In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh
Not Quite Peru
Lee Ann Mortensen
[p.157]Exiled from yourself, you fuse with everything you meet. You imitate whatever comes close. You become whatever touches you.
—Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One
At night I sleep without movement in the suburbs of a Phoenix desert, and when nothing outside is moving, that is when I have my dreams.
I dream of hot plants in the Andes, and of my parents as they talk to me through moldy Peruvian phone lines from Lima. They are far away trying their hardest to convince the indigenous Aymaras of Peru that conversion is necessary, that Mormonism is the only way. I dream of my parents dunking souls for God. I dream of their typed letters on fine onion skin paper, filed, unopened because I don’t want to read about them telling me they know He can save me from my impulses. When it’s closer to morning and the Arizona desert is already getting hot, I dream of Peruvian boot prints in short grass, and of wet apples covered in chocolate that reflect the Aymara faces and the Aymara bodies who stand in weeds before the picking season begins. My mother has described this to me in detail. Their dark faces. Their picking hands. Their white teeth. I can’t help but dream of such things.
[p.158]And if I’ve run too far the day before, trying to further lean out my muscles for the next body-building competition, I sometimes dream of white women’s bodies that don’t look like bodies, that are steely and like machines. My mother, with her white skin and white clothes, will occasionally call from a Peruvian village she is trying to convert to tell me none of these things are in the South America she knows.
“It’s just windy,” she says. “It makes people shoot guns.”
“People shoot guns everywhere,” I tell her.
“We know about guns. We know about body guards. Some people would kill us if they could. They just don’t understand.”
I imagine her body guards as tall, white men, wearing thin suits and religiously white ties.
“I keep dreaming of chocolate covered apples,” I say. “I dream of machines and the hands that fix them.”
My mother calls me Terry and so do all her relatives, but I tell them it’s Teresa now.
”I’m taking Spanish classes,” I tell my parents, long distance to Peru. “Hola,” I say for thirty dollars. I imagine my mother, dressed in white, sits on velvet chairs when we talk, that her voice echoes over polished marble floors scraped clean by maids every week.
“You’re always Terry, no matter what,” my mother says.
My father’s first name is like mine, culturally interchangeable. If he goes by Jamie or James, he’s white, a gringo. If he goes by Jaime, he’s with relatives and speaking in latinate tongues I barely understand.
Now, though, because of my classes, I try to speak to my gringa mother in Spanish, tell her I want to live in downtown Phoenix and buy tortillas cheap and hot from the tortilleria. I tell her I want to sell things on street corners I can make myself, with my fingers, with these calloused hands I use to lift weights and turn myself into something not quite human. I would sell gorditas or limones, yell out their foreign sounds in my always American accent.
When I talk to my mother long distance, I try not to tell her about my body, though. I try not to tell her that every day I lift so many barbells, do so many squats my clothes fit tighter and men stare. I try not to tell her that I stand in front of clapping audiences in a bikini, hoping to look completely without weakness. I don’t tell my mother that I sit in my Spanish classes, trying to become foreign, wanting to pack a gun in a leather shoulder holster and walk stiffly past those barrio boys who take the same classes to laugh at the stilted[p.159] language their parents speak. I don’t talk to her about wanting to walk past these same boys on their streets, wanting to sneer and flex myself at them until they faint. I don’t say anything to her about the scar I now have on my stomach from a short knife fight in a fake cantina.
I don’t tell my parents about the barrio boy I look for every day when I go to work, or run through the desert. I am silent about this boy who held his gun so close to my face when I was alone once, lifting heavy bars in an old weight room downtown close to where I work.
And I don’t tell them that in spite of their own actions for God, religion doesn’t mean much to me any more.
This is what happens to women with muscles, I keep telling myself. So when my parents call, there is not much we can talk about.
“My biceps are bigger,” I tell them, touching the scar on my stomach. Lately muscles are the safest things I can tell my parents about, though I try to play it down. “I win things by flexing in public. I’ll send you a picture.”
“I hope you win money,” my mother says. “What’s the point if it doesn’t give you something to invest?”
“It’ll keep her out of trouble,” my father says from another line. He hasn’t spoken English with an accent since he was seven years old. Money and religion have turned him white, like me.
“Have money so you won’t need it,” my mother says. Her Mormon ancestors have taught her the basics of wise investing. “And remember, white people don’t have to sell tortillas or anything else on the streets. Why else have we worked for years?”
Their financial advice is good, but the rest I try to ignore. I lay outside in the sun and inside on tanning booths until my white skin doesn’t look white. I eat tortillas before and after my heavier workouts, sitting in the sauna with a rag full of corn ones, chewing their dry, yellow textures. I say tough words in Spanish like pendejo and cabron, hoping for a transformation, hoping I can change from a white, middle-class, frightened nothing into something tan and impregnable. But as I sweat in saunas, I think of yellow, the yellow of the barrio boy’s shirt, the way the color reflected off his gun, the way his teeth reflected everything.
I try to think of other things, like the way the color yellow looks so very deep and bright on the school bus I see every morning on my way to the bank, the bus full of children screaming, my bank boss’s children waving at me, making muscles at me through the thick [p.160]windows that keep them all from jumping. When men in jeeps and suits stare at me as we drive to the downtown where we all work, I kiss my rolled-up window and leave lipstick stains there to make them think twice. And as I drive into the basement of the bank, I stare back at the staring latinos waiting for the morning grapefruit trucks, wanting them to know I am in charge.
“If you eat too many tortillas, soon you’ll be speaking nothing but Spanish,” my mother says during another long-distance conversation. Bad connections require us to repeat everything we say.
“You should know about Spanish and tortillas,” I tell her.
“Spanish is good,” my father says. “I speak it. I eat tortillas. I was born in Juarez you know.” Each time I call, my father tells the story of his father’s goats being buried by sand in the Sonoran desert. And I always laugh, long distance.
“Goats move too much,” my mother says. “Anyway, if your daughter came down here, I bet she’d be shooting guns with the rest of them. I bet she’d be one of those communists. I bet she doesn’t even go to church any more.”
“They’re Maoists,” Isay, trying to avoid religion. I try to think of the word for “bourgeois” in Spanish, but nothing comes. My Spanish book doesn’t list it, and only has words like “dog,” “rain,” “apartment,” “rent.” Because I don’t think the Maoists would care much for my textbook Spanish, because church does not appeal, I tell my mother I could never visit them there in that place where people shoot and touch you too much, where people get too close to you with guns.
“Moving around isn’t for me,” I tell my parents. “I have to stay where it’s warm and people understand what I’m talking about.”
“Of course, you can move. People are the same everywhere,” my mother says. My father hums on the other line, reading, a self-educated man saying, “Yes,” and “Oh,” every so often when there is phone silence.
Sometimes I can’t move from the dusty chair I’m sitting in right now, I want to tell them, but I don’t. I want to tell them about the barrio boy. I want to tell them why I lift weights. But parents who believe in God and Eternal Wisdom use things against you later. Still, sometimes I want to tell them everything as if they were the evil Catholic priests they speak against. Sometimes I want to confess it all, the phone our partition, and then be absolved. But all I can do is sit here, and if it is spring, watch desert tornados start to swirl. When the dust in the sky [p.161]turns yellow, like the yellow of the barrio boy’s shirt so close to my face, I do pushups, I do situps, I grab the bar in the kitchen doorway and pull until my head is pressure filled and red, and I almost feel like a Maoist who can kill with a quiet face.
These parents of mine, they move and talk so much their motions upset the balance of things. At least that’s what Linda tells me—Linda, my trainer who once lifted weights, who once won awards for the size of her muscles, who tells me now that she is partly Navajo, and thus more spiritual. Linda, who’s blonde, muscular words make my body something other, tries to give me the strength I need to feel invulnerable. And I do believe everything she says with her promises of bulk and cuts, trophies and aggressive perfection. I do believe her as she gives me half-kisses between the strain of power-lifting sets, when I’m pushing at weight until my skin is about to rip open.
This is what I try to think of when I remember the boy in yellow.
“Balance is all there is,” Linda says one day, using her pinky to pull slightly at the middle of the bench press bar I’m straining with in the middle of this weight room, a room I sometimes have dreams about at night as my large muscles twitch. When we first started here, when I had a body no one noticed, a body without veins, when Linda was still competing and pushing her muscles at thin-haired judges, that was when the men who lift here used to ignore us. But now they stare as I strain, as my arms get bigger than theirs, as the muscle striations I pull at daily start to make me look like the metal I lift.
“You must have everything in alignment,” Linda says as we sit in her suburban home, a place I moved into a few years ago. As she massages me, she sings to me in Navajo, and her voice is very high-pitched. Then, as she carefully folds my socks, she places them in a circle around me as I sit on the bed waiting for her to use the spiritual Navajo phrases that will help me win trophies and money and fear with my body.
This is how Linda and I spend our nights, concentrating on the things that prepare us and our muscles for competition. We used to watch television when I first moved in to escape the man we had both fallen for. I was thin and unspectacular and never wanting to speak Spanish. What I liked most about her then were her fingers, long and certain. She even used to kiss me, still thinking she could kiss anyone [p.162]and stay pure, but she was always unsure of the physical unless it came in the form of added muscle.
Now Linda is more certain and kisses no one. Now I am told to sit on the bed and breathe in powerful words as she surrounds me with socks or with food, anything that is round, and thus, more spiritual. Eternal, she says. This almost Navajo woman turns out lights and makes me watch the ritual candle she holds, the blue flame of it, the way it moves back and forth when we breathe. It will, she says, make me forget the judges who grope and stare during competitions. When asphalt is melting outside on Phoenix streets, and Linda is saying her Navajo power words over me, the words that will make the judges know I am perfect, I always feel a small sweat moving over my shoulders as if I was coming down from a sugar binge.
But this is not the time for a binge, Linda tells me. We have to be flexing and hard in the morning. We have to be completely without fat or sweat.
“We have to be mechanical,” she likes to say, and I like to hear it. Machine words make me feel like tight, perfect molecules. Some nights she’ll even say I’m “steely” as she reads aloud from her Navajo books, trying to better learn the language she thinks her father spoke.
“We do not eat chocolate or fatty foods,” she says in English, and then in Navajo. She tries to translate everything she says into this Indian language, sometimes making me repeat after her as I strain my deltoids with dumbbells. She is always saying words I will never know or be able to pronounce.
But this is how a body builder gains spirituality, and we are body builder people, she tells me. She makes me watch myself flex in the bedroom mirror every night before we go to bed, celibate and tingling with the spent cells of muscle and incense and Navajo incantations.
“There are lots of jobs I have to do here,” I tell my parents when they ask me, again, to visit them in their Andean jungle, to tour the mountains of cocaine and poppy fields with them during the spring mists, to help them find more willing souls. “I lift weights, you know. My possessions are here. My car, my mascara, my Spanish class, my pets.” Of course, I have no pets, but mothers like them. Pets, like muscles, make them feel their daughters will live through anything. And this is important when there is so much I don’t tell them about. [p.163]Like Linda. Like her fingers and lips. They would not understand how a white woman who burns incense and sage gains spiritual insight.
“You don’t become godly by accumulating or burning things. You’re still too young to be that worldly,” they say, sounding almost like the Maoists they despise. They themselves are in denial, always saying “no” to things, “no” to materiality, “no” to new paint for their flaking walls I see in the pictures they send. Their dollars sit in bank vaults, gaining interest, unused.
“When you’re dead, objects won’t matter,” my mother says.
“You should buy something, paint the house, live in a condo,” I tell them, but they don’t listen. Their walls keep flaking. Their pool gets holes in the plaster as the water evaporates, unused. Their grass gets diseases.
“We’re just like monks,” they say.
“Monks are good,” Linda tells me later. “They know what they need and they know how to get it.”
These spare parental conversations from Peru make me dream at night of the latin women my mother talks about, the ones I want to be like. My mother talks about the ones who smile and never seem to hate, the ones she says are like children. Then there are the ones I am more drawn to, the ones my mother thinks are brash and evil, toting guns and sleeping, or fornicating as my mother would say, with anything that moves.
Because I can’t tell these parents about the way Linda helps me, touches me, the guilt makes me dream of just that. When I sleep, the old Linda who kisses my lips with real kisses is there with me. She is strong and protecting me from all manner of boyish intruders. Her fingers make my skin feel cool and perfect. I don’t tell Linda about these dreams either. She always makes symbols out of things. If I am starving and dream of Oreos, she says it means there is a black woman named Simone whose muscles I will beat some day soon in competition.
“We are in training so everything is meaningful,” Linda would say. “The sand we run on swirls to make patterns that tell us things. The air particles tell us how close we are to becoming bigger. More frightening.”
“Some people don’t want to be big,” I tell her one day during a moment when my stomach is growling and I have a headache. “Some [p.164]people want to go unnoticed, be blank and invisible. Some people just want to be left alone.”
“Only the holy can be invisible,” she says. At times like these, her face looks harsh and old.
But I have never wanted to be holy, and Linda smiles because she knows this about me. She knows that what I really want is to be something that I am not, something foreign and changeable and constantly moving.
At the bank where I work, I speak in numbers. My boss looks hard at me when the loan season is slow, when men aren’t borrowing money to finance a boat or a mistress or a desert pool. My boss looks hard at me and I can tell he is one of those who thinks I am too big.
“That suit, it doesn’t look right on you,” he says. And it’s true. I look at myself in the building windows at lunch, my rippling reflection walking past mirrored glass, my well defined calf muscles pushing at pantyhose I will soon stop wearing. My legs are men’s legs. Drag queens who walk downtown, pretending their husbands have sent them out to shop, stop and ask me for advice as I eat enchiladas outside by noisy pigeons. I invite them to sit and have lunch, and this is how I end up in cafes eating lunch with those who are more beautiful than I, their transvestite faces more perfect than the gloss of magazine faces, their waists thin and ready for photographs. We talk about makeup and posture, and I nod at their questions as the outside heat saps me of what little moisture Linda has allowed me to have. When these men walk with me back to the bank, the barrio boys and grapefruit pickers whistle at all of us and I walk my muscled body faster until I am safe with tellers and businessmen.
Once when my now Peruvian parents were asking too many questions about God and church, I decided I would have to distract them with something dramatic and seemingly benign. I sent them a picture of me in a posing bikini, my body oiled, my G-string tight, my gluteals twice the size they were when my parents last saw me three years ago. They called to say I looked nice.
“Things sure change,” my father said.
“Yes,” my mother said. “In my day even the men were flabby.”
“I was skinny like a fence,” my father said. “I ran for miles and never gained an ounce.”
[p.165]“My father was big, but he didn’t have muscle,” my mother said. “His voice was very muscular, though.”
“It sure is nice to talk to you,” my father said.
“Is that oil on you?” my mother asked. “You look wet. Is your bikini wet? I didn’t even know you wore bikinis. You sure are getting brave. You seem to be different every time we speak to you.”
“I saw a woman like that at the fair once,” my father said.
“If we had those kinds of women here, they would live in the hills,” my mother said. “They would shoot guns. I’ve told you about those kinds of women.”
Without thinking, I told them what I had been telling them for years about all my activities. “It’s normal. Everyone does it.”
“If you were here, you would live in the hills. You would shoot guns too. You just like to fight,” my mother said, and for a moment I felt exposed. I touched my stomach scar, the scar I should get removed, Linda tells me, the scar that reminds me of the real anger I saw that night in the cantina when I finally decided I could go out looking for the yellow shirt, for the barrio boy and his gun. I was hoping to look him in the eyes without running, hoping to see that it was all just a mistake, that he could be like any of my father’s velvety latino nephews. But all I found there was a drunk and angry man with a knife. He had the kind of anger, the kind of face I so seldom see at my air-conditioned job or at Linda’s desert home or at my comfortable white-bread grocery store. He was yelling at the wall when I walked in. I had seen the Cerueza sign flash from the road, and I thought I might find a clue or a barrio boy here after a long day of bank meetings and numbers. I walked in dressed in a bright peach suit, looking almost feminine, almost logical and business-like.
“Yo tengo cojones,” the man was yelling. “No me digan que no.” He was sweating, drinking from a bottle, spinning around to make sure no one was behind him. Everyone else was standing against the wall farthest from the man, drinking and staring. I stood at the door, understanding his intensity. That was how I felt when the barrio boy had gone. I wanted to touch this man, to taste some of his emotion, the kind of emotion that would never be seen coming from a woman in a peach suit. And so I did touch him, and he looked at me with big eyes, not moving. Then he moved his arm and my shirt was split, blood staining my expensive suit as everyone ran out behind us. When he [p.166]saw the blood on my hand, he fainted, and so did I. I woke up in a hospital where the nurses spoke in Spanish to everyone but me.
So it is difficult to have this scar removed, even when the judges at body building events tell me they can’t see my abdominals clearly enough with a scar like that in the way. They say it looks like cheating, like I have muscles where I shouldn’t.
Because I have scars I don’t want my parents to see, because I sometimes believe what my mother says about guns, that I would shoot them if I were there, that only certain kinds of women carry them, because of this I tell my parents I will never visit them, never fly 3,000 miles away from the sandy dryness of this Phoenix desert. But sometimes I do imagine living in Peru where no one notices a gun, and no one messes with a woman holding one. Sometimes I imagine I am a terrorist, coming out of bushes surrounded by mist and rain, wearing green camouflage, wearing large earrings and someone else’s muddy boots that don’t fit. I would be a guerrillera with muscles, and go to villages to tell people they must stop buying food with English or Japanese writing on the labels. I would tell them that potatoes are better, more natural, more Peruvian, and less capitalistic. But when I dream of this, they all say they’re bored with potatoes. They say they hate imported beans. They even laugh at me because I am so white and even-tempered, so unlike the other terrorists.
“We aren’t Peruvians either,” they say in my dreams, always defiant.
While I’m awake, after workouts, I sometimes feel so weak I have to sit in the locker room sauna. I sit and imagine that in South America I could be a woman with a shoulder-slung AK-47, speaking Spanish like my father’s grandmother might have done. I imagine I might even cross myself before every kill like she probably did when bad luck and death seemed inevitable. I imagine crossing myself without thinking, without even being aware of my mother telling me crosses and crossings were evil. And in Peru no one would think about me and my imaginary weapons, my rifle, my body crossing fingers.
I don’t only think of guns and violence, of course. Because Linda makes me starve myself in order to be perfect, I am always thinking of food. I imagine being in Peru and having to keep pushing my rifle out of the way as I tell the villagers how to cook different potato dishes through frying and basting and breadifying, how to saute parrot meat or season snake. But even in my own head, nothing I say is convincing. [p.167]These Aymaras don’t listen. They draw pictures of cars and curvy women in the dark Peruvian mud and look at each other. Sometimes I imagine flexing for them when I help lift boxes full of market vegetables ready to be traded for guns. When I’m flexing, I imagine everyone touching my white, muscled skin with their fingernails. I want to name my muscles for them, say “deltoid” and “latissimus” in their language, but those words don’t come to me without dictionaries.
These people call me transparent in my dreams.
“You look like coca leaves,” they tell me. I smile because they say that is the highest compliment to give a white person in Peru, even if I am really a Mestizo.
Sometimes as I lay on the carpeted weight room floor, the one that is safe from guns and full of white men who want to do things to me but never will, that is when I think of Peru. I like to imagine letting the Indian women there put lipstick on my lips and arms so they can see it stain. I like the way they touch me.
“You are like rocks at low elevations,” they say. “Large and smooth.” They seem to like this drawing time we share. They smile as their lipstick leaves marks like dark berries on my skin.
“You’ve got to get that out of your mind,” Linda says, rubbing my scar, trying to make it fade before the judges complain. “Peru is no place for a woman with muscles. They have no discipline.”
Discipline is something Linda has started talking a lot about lately, even though I could hardly be more disciplined as I starve and suffer for her. I am sitting on an old examination bed in the auditorium hallway before my first competition, before my first time flexing in bikini, in oil, in public. This will be the picture I send my parents later, the one they will think is nice, the one where I’m oiled in a bikini, on a bed with a hand over my scar as if I were laughing so hard I had to hold my stomach in. I tell Linda to take the picture. This way my parents will never see her face that is so thin and ravaged by the life and cigarettes she once lived by, a life my parents would call worldly.
Men in dark suits walk by as Linda takes pictures of me and my muscles so my parents can see what I am doing to myself. She puts oil on my lats as men ask me questions about my body-building past, how long I’ve competed, how much I weigh, my biceps’ circumference.
“You are a big one,” these men tell me, making me get on a scale. It says 139, the most I have weighed without fat. I don’t say anything [p.168]to these men. I try to be like rocks and coca leaves for at least a few minutes.
“She has to concentrate,” Linda says, moving in front of them, snapping her fingers at me to help me focus.
In the bathroom she opens a make-up kit for me and we start to put powders and colors on my face, bits at a time. She puts eye liner in my hand, but all I do is hold it.
“A little charcoal would look good here,” she says, pointing at my eyelid.
“A little charcoal,” I say. I am dazed, staring and hot from a lack of food, not sweating from a lack of water, nervous about showing my body off in front of yelling crowds, in front of suited men. I am not anything like rocks right now. My fingers are twitching with shaky nerves and a low supply of electrolytes. This is normal, everyone says, and everyone does it, they all say, so there must be some kind of safety.
“You can’t afford to bloat,” they say.
I have learned that safety is not a word for them. Food and bloated stomachs and saturated skin cells are foreign, evil things. I think of bloating, my skin swelling a little, my muscle cuts fading into a mush like Darryl’s body, the man Linda and I once almost loved, especially for his cooking. My stomach growls as I think of his recipes, so I think of the Andes instead, of bodies bloating in bushes, of their muscles fading too, but for different reasons. These would be the ones who got too close to people with guns on a windy day, my mother might tell me. They had not come to grips with God yet, she might say.
Maybe if it were windy here, I too would want to get a gun out, a gun I will maybe buy later, or take from a barrio boy. I think of him again. This is when I am supposed to be reaping the benefits of muscle. The fear factor should be oozing from my body. But instead the boy in yellow is there with me in my head. I know Linda would not approve if she knew he was around. I think of the way he touched my arm, pushed his fingernails into what was then thin muscle, leaving red marks.
“You think you’re a big deal,” he said. I laid there on a dusty bench, still holding the barbell above in its metal support arms, feeling the pressure of veins in my neck as I became speechless and angry. “If you were a woman, I’d fuck you.” He laughed, then looked at the door as if someone he had been running from might come in, blasting. He [p.169]touched my breast that was still almost like a breast then. And I didn’t move.
There will be a day when I go by a gun store downtown, and I will get the same kind of gun he had, and later take it out of a purse or pocket and try to blow away some sneering boy in a yellow tank top who thinks he can touch me and laugh. I would leave this kind of boy in the weeds close to a baseball field, later to be found by children.
But in Phoenix the winds are hot and slow, and seldom do white women like me shoot hot bullets.
“Your eyes are slightly dilated. Make a fist for a few minutes,” Linda tells me now, her voice so quiet. I can feel heat rising in my neck. All colors and objects at this cheap body building contest seem far away. I’m beginning not to care what my face looks like or what kind of color Linda is putting on me.
“I don’t care,” I tell Linda. “Everything is fuzzy.” I look at her, and her eyes are dark blue but speaking foreign languages. Navajo, she says. But still, she is American, she is blonde and does her laundry at home while watching the news, while wishing for the cigarettes she gave up years ago. When she sits in the kitchen, wanting to smoke, her mouth says unspiritual things about sex and hate no matter how much she burns sage and reads her Navajo books, telling me she wants to live in Sedona, Arizona, and become holy like her Navajo relatives.
“That’s why we can’t kiss,” she tells me at night. “You and I need to be empty and clean. We need to be invisible to each other.” She sits on the carpet and, instead of smoking, paints her nails in un-Navajo fruit colors as I fall asleep on her bed and feel my large quads twitching.
“Close your eyes,” she tells me now in the auditorium bathroom that smells of sweaty competition and chlorine. These are the smells of powders and perfume that muscular women use to make their faces look less like machines. In front of me, in Linda’s hand, there is that sharp point of a pencil eyeliner that drags my skin into clumps when I do it myself. But Linda’s fingers are cool as they hold my chin. She spritzes my forehead and puts on the sweet smelling base. Light rouge is brushed on quickly, the brush pricking my cheeks. Then the sparkling powder she says the judges will like in those lights is blown on to hold it all in.
“That’s not me,” I say at the mirror. My face has changed. It looks like the face I see on so many other women as they try to do what [p.170]their bosses tell them. It looks like the face I once had when I was a teenager and still feeling religious.
“That’s much more you,” my mother says when she sees the close-up photo, me in make-up and an almost real hairdo with small curls. I would not go to a barrio with this kind of makeup. I would not pack a gun with this hair.
“You are so pretty,” my parents say. But no one ever calls me pretty. And I don’t want them to. My muscles get in the way, and when I flex them, I think of flaky pastries and Irish Cream, things I cannot eat. I think of Peruvian villagers touching me with charcoal fingers. I think of clenching my buttocks for the judges. I don’t think of being pretty.
Now, on stage for the first time, I unprettily flex in front of a large audience, and the dizziness of bright lights and cigarette smoke makes me want to just stop moving and fall onto the stage floor in front of the judges. But I know Linda is out there looking at me, saying magical words for me, so I avoid falling by not moving my feet or doing any twisting or turning. I flex in place, and still, I get applause.
When I work, I am corporate, letting my barbell calloused hands finesse bank statements, allowing my muscular lips to tell people if they can have ten thousand dollars or not. This is my mother coming through in me. I hear her financial words and investment advice when I sit in my office during lunch. Because of her and her pioneering ancestors who learned the value of hard work and a growing savings account, I wield the power of finance, and I feel guilt because of it.
“You are so bourgeois,” Linda says, though she herself wields power with the governor of our Arizona. She is his supreme executive secretary just as she is my supreme executive trainer. She helps him understand that the blueprints he makes have an effect on his spirituality. She helps me see when cream-filled treats would not be good for my retention. She points out to him that the way he walks and thinks can put holes where they weren’t meant to be in a desert that doesn’t want them. She makes me understand that wind-sprints and extra sets and celibacy are what I really want.
“But you wear $200 dollar suits,” I tell Linda, trying to find inconsistencies in a woman who lives for contradiction.
“My suits are natural. Yours are not,” she says.
This is sometimes the only thing we talk about anymore when [p.171]weights aren’t being pulled or magical Navajo words aren’t being invoked or I’m not watching yellow desert storms.
Still, I do feel sorry when I’m in my expensive and unnatural power suits, sitting over oak desks with clients. Last month I tried to buy some suits in donation centers, but the woman at the cash register looked at me too much. She saw my clean, tanned, white skin, my impractical leather shoes, my too finely combed hair, all in somebody else’s unwanted, crumpled suit. She knew I was a fraud. My latino cousins could have shopped there all day, and no one would have said anything. But I have too much of my white mother in me. I have passed too firmly into the middle class.
At work I’ve been nothing but problems with my occasional discount suits and bulging body.
“Soon you’ll be getting a tattoo,” my boss says, shaking his head. But he is always smiling when he calls me in. “And no one has thighs like that,” he tells me, looking at my tight skirt. He calls me in a lot now. Lately I’ve had trouble saying no to men in cowboy hats and large belt buckles who want $10,000 to start iguana purse factories in Peoria. I want to tell my boss that money doesn’t mean that much, that people should be able to buy any kind of purse they want, and that I should be able to help them do it. This is my way of being rebellious in a culture that worships the safety of numbers and large dividends.
“I think people like unique accessories,” I tell my boss.
“This isn’t California. This is Arizona. People are conservative here Ms. Sangster.” He always breathes a lot when I’m in his office, wanting to ask me to flex for him, I know, but he doesn’t ask. This is what all men want to see me do, and they want me to do it just for them. When I leave, my boss watches my calf muscles as I walk.
Though I have been at the bank for years, now that I am big, the cameras there follow me more often as I walk clients to the outer offices, or take copy jobs to the secretaries, or stop to stare at the women and men in yellow shirts. As I walk up and down with spreadsheets and financial profiles, these cameras quietly spin in my direction on high-tech hydraulics, zooming in on parts of my legs, I’m sure, or my thick neck with the turn of a lens. Linda tells me it’s just jealousy, that people have always wanted to look at what they can’t have.
[p.172]“Even I still get stares,” she tells me, almost flexing her thin arm. “A body like this can hypnotise.”
“I don’t think it’s jealousy,” I tell her. “I think they know they don’t see something like me every day.” I always look behind me now when I walk around the office, trying not to turn as I imagine the hum of cameras coming into focus on the parts of me that inspire fear.
In the early evenings when Linda is working late at the Capitol, telling the governor how to control himself instead of sitting here telling me how to control myself, I watch as the sun bleaches the yards in our neighborhood, turns all the cactus gardens full of painted brown rocks white and all the lawns light yellow. Linda’s house is too close to the desert for such civilized things to survive. Dust and jackrabbits eat away at any hints of excess or careful pruning. Javelinas with their wild pig snouts and black hair lie dead and bloating on the 18th holes of nearby executive golf courses, unaware of the havoc their smelling bodies cause.
I clean my short, practical nails while the dust storms of late summer hit, burying newly planted sod, blowing quartz crystals from rock gardens into the road, bending the tall yuccas people have brought in from our backyard desert to see if they would grow next to roses and purple snapdragons. Our neighbors pat manure around the base of their yuccas, but still their hollow stocks bend, their pods blow down the street past station wagons trying to get in out of the dust and swirling desert bushes.
When it’s dark and the monsoon lightning storms are flashing by South Mountain, I read make-up magazines to improve my skills for Linda and the judges. I read them so that I can have something to talk to my mother about if she calls, or at least that is what I tell Linda. Lately I’ve become more interested in the bras than the eyeliners or lipsticks. There is always a lure to a piece of clothing you haven’t worn for years, the containment of it unneeded for so long. I look at the advertising photos, trying to remember if I ever had breasts like that, and what it might have felt like to hold them, to even be able to lift them up or see them sway. Linda made my breasts disappear long ago with all her reps and diets. Even when the barrio boy touched my breast, it was small and disappearing. These magazine bras and women’s bodies seem so foreign, they pull my eyes in. Sometimes, when the models all look pillowy and full of curves, I have to cut out [p.173]pictures of them in their Maidenforms and Balis, put them in a file I keep at the office so Linda won’t see. She would say they were a distraction.
“Women’s bodies will break you,” she would say. As an illustration of the detriments of physical contact, Linda reminds me of all the times I missed my workouts when I first started lifting because I wanted to kiss and be kissed. And because Linda is someone I listen to, someone I want to trust, now, instead of touching, I look through magazines.
When it’s lunch time and the office is eating in, licking fallen mayonnaise off their desks while clients wait outside, I look at my bra pictures, and at these bra models without stomach muscles. Their mammaries would shock the body-building world. I touch the glossy pages where the bras are highlighted. I tabulate interest rates for my next client, and think of calling the phone number at the bottom of one bra ad, a 1-800 number for sharing bra mishaps and complaints about fit and color and unnatural rashes, problems I haven’t had for years.
There are days when I watch my clients waiting, sitting, and cleaning their own nails as they hope they have told me the right things to receive the big loans. I watch the camera in front of my office as it zooms in on them and their fidgeting, their crossing legs, their constant physical readjustments. As the camera in the outer office focuses on me through my executive window, I tabulate figures more rapidly, and think of phoning that number, of calling up the bra receptionists who no doubt have big breasts, who I’m sure wear nothing but bras when they talk to their callers so assuredly. But then I think of Linda and her holiness. I think of my parents and their holiness.
There are few moments when my brain is not full of the people I love.
One day, after a night full of starvation dreams and yellow-shirted Hispanic men, after a night of feeling weak and ordinary, I do call, right there after lunch, my boss walking by my door every so often to try to look at my leg muscles hidden by my desk. I listen to the computerized messaging service and push buttons until a real person talks.
“Service center,” a woman says.
“I have a lot of questions. Do I just start asking them?” I look up and wave first at my client, then at my boss.
[p.174]“That’s what we’re here for.” I try to block out the image of my mother’s upraised eyebrow.
“Do you know about underwires? Mine doesn’t fit very well.” I try to remember a conversation I had with my favorite transvestite last week, and I try to talk like him. The camera lens above my secretary moves slightly, so I cover the ad on my desk with my hand, turn in my swivel chair to face the outside window.
I try to imagine what this phone woman looks like as I listen to her explain the variations I could try to get my breasts to cooperate, if only I had them. I want to ask her what her body looks like, if it is like the model on the page in my hand. Because of my parents, I also want to come clean and tell her I lied, that I don’t have the kind of body that requires the extra support of bras, but I don’t say anything about this.
“Do you enjoy talking to women?” I ask her, hoping she’ll say yes.
“I like my job very much,” she says.
At night when Linda’s house moves in slow motion around my starving and breastless body, and when Linda has been especially celibate and is trying to avoid me by working late with the governor, when all I can think about is the food she won’t let me have, and the way that her deprivations and the barrio boy’s violence make me feel the kind of invisibility I prefer to avoid, I start to make phone calls I don’t tell anyone about.
“Have you ever tried a Maidenform bra?” I ask the randomly called women when they answer, drinking soda water after soda water that Linda has told me will make me bloat. No doubt tomorrow she will see it, the bloating, the soda waters coming out of my pores, the empty bottles covered over in the kitchen trash can. This is what I have to do when Linda won’t let me binge, when she tells me bloating would be like death for someone with a body like mine.
But there are times when being reckless with mineral water and phone calls is all that keeps me from laying on the couch for days without moving just to feel the slow atrophy of muscle, and the invisibility of being still and uncontrolled by any voice in the room or in my head.
When I talk about bras to these phone book women, I drink mineral waters with abandon, using my best corporate voice to make them talk.
“We are doing a bra survey this evening,” I say, sipping.
[p.175]“Are you selling them?” the woman on the phone asks. When I tell them I’m not selling, they always want to buy, they always want to ask me the questions I wanted to ask the woman with the hotline service.
“What stores do you usually buy your brassieres in, Madam?” I try to remember the days when I would walk into a store and try bras on, the saleswoman bringing me different sizes and colors, asking me if she could come in to see how they fit.
“Bra stores?” says the woman on the phone. “Frank will only buy me red ones, but they stain my skin.” I look at the front door to make sure Linda isn’t opening it as I ask for more details, as I pry into another woman’s life, as I try to imagine what she might look like and if she might like a woman with muscles. Sometimes I can keep these women on the phone for half an hour as I tease them with a potential sale or a new bra that would drive any man or woman crazy. This is all I can think to do some nights when it’s too hot for kissing or knife fights, and my body seems so big and unnecessary, so fearful of movement, so unholy and needy I want it to disappear beneath me.
After a workout of fast moving squats, and slow pull downs needed to emphasize my obliques, I walk slowly up weight room stairs to the grey company car I will drive to Linda’s desert house, my muscles acid-filled and heavy. As I walk, I think of Darryl, my lovely, fat ex, and his cooking, his sticky sweet kisses many years away now. He lives only a few blocks down from Linda’s.
My parents were surprised that I chose him, among all the more spiritually qualified men I had known. They would cough every time they had to call me and he answered.
“Darryl seems to like himself too much,” my father would tell me every week. “You don’t want a man who likes himself too much. God should always come first.”
“He was never right for you. He never went on a mission. He never converted anyone,” my mother liked to remind me. But this was not part of my criteria. Darryl was strong and nothing but body, and that is what I needed after my ephemeral upbringing. He was the most foreign thing I had ever been around in my life.
“Darryl will make you bloat,” Linda tells me now, a surrogate parent, afraid her former body building partner will do to me what he [p.176]did to her, make me bloat, make me want to lie in a bed for days and smoke. Darryl has ruined many women, made them think they needed him more than life or air or food, Linda tells me.
“Linda will starve you,” Darryl says. “She’ll sap your muscles right out from under you.” He is always chewing on the phone. His cooking noises make my holy and deprived stomach squirm. His body started to lose its muscle a few years ago, even before I decided everyone was right and left him wallowing in a bed full of crumbs, pepperoni slices, and greasy napkins.
“Darryl will kill you,” Linda keeps telling me now, in case I weaken. “Darryl has killed many things. He does not know what to do with beauty.” She always goes into the kitchen when she speaks about him. She talks about his bloated body while holding imaginary cigarettes between her fingers. They were together for a few years, back when Linda still looked young, back when her body was more important to her. Sometimes I see Darryl outside on his sandy desert lawn, walking around his house in flowered shirts, his legs strangely white, and smooth like a woman’s. These legs of his make me want to talk to him, smell the richness of his cooking, binge once again with him until we are in comas.
”I’m thinner now,” I tell Darryl on the phone, secretly, hiding in the bathroom while Linda makes lettuce sandwiches.
“I could make you the most incredible chocolate cheesecake,” he says. “Syrup dripping off the top.”
“God,” I say.
Linda knocks on the door.
“I can see the cord,” she says. “Tell Darryl to fuck off.”
“Fuck off, honey,” I tell my old boyfriend who wants to make me fat so I will stay with him. That was his goal with every woman he ever fell in love with.
“That wasn’t a very holy thing to say,” I tell Linda later after I’ve hung up. I walk into the kitchen and pinch at my very thin skin for her, slap at my heavy quads for her to see my transparent leanness. “He says I’m too thin.”
“That’s the idea,” Linda says. “Lean and nothing but sinew and fiber. That’s the only way to win.” She touches my cheek with a finger nail, pinches at my gluteals, but there is nothing to pinch when I’m flexing.
At night when Linda is polishing her nails or learning new Navajo [p.177]words, staying celibately over on her side of the furniture, I sometimes think of Darryl kissing me in the desert like he once used to, the 110-degree sand sticking to our legs as snakes watched from under bushes. That is sometimes what I think of as I fall asleep with celibate, but muscular lips, trying to feel the imaginary sand between my fingers, the kiss of Darryl’s sweetness, and as I dream of Darryl instead of the color yellow, as I think of his fat lips, Linda and her nail polish smells fade, barrio boys and parents in Peru begin to seem far away.
In the afternoons after a day of banking and bra phone calls, after yelling “pendejo” at every barrio boy I see from the safety of my car, I like to run through the tall saguaros and junipers in the desert behind Linda’s house, the desert Darryl once kissed me in, sand and dead lizards hitting the backs of my calves like they used to hit the back of Darryl’s calves when he would run, when his body was as hard as mine. I like the way the sand sticks to my shoulders and hair, and I do sprints as snakes sidewind patterns on the trail in front of me. This is where children play behind our neighborhood houses, hide behind prickly pears, throw dead yuccas at each other, and watch the skin of their hands melt on anything they touch.
This is the place I watch these children from as I run on a circular path, the one all the husbands and ex-husbands run on in the mornings when the snakes have receded. They tell me their running makes them more aggressive at work. But for me, it is a way of celebrating, of feeling like I am more powerful than others. Out here is the only place I know I am safe. Except when my boss is out. He lives down the street by Darryl, and he runs here in the mornings, but his eyes make me more and more nervous. His children watch Linda and me in the kitchen as we almost kiss over tabouli salads on the weekends, Linda always pulling away and smiling.
Still, my boss knows I’m a banker who can kill with a look, who can bleed loan payments out of clients with a word on the fax that makes their secretaries feel fear. And so he hesitates to fire me. What he doesn’t know is that I’m a loan officer almost packing a .44 I will buy to shoot at things when the heat is pushing in on me, when the winds are blowing in Peru, when my body is even more of a foreign thing my parents will not have any words for.
Maybe when I have a gun, and I have sat polishing its blueness for [p.178]hours, and felt the movement of its parts, maybe then I will even shoot at people in South Phoenix during the sandy season if Linda and her constant flow of words and starvation tactics keep pushing my adrenaline to new highs. Maybe, if I can’t stop thinking of that sneering barrio boy in the empty weight room, of being alone with him, his gun in my face, my beginning-to-be-large muscles immobilized, useless, if I can’t stop thinking of the yellowness of that, maybe then shooting will be the only release.
“I kill with a flex,” I say before every competition, and in every mirror, trying to believe it. “My muscles can flatten you,” I say before every loan appraisal. “My hands are dangerous,” I say as I drive by cantinas in South Phoenix, wishing it were true.
LEE ANN MORTENSEN has won a fellowship from Poets and Writers and awards from the Utah Arts Council. She has published in Ploughshares, The Mississippi Review, Quarterly West, Inscape, and The Student Review. She is currently an assistant professor at Utah Valley State College, Orem.