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Victoria Lancelotta

The Guide

Listen: here is a love story.

We filed to the altar in doll-sized veils and patent shoes, heads bowed, hands folded and held chest-high, and before kneeling to receive the wafer from the priest approached the marble statue, genuflected, crossed ourselves in penance for the sins we would commit, and kissed the cold stone foot of Christ.

The first man besides my father that I had ever kissed: the pristine foot, worn smooth by lips like mine, me on my knees on the floor before it, and the other girls behind me waiting for their turns. We knelt at the altar in our white dresses, a row of us on our knees, small cannibals, veiled heads thrown back, throats taut, tongues out, waiting for the priest to place the wafers in our mouths.

We were not to bite them, the nuns had told us that. They were placed on the tongue and allowed to melt there, to dissolve. And if we had bitten them, splintered the wafers between our small teeth, chewed them as we chewed everything else: I imagined they would explode in blood, fill our mouths with it, with the taste I knew from pulling out a loosened tooth, from sucking at a skinned knee; my body's betrayal of me.

After, my mother boxed the dress and shoes. I'll keep these for you, she said, for when you have a daughter of your own. You'll want them for your own little girl.

_____

I am not a mother, I have never wanted that. My lover is a blind man who I watched for days, for weeks, sitting at the bus stop bench outside my window, or else in the small park at the end of my block. I watched him from my bedroom window: from there, I could see everything--the sidewalk, the corner store, the rowhouses across the street, and the bench on which he sat. He sat neatly: knees and feet together, heavy shoes laced tight, his stick against his thigh. I watched him first from my window and then from the front steps, coming closer every week until I sat some few feet away from him at the far edge of his bench. He heard me sit, turned to me and smiled. He reached his soft hand out and spoke.

He is older than he looks, that I know. His face is smooth, unlined; his hair is the black of crow's feathers. His eyes are blue and cloudy, they roll behind the glasses, drifting in slow orbits. I had never seen blind eyes before. That first day I walked him down the street, slowly, more slowly than he was used to walking, I think. I navigated curbs for him, the cracked and ruined sidewalk, blown trash in his steps. I watched the people watch us. They smiled at me, thinking me kind, generous, but that was not the truth, not then, not now. There is nothing generous in me, I am greedy for him, I am gluttonous in my want of him: I would fill myself with him, blind myself with him. They smile because I hold his arm, because I guide him through the crowds--if they could see the rest.

When we get home I bathe him. I take the clothes he peels off, I run his water hot. I kneel on the tile and soap the smooth unscarred expanse of him. He is mine to claim, to own; the soft whiteness of his flesh about to go to fat from the food I cook and serve him. I have no need of children.

When we are through I dry him off and lead him to my bed.

He likes best to make love to me in the daylight. He tells me to snap up the blinds. My windows face to other windows. He sits up in my bed, the glasses off, his eyes like spinning marbles.

Strip for me, he says. I want to watch you strip. He smiles at me, at where I stand, and I can see his gleaming teeth, his lips.

Move in front of the window, strip there, he says. I want everyone to see you.

He smiles like a dog, mouth stretched wide, his fingers spread out on the sheets to either side of him. His eyes won't stop their drifting.

There is no sound, now, no sound in the room at all, only the noise of traffic from the street. He is listening and hearing only this, and the beating of my heart is loud. My dress is damp from his bath and I have nothing on beneath it. I pull it over my head and toss it at his feet.

Come here, he says, leaning up and reaching for the dress, hooking it with his clawed fingers, crumpling the fabric.

He cannot see what he has done to me: my thighs, my hips, are bruised and bitten until the blood rushes up beneath the skin, purple then yellow and gray, as though I have taken to myself with a hairbrush, blotched and welted, nothing like the marks of the ruler, the neat swift rap across knuckles that left a narrow reddened stripe.

_____

Who taught you how to eat? the nuns said to me at lunchtime. If you're going to eat like that it's better not to eat at all, they said, and swooped down on me like birds to carrion, taking my food away. Come with us, they said, and took me to stand over one of the other girls, a girl with a napkin in her lap and her sandwich cut in triangles. She ate the corners first, her face working like a rabbit.

She would be caught one day in headlights and crushed, I thought, flattened, bloodied, her unborn children dying with her.

There, the nuns said, leading me back to my chair, that is how you eat.

_____

I remember the things they taught me: the ways to eat, to walk, to kneel and pray. Humility, they said, modesty, and the move from that to shame. I remember my hands clasped in my lap and my knees pressed tight together. Cover yourself, they said, that body is not yours to give, that flesh is weak and stupid. Not mine? I thought. Then whose? This is all I have.

The nuns were safe, I knew that then, their faces small pale moons, their bodies only memories, shrouded early for the grave. They had no need of penance, but I remember mine: the hot box of the confessional, the mimicked crucifixion, the words that stuck in my throat like bones: I have done this, and this. I knelt on scabbed knees and prayed not to cry.

The nuns told me of their pilgrimages to Fatima and Lourdes. They said they crawled across rocks and cobblestones until they bled, praying for the sick to be healed. My falls from bikes and swings, my scrapes and bruises, my paper cuts--those are your gifts to God, they said, your little crosses. It is good for you to bleed.

Then I had no choice; these were lessons I learned well. I learned how not to speak, how not to ask for what I should not have. I kept my prayers short, and I kept my secrets, rooted in my throat, blooming there, choking me with a rank and tangled garden of wishes: to not be thankful for my bruises and cuts, to not be on my knees, to be, please God, nothing like them, those women who were the walking dead.

I had imagined that I would forget these things, and sometimes, I do. I have become neat, scrupulous in my organization. My lover knows the placement of my furniture, it did not take him long, and he moves through rooms easily, with more grace than I have ever had. But all this depends on me: if I leave a coat, a shoe, some newspaper on the floor after I've read to him, his balance would be thrown, and he would fall.

_____

The corner store is where I go for food. I pull my dress back on and leave my lover in the bedroom. I move a chair for him to the window where he likes to sit and leave him. From the street I can see his face--from this distance, his glasses off, he looks like anyone else.

In the store, I move through the narrow aisles, brushing up against displays, knocking into stacks of cans. I always pick up what I drop. If something breaks I stop--I would never just walk past, pretending it wasn't me, or push a mess I've made beneath the ledge of the bottom shelf. I have learned to be honest.

The man at the counter undercharges me and I am quick to point this out. Don't worry, he says to me, smiling, I have enough of your money. He watches me leave with my bags and though I say that I am honest there is still one thing--he doesn't know, couldn't know, that I wear nothing underneath my dress but the crescents of dried blood a blind man's nails have gouged, moon-shaped on my thighs.

I could drop my bags in the doorway of the store and lift my skirt. Look at me, I could say, look at what he's done to me, at what I have let him do.

Do you have a daughter, I could say, can you imagine this on her?

If I opened my mouth to speak these things my throat would fill with the dirt of years and spill out of me, clots of it from between my lips.

My honesty has its limits.

No one sees these marks but me, and no one sees the things I do for him. I comb his hair, I clip his nails: his fingers wide and grasping, fat antennae, I would not be surprised to see eyes bloom at the tips. His toes, blunt stubs, as though they had been sawed off and sanded down, white in the heavy black shoes, and me with the clippers, pruning tiny shards of him. Not too short, he says, remember.

When I leave the grocery he is still at the window, his head slowly moving, left to right, dipping at the sounds of horns and shouting children, swiveling and stopping short. There is no mistaking him now for someone fine.

He sits at the table while I prepare the food. Although he does not use his stick inside he has it now, and as I move from stove to sink he taps it across the floor, catching my ankles as I walk, or running it up my leg and under the skirt of my dress, rubbing between my thighs.

Hurry, he says, I'm hungry.

My lover eats with precision, with the exacting elegance of the blind. I set his plate before him and call for him the times of his food: meat at four o'clock, greens at eight, potatoes square on twelve. He keeps the fork in his left hand, knife in his right, rarely switching, never dropping: his quick neatness is astonishing. He cuts like a surgeon.

Across from him, my legs are spread, my skirt bunched, the skin of my thighs sticking to the seat of my chair. My elbows are on the table, the trashcan is at my side, almost full: sodden newspapers, crusts of bread, coffee grinds and ashes. I lift the meat with my fingers and gnaw around the bone, grease smeared across my face. The bits of fat and gristle I spit back out, directly into the trashcan. They raise little clouds of ash.

The blind man sits, still cutting. His hands are deadly accurate.

I lower my face to the plate in front of me, smear it in the food: he could lick me clean.

Who taught you how to eat? I would ask him, but I know better than that.

He serves himself carefully from the bowls at the center of the table, and I watch him, mime him. My plate is covered with food that I don't want, a wreck of it, dripping over the edges of the china.

It was good, he says, and pushes back his chair, reaches for his stick. He moves off to the bedroom. I scrape the food into the trash, drop the silverware on top of it, the plates, the serving bowls. I wipe my face on my skirt and my hands on my legs and go into the bedroom.

He lies in the near-dark, his shoulders propped by pillows. I stand at the foot of the bed and strip, invisible, and wonder how he dreams of me, in what strange language of flesh and scent and voice. He has never seen my face, or the color of my hair, but he tells me he loves my body and to him I am only that, skin and muscle and strong bone. When I wind myself around him his hands grope and search for the things he cannot see, and he tells me that I am a secret to everyone but him.

Where are you, he says, what are you doing? and I stand motionless by the bed.I have no violence in me, I would never take his stick and hide it. I would not strike him, mark him with the print of my hand; I would not take his food away or run a bath too hot.

Listen, I say to him, can you hear me? and I begin to move, to dance, naked in front of him, and he cannot see what there is for him to take. My legs are long and slicked with grease, my hair is damp with sweat. No man has seen me stripped, no one has seen me move like this, and I have nothing to confess.

Dance with me, I say, get up, and reach my hand out for him, moving it just beyond his reach each time he leans to take it. I know more games than he does, I know them better. I dance around the bed, spinning, moving backwards, scuffing my bare feet on the carpet, a noise that he can follow--I am fair if nothing else.

He moves from the bed, hands outstretched, and lunges for me but he is too slow, too heavy, his foot tangled in the sheet, and I watch him fall.

Dance with me, I say again, leaning naked over him, a spill of sightless flesh on my bedroom floor. My hair brushes his face and he grabs for that but I am too quick for him.

I have never felt so light, my body has never worked so well as this. The blind man is on his hands and knees, he is crawling towards my voice. I crook a finger he cannot see, I cock a hip, I pose.

A little more, a little farther, I say, a little to the left.

Over here.

I step first on my toes and then my heels, I feint, I dip, I back around a chair, holding it between us. I think: there is no end to the things we do, the care we take.

That will be your job, the nuns said, when you have children of your own. You will teach them to be meek, to suffer things in silence.

But there is no meekness left in me, I have spit it out: I am empty, clean, waiting to be filled. The feel of my own skin is soft, softer than I knew, and my balance is perfect--my feet, my legs, the rocking of my hips, the swaying of my breasts.

I move around the chair, I prod my lover's chin with my foot.

Look at me, I say, prodding, amazed at the reach of my leg. I tilt his face up to me and he rises to his knees, unsteady, his mouth working, mouthing words I can't make out: the stupid chant of litany, of prayers long unanswered for things he cannot have. What could a blind man pray for, what thing that he would get?

But oh right now, there is nothing more I want.

 

 

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