabited—there in the sheik’s harem of her daydreams. Mina could sense the man’s deep discomfort with his situation. She had hooked him and now she didn’t care, in fact, felt cruel, wanted suddenly to humiliate him, perhaps embarrass him in the black well of some perverse desire, make him crawl and kiss the cold arches of her hot feet.

Then Gene, Mr. Kink Head, stumbled out the door onto the back porch, looking around suspiciously, his pudgy face trying to escape the chaos inside his mind, his body now orbiting. She ducked behind the tree. Mr. Wasp noticed, a fleering gaze, as Gene’s round, fuzzy body bounced around the perimeter of the porch, took on the characteristics of a pinball, hitting every chair, table, post, and wall—each burst of movement punctuated with more desperation, until he finally turned to Mr. Wasp, asking, she hoped—where is she? She watched the man’s sincere but disinterested body language in response, distinctly noncommittal, cold.

Gene turned and walked inside.

Mr. Wasp started down the walk. His thin, fashionable soles brushed cement. The sound mesmerized her for an instant. Mina watched his likeness drift along in the grimy canal water, a beige mirage floating along, a series of beige islands—seen from high above the earth, she thought, in a space capsule, perhaps—until the shape of a man coalesced before her.

He feigned surprise. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Yeah, oh,” she said flatly. Adjusted her blouse in a provocative way. She approved of his basso profundo. He was smiling, but gazing away, afraid to look at her, she thought.

“How do you want to do this?” he said.

“Do what?”

Looking over his shoulder. “Should I resist? Should I play along?”

“If you can keep up.”

That provoked a smirk. He turned back to look at her, lowering his voice, if that was possible. “You asked me outside…and here I am.”

“Here you are.”

“Do you have a name?”

“I guess Mina will do.”

He stretched out his hand. “Arlyn.”

“Nice to meet you.” She took his hand. He had an oversize metacarpal.

“Well,” he managed.

“Mmn. Yes. Well.”

A silence intruded that seemed to launch him into the unconscious. And her back along the centuries to the sheik.

He didn’t know what to say. Another basso whisper. “It’s so rare.”

“That we can see the moon through the smog?”

He blessed her joke with a smile. “To meet this way. At a party in the canals. A girl like you.”

The profundity of this was not to be believed. She loved the hard sciences. “A girl like me—what does that mean?”

“What do you do?”

“Does it matter?”

“It completes the picture.”

“I’m a secretary. I live in West Hollywood. I’ve been mugged twice. I’m horny, but a good person, nonetheless.”

“Wow. You just say it.” He seemed to want to respond in kind, but was unable to. Gave a bewildered shrug. “I’m…” then in frustration, “…an incubus.”

“How nice.”

“Not literally. It’s just how I think of myself.”

“What is it?”

He grinned at her. “A mythical demon that falls upon sleeping girls. To use them.”

“That’s perfect. I’m sound asleep.”

That cracked him up. Again, looking around as he laughed. He stepped closer. Like he was ready to leave words behind. And about to take her in his arms. But, after all her strategic planning, at this crucial instant, Mina wanted conversation.

“What do you do?” she said.

He looked like he’d been woken by an alarm clock. “I work at a restaurant. I’m a host.”

Where was a banquette when she needed one?

“Would you like to show me to my seat?”

“Your bed of lilacs?”

“Well, dandelions.”

More laughter. Nasty. “Now?”

“No. Tomorrow.”

They walked back along the canal, back up the hostess’s tiny cement path. Arlyn helped her step over a screen door capsized in the wet grass. They crept around the side of the house. He stopped short as they passed windowpanes above the hors d’oeuvres. Both glued to the glass now. His wife there, still worshiping the cheese tray, but taking little tentative sips off her flute as she panned the room, looking lost. Mina pulled him around the house into the alley. It was choked with cars. He looked distracted now. Feeling the pull, she could tell, his lustful thoughts draining out, his steps no longer furtive, grip not as tight.

She stopped and stared at him.

“Want to go back in?” His eyes glazed over. This isn’t a hard question, she thought.

“It was something about the way she was looking for me,” he mused. “How long have we been gone?”

“Less than a second here on earth. They will have no memory of this.”

“They?”

“Your wife. And the guy with the kinky hair.”

Still distracted, but a gleam back in his eye. Now his guilt had company.

The skin on the palm of his hand was dry as a desert stone. She smoothed her fingers across its expanse. “My skin gives off light when properly rubbed,” she whispered.

Still lost in his head. “Really.

“Your car or mine?” she said abruptly.

“Mine.”

He led her down the alley. The valet parking guys, three of them now, lining up—all watched, smiling. She glanced back and saw disembodied teeth hovering over white shirts and black vests. Jack-o-lanterns, she thought. There was a muffled giggle, something said in a Latin tongue. She was in another hemisphere now, surrounded by brutal men who spoke in machine-gun bursts and did unimaginable things to nice white girls. She looked at Mr. Wasp and wanted him to be swarthy. And throw her down in the middle of the alley, in front of God and parking attendants—wanted him to tear her clothes, rip the material—never mind if there was any sense in it. As she walked beside him in silence, she heard the sound of her blouse ripping. She imagined herself naked in the dirt, arms lying in tire ruts, hair sweaty and matted to her cheeks as she howled. They walked in silence. The silence became an antidote to her senses. Her cravings poisoned before they reached full flower.

Past a canal bridge stood his beige suburban attack vehicle. A two-ton hybrid, of course. He opened the back and pulled down the tailgate. Mina plopped down. She could feel cool metal through her jeans on the underside of her thighs. She could smell the stagnant water of the canal behind her and looked up, waiting for him to make the first move. Arlyn leaned down and planted a kiss on her trapezius. Not exactly erotic. He started to work his way up her neck. A palm gently squashed a breast, two fingers twisting at her nipple, hardening through cotton. A little too practiced, thank you very much. Stock moves, she thought, but give him time to emerge and become himself.

Meanwhile, she fell for miles. Each kiss wet her chin, her ear, her mouth. Instead of hunger, she felt asphyxiated by his cologne. It smelled like heating oil. She closed her eyes and imagined a Moor perched over her, whispering dirty nothings in Darija. She located some fire in her skin. Her cotton blouse was pushed over her head, her bra a necklace. He was rubbing her breasts as if he expected a genie to appear. She liked the way her nipples got firm and stood at attention. Marjorie Powers would be proud. He unzipped her jeans and pulled them, along with panties, down to her knees. She grabbed for silk pantaloons that weren’t there.

“Pull my hair,” she said.

“Huh?”

“My hair,” she whispered. “And verbalize.”

He was processing this. “You mean…talk?” he said.

“Yes!”

His smooth hands had stopped. “Uh…” He was looking within. She gazed up into his eyes and knew instantly he was seeing his wife in the house window—the woman’s face slightly darkened with worry, the lace under her sternum riffling under a ceiling fan. Mina’s nipples got soft. She saw the computer monitor reflecting back her life—her dark mirror, as it were, before the screen burst with light. Nine in the morning. Alone at her desk.

Arlyn nudged her across the scratchy rug into the back of the vehicle. His hand between her legs, where she had wanted it to be. She thought about his beige suit and beige car—the dealership must have called the color something like “Cinnamon Mist.” For the discriminating gentleman.

She pressed her knees together, removed his hand, and sat up. He was smiling as he pushed her down again. “You’re asleep, remember?”

She sat upright.

“What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

He started pulling her hair, but without danger. He massaged her thighs, as if these parts of her body held some meaning. He was trying to negotiate himself on top of her. She bucked and rolled from under him. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her back inside. She was afraid for the first time, and felt the sting of her fingers against his neck as she slapped hard. He let her go and looked down, shaking his head.

Mina ran down the alley and up onto the bridge. In the distance, she could hear footsteps in back of the canal house, down the wooden steps into the alley. The wife running. Her sandals flapped on hard-packed dirt, the place where Mina had wanted this consummation—the road where her fantasy and she had parted company. She heard the woman calling his name. She just stood behind a pine tree next to the bridge. And looked down at the base of the tree growing into the canal bank. Now it was just a tree, not exotic, not flowering.

She heard a tailgate slamming, saw pale figures running toward one another in the dark like two bleeps crossing on a radar screen, fused, disappearing together. She walked a little farther along the bridge over the canal and noticed the moon following her in the still water. She leaned over the rail and saw her own face.

***

Joseph Eastburn lived fourteen years in New York City, where his parents met on stage at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1941. Working as an actor/singer, he appeared in over thirty-five productions, including A Study in Scarlet with Alec Baldwin at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He graduated from the Metropolitan campus of SUNY at Empire State College and earned a master’s degree in Professional Writing from USC, where he taught off and on for ten years. He returned to the classroom this fall. His writing has appeared in Reed Magazine, The Tower Journal and The Sun Magazine, and his first novel Kiss Them Good-Bye was published by Morrow in 1993. He is writing a full-length novel on Twitter, The Summer of Love and Death.

Head Shot 1

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: