Pulp.net - Bliss

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December 2008
BLISS

Vivian Hassan-Lambert
The sun was shining as I scampered over large granite boulders. I wanted to get to the ridge before noon. From there I’d get a view of the cabin and the Pacific below.
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I hadn’t showered and my body smelled of sweat and stale sex. Rick wanted to be by himself, he said, work on his guitar and tend to the pot plants. I would need to make arrangements of my own: go for a walk; work in the garden.

I got to the top and rested, the ocean spread out in all directions like an open fruit. I searched for dolphins but saw none. The heat was intense and I headed back down the Indian trail stopping halfway to pick bunches of grey sage.

I had seen a rattlesnake here once before.



A group of Rick’s friends would be coming in the afternoon: Fred, Cindy, the baby and a cluster of boys who all looked alike with their long hair and spotted skin. I felt bored and aimless: sick of preparing tofu and lentil stew; sick of Rick’s friends smoking weed in the living room and talking about things I’d rather not know about.

I walked down the winding drive towards the cabin and while Rick tuned guitars in the living room I worked in the garden pulling horned worms off the tomato plants and digging manure in around the pumpkins.

By mid-afternoon the guys arrived in a small white car – their limbs sticking out the rolled-down windows. The engine switched off and their low voices cajoled. ‘Yo. Yo,’ they said, their laughter moving around the perimeter of the cabin and lodging itself on the deck outside. Sometimes it felt like a hunting lodge in here – a separation of the sexes. I would make an appearance now, and then retreat.

As I came out on the deck everyone stood. I drew a beer from the stack, made a joke, then went back inside.



About an hour later Fred and Cindy arrived laden with a moses basket and bags of diapers, and bottles. Fred plopped the basket with Maya on the back kitchen floor, kissed Cindy on the head and barrelled onto the deck outside.

Though I saw the two of them often, I felt we didn’t connect. They married when I was in England, and though they both went back a long way with Rick, we had little else in common.

As the baby slept I helped Cindy unpack.



I had on the denim cut-offs, the same ones I’d worn in the morning, and my feet were bare. I stirred a pot of chickpea fricassee and Cindy sat at the big wooden table tracing salt pictures with her long pale finger.

I couldn’t put a name on it but there was something about Fred that annoyed me. He was too cheerful; too blank and empty headed. But Rick was loyal to him – ‘Like brothers’, he’d sometimes say.

I got cumin and coriander from the cupboard and added them to the stew. In London an Indian woman had given me her grandmother’s recipe for dhal. ‘Cumin and coriander,’ she’d said, ‘the most important ingredients.’

Being vegetarian it had become one of my favourites. Rick’s too.

‘Something to drink?’ I offered Cindy. The kettle boiled and I poured water into the cracked pot. The guys were playing frisbee and I could hear their occasional burst of laughter mix with the sound of squawking jays.



I’d lived in California all my life up until England. Going there to study the works of Virginia Woolf was like a dream come true. ‘You’ll love it,’ Rick had said, his leaf-green eyes hard to resist. ‘It’s only a year. You’ll see, it will be like you never left.’ He gave me one of his long lingering kisses.

He was right, I loved every minute of it. I visited Rodmill where Woolf had lived, met Lord Nicholson, stayed at Sissinghurst and wandered the ancient streets of Lewes. Standing on the bridge of the medieval castle, looking out across the chalk downs to the sea, I imagined Woolf walking the flat valley towards the river Ouse, her pockets full of stones.



I poured out a cup of tea and put it on the table with a plate of oatmeal biscuits. I was going to ask Cindy about work when behind me the screen door slammed. I turned to see Fred march across the lino towards the old fridge. He pulled open the metal door and studied its contents, resting his arm on top and exposing a tuft of light brown pit hair. I looked towards Cindy; she peered into her tea as if it would tell her future.

‘What you two ladies up to?’ asked Fred, casual as a bartender.

I didn’t feel like answering. Cindy said nothing. Through the greasy window I could see Rick and the others at play. There was plenty of beer outside. What did Fred want in here?

After a minute more of staring into the metal box he reached forward and pulled out a Budweiser. He came towards the table, stuck out his hand for a cookie and began to munch loudly. I felt like slapping his hand the way a scolding schoolteacher would. I could feel him looking at me, then at Cindy. Maya continued her peaceful sleep and Whiskers, the black and white stray Rick and I had rescued a few months before, rubbed himself against my legs, his coat like silk against my bare skin.

Through his faded brown teeshirt I could see Fred’s small muscular body. He liked to surf at Davenport and East Beach, a taste he and Rick didn’t share, and his arms were an even hairless brown. In contrast, Cindy was white like an empty white sack. Her hair hung in black stage curtains on either side of her head and her eyes were a dull empty grey. She was intelligent, I knew, did a masters in comparative religion, but at the moment her conversational skills were nil. Long ago, I had been told, she and Rick were in a band and she sang in clubs and cafes around the peninsula; but I had never heard her sing.

Maya stirred slightly. Fred, still munching, walked to the basket and peered in, his light brown hair falling forward and covering his face. ‘Hi gorgeous girl,’ he said to Maya in a high pitched voice. Cindy, almost comatose, hardly moved. Fred walked towards us and placed his hands on her sloping shoulders. At his touch she shuddered and slumped down into the rickety chair, letting her pale hands flop beside her.

‘What do you want Fred?’ I felt like a leopard ready to pounce.

He moved to the other side of the table and sat down. I could see him studying Cindy. The big white sweater she wore had once been white but was now a pale grey. When Maya was a month old and Fred was unemployed, Cindy was already working the flower stall on the mall. Maybe it had been too much too soon? I noticed that her finger nails were bitten and her cuticles were red and inflamed and she had dark circles under her eyes.

‘Give us a bit of space Fred,’ I said, feeling suddenly protective. ‘Why don’t you join the guys outside?’ He looked towards Cindy for reassurance but she showed no sign of life.

He pushed the chair back hard and stood up. ‘Sorry.’ He exaggerated the ‘Y’. ‘Didn’t realize there was such a division of the sexes.’

‘Didn’t you?’ I said, giving my best Vivien Leigh brow-raise and for the first time since their arrival, Cindy smiled.



I felt freed by the relative order and conventions of England. My fellow students were foreigners like me: German, African, Israeli and Welsh. To be more European I tried to curb my American ways, but whatever I did my crudeness popped out, uncontrollable, seeming to offend some and attract others.

On weekends I’d take the train to London. I learned the names of English trees and as the train sped from Brighton past Haywards Heath, I practiced my skills of identification: beech, oak, hornbeam, sycamore and chestnut.

Coming off the platform at Victoria and onto the bustling streets of London I felt like a child ready to burst with excitement.



When the academic year ended I moved to London and shared a flat off the Roehampton Lane. My roommates were a girl from Aberystwyth, a boy from Tangiers and a Putney-cat stray. I worked at a wine bar until I had enough money for a trip to Greece. From Athens I flew to San Francisco via New York, then took a Greyhound south to San Jose. Rick met me at the station and as we travelled through the mass of dark redwoods, past the cucumber green houses and along the San Andreas Fault line, I felt I had never left. Redwoods engulfed us.

Beech, hornbeam and English oak disintegrated into an unstable skyline.



Rick was older than me by eight years. He had a PhD in philosophy, but he wasn’t using it. The cabin in Bonnie Dune was his. He made his money by running a pot factory in the garage, and against the grain of his set he also invested in the stock market. He’d don a grey suit, and with his deep green eyes and short black hair, he looked every bit the stock broker. ‘I’m ready honey,’ he’d say, holding out his brief case and making me laugh. He was a good lover, alternately firm and slow in all the right places; playful and patient. When I left for England, we agreed we would take other lovers, but when I came back any digressions were never discussed.

It was like the gap had never happened.



‘What’s going on?’ I asked Cindy after Fred finally left.

‘Nothing,’ she said but I didn’t believe her. We put a bottle of milk in a pot of hot water and I offered to wash her hair. I pulled a chair up to the sink and laid out a folded towel for padding. I ran water from the tank until it was warm.

‘Okay,’ I said. We both looked towards the basket. Maya’s eyelids fluttered.

‘Perhaps she’s dreaming?’

‘Perhaps.’



On close inspection Cindy’s hair seemed as if hadn’t been washed in weeks. It hung in dull clumps and had gone past the point of oily. As I laid it across the stainless steel sink it exuded an herby odour, not unpleasant, like the dry chaparral in the hills above Monterey. I watched the water soak into its ends and I half expected little creatures to make their escape – wood lice, small spiders, even a rodent or two. The hair lapped up water like a thirsty dog as it fanned across the basin. I poured Wella into the ends, worked up a lather, then rinsed. Cindy closed her eyes and breathed deeply, her heavy brows relaxed and spread towards the sides of her face.

I could hear the guys outside laughing, but I heard little of what they said.



‘I’ve got enough moolahs for both of us,’ Rick had said after I returned. ‘Take time to find your feet.’

A friend of a friend who wrote the astrology column for the Santa Cruz Sentinel asked if I’d like to cover while he took a break travelling to India.

I based the column on friends. Rick was Sagittarius.

‘Your garden will flourish,’ I wrote. ‘Though weeds will try to invade, you will need to offer nutrients and the right level of light for strength and potency. Then you will enjoy the fruits of your labours and others will remunerate you for your efforts.’

The editor enjoyed my use of metaphor and encouraged me to continue.



With the ends clean, I began to attack the scalp. I filled a jug with warm water and poured it over the hair-line. I could hear an engine revving and car doors slamming. I assumed it was the boys - maybe going to get beer, or pick up girlfriends. I could still hear low voices, Rick and Fred I thought, and occasionally see the swish of the Frisbee Flying Saucer.



I squirt more shampoo and message Cindy’s scalp with my fingertips. Bubbles fly into the air popping around my nostrils. I brush them away with my forearm.

Suddenly there is a crash outside – the sound of glass breaking. Then a thud.

I hold still wondering if the earthquake has come; but the ground stays motionless.

Cindy opens her eyes and looks up at me. They are impossibly blue – like pieces of crushed blue glass. The pupils are wide and frilly at the edges as if there is something she is trying to say.

Then more thumping and yelling from outside.



The back door flies open. Fred stands there, his long hair billowing out as if he’s stuck his finger into an electric socket. He has an empty wine bottle in his hand and there is blood streaming from his stubby fingers.

‘Gawd Cindy,’ he wails. ‘You bitch, you bitch, you bitch.’

He hurls the bottle across the kitchen and I see it flying, slow motion, towards the basket with Maya sleeping inside.

‘Rick,’ I yell as the bottle hits the wall and splatters into a thousand pieces. For a moment there is a terrible silence, then, without hesitation I run towards the wall, my bare feet crunching down on pieces of jagged glass.



Maya lays with her green eyes open, blinking, as if perplexed. All about her are shards of jewelled glass. There is a sharp piece laying at the edge of her lip.

I try to smile at her, my feet burning and my heart pounding so fast I think it might explode. The bottom half of me is uncontrollably shaking as if the earthquake has come but not yet reached my torso.

As I carefully raise my hand ready to swoop down and retract, Maya looks up at me, but it is too late, something snaps. As if a switch has been turned, the baby lets out a howl and the glass disappears into the cavern of her hollering mouth.

‘Get out, get out,’ I scream at Fred. ‘Rick,’ I scream even louder.

Rick is there in a flash. With his mountain boots he crushes across a lawn of glass and lifts me in his arms. ‘The baby, the baby,’ I cry. My feet are on fire.

Fred stands like a stupefied mummy, his now dank hair hanging by his side. I can’t look at him. He is unbearable.

‘Don’t get up,’ says Rick as he puts me carefully on the couch and crunches back towards Maya.

Cindy stands now, her eyes prized open as if with small bits of wood, her hair, dripping and plastered to her skull, her shoulders wrapped in a faded pink towel.

‘My baby, my baby,’ she begins to moan. ‘It’s not my fault, it’s not my fault.’

‘Cunt,’ says Fred.

Rick stoops to take Maya. ‘Call nine one one,’ he commands Cindy.

‘My baby, my baby,’ she chants as she pushes herself towards the phone. ‘It’s not my fault, not my fault,’ again and again in a trance.

‘Tell them what’s happened and that we’re on our way. Fred, get the car. Cindy, get in the car.’



Everyone follows Rick’s instructions; the husband and wife team repeating their phrases like lunatics in a mental ward.

Rick pulls down half the back seat so I can lie flat. ‘Keep your legs elevated,’ he says placing my bloody volcano feet on a mountain of burlap sacks. Cindy sits next to me, Maya howling in her lap.

‘Try to get her to stop crying. Keep the glass from going deeper,’ says Rick as he backs down the long red wood covered drive. Cindy begins to weep, singing between sobs until the baby catchooes into hiccupping whimpers.

Hush baby don’t you cry, don’t you weep.

Hush baby don’t you cry, don’t you weep.



Rick steers the hairpins of Empire Grade and heads towards Highway One. Every swerve of the car sends daggers of pain up my spine. No one speaks.

Could a piece of glass lodge free and pass through my veins? I try to concentrate on the sound of Cindy’s high dusky voice.

Pharaoh’s army is drowning, hush baby don’t you cry.

Maya whimpers quietly. Why did Fred throw that bottle and why had he called Cindy a cunt?

And then it hits me, like the glass hitting the wall.

There is a triangle and I don’t belong.

Rick, Fred, Cindy. That baby, with its dimpled cheeks and pea-green eyes; that dumpling of bliss; that baby with glass in her throat; she isn’t Fred’s, she’s Rick’s. And no matter how I despise him, Fred and me, we are kin of a sort, both blinded by our desires for happiness.



The dunes on Highway One blur into dusky green. Giant arches spray from irrigation sprinklers across brussel sprout fields. My head pounds and it’s hard to breathe. There they are in the front seat, Rick with his sure arms at the helm and Fred crumpled like an empty balloon with his wife and baby behind him.



As we reach the Dominican Hospital, it is getting dark. Car doors swing open and slam shut and before I know what is happening someone is wheeling me through automatic doors, along corridors and into a nurse’s station.

As they take down my details I strain to see the others but they have disappeared. The smell of disinfectant makes me retch. I am crying and my feet are a mass of pulsing red flesh.

I lean back and close my eyes, panting to control the pain. Where are the others?

I long for the cool deciduous trees of England.




© Vivian Hassan-Lambert 2008
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