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The Palindrome

As she remembered that kiss, her discomfort grew. It had been tender and protective and passionate and it had felt just right. Lila tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, sighing, trying to reframe her self-censure: just how many transgressive acts did she think one woman had to perform over a lifetime to prove that she existed? Could any new offense erase the many erasures?

Ten years ago her marriage had burst apart like a spoilt pear hitting the earth - bruised, crushed and probably wormy. For the last decade Lila had overstepped every boundary she knew. Her boundaries didn't matter to her anymore. She had needed to overstep, even when she put herself at risk.

Mindlessly, she played solitaire, which would be yet another trespass in her father's book, although he couldn't see her, couldn't judge her, except by her own proxy. She sat alone in her bed with her laptop hot on her lap. She played this game to block out thoughts, busy her surface mind, yet reflections and troubling questions formed in her awareness - focused or unfocused as it was - her peculiar brand of meditation. The Buddhists call this chattering monkey-mind.

It was past two o'clock in the morning. The letters on the keyboard were blurred. Her carpal tunnel was aching. Monkey-mind gone wild.

Lila was perfectly conscious of the hard brass heterodoxy of her moral code: promiscuity, miscegenation, sodomy, bisexuality, biblical injunctions, even unsafe sex practices. She hadn't left any gray stone unturned. In Adam she had found someone who accepted this streak in her and seemed to value her the way she was, imperfect as she insisted on being. They connected emotionally; they also connected intellectually. When they made love, there was hunger. Yet he posed a tremendous risk, and she might seriously doubt her own sincerity. Perhaps he was the flavor du jour- silver hair and hazel eyes and some sort of broken wings which tempted mending.

For better or for worse, Lila was not the type of woman who could heed unsolicited advice - even her own advice to herself: ‘get out now, before it's too late.'

Already it was too late; the game with Adam had ceased to be a game. Earlier that day they had crossed a line. Strangely, it wasn't by fucking that the line had been crossed. It had been in choosing not to fuck.

Adam knew that Lila did not consider two hours sufficient time to find an available hotel room, undress, screw, shower, dress and kiss goodbye; instead, they had chosen to sit in the hotel bar and talk. She didn't even order a drink. The deep magenta of the cranberry juice and the burnt sienna of his glass of porter burned a cinematic image in her mind.

She surveyed the room. The designer had done so much on such a small budget, she thought to herself. She liked the up-to-date colors of mustard, gray and ochre, the washes of saturated colored light, the spare, pure-white squares of light at each table, the use and reuse of squares. Not too bad for what Lila considered to be a second rate hotel in a third rate city. Jazz tinkled from the ceiling.

Lila read the slogans of an advertising poster in French. An awareness of René came to her involuntarily, even subcutaneously. An ex-husband is like a cinder in the hand from a childhood fall, always there. Lila noted the graphic palindrome of the vintage artwork, cleverly restated by reversed colors in adjacent posters and reflected in mirrors on the opposite wall. She read this graphic text as if a student of vexillology, or a Morse code operator. It was a sophisticated game in play that she could decode, perhaps not unlike the game she had thought she and Adam had been playing. “Madam, I'm Adam.”

As he sat across from her in the soothing, dim reddish light, he listened to her with obvious caring and concern. She had cried.

“So much unfinished business,” Adam murmured.

She suddenly felt foolish to feel so much. Adam reached across the table to hold her hand and looked into her wet eyes. After this moment of vulnerability, Lila recomposed herself. When they kissed in the parking lot before parting, they kissed with tremulous tenderness. That was the transgression. She had felt something.

“Fucking a woman the first time is simply getting laid,” she said plainly, “but do you understand why you've wanted to have a relationship with me?”

He paused. “This has filled some holes that I had in me,” he said, by way of an explanation that satisfied her, but explained nothing. “It has made me happy.”

She could see how he would want this, she could even want it too, but holes weren't part of the game they had agreed to play.

The gray wind buffeted them indifferently. The palm fronds clattered overhead and the eucalyptus branches whispered in clicks in the pewter fog. He held her upturned face with his hand against his shoulder - the very place where the doctors had made a pocket of flesh to insert a shiny new pacemaker. The incision wasn't even fully healed. There was a lurid welt under his shirt where the surgeon's knife had traced. He looked again into her eyes, holding her against this fresh wound that must have reminded him of his mortality. Middle-age sex is always about mortality. He kissed her mouth. She felt a clodden heaviness in her labia and hunger in her other mouth as he fondled her nipple exquisitely.

“I think we may have made a mistake by not fucking,” she said. He smiled, thinking she was referring only to her unquenched tumescence.

There was no more time this day. It was now rush hour. She had dinner plans across the bay, and he had to drive home to his wife who would want to know why he had been late. They made some plans to meet again the next week.

* * *

Lila saw René in her mind's eye. His young body, svelte, firm, a hot animal, smelling of man, lay in their bed, motionless except for his breathing. His face, slack with sleep, his lips, full. She brought her face over her husband's chest that rose and fell in rhythm. Closing her eyes, Lila bent over further and inhaled softly and deeply. She wanted to be filled by this smell of pungent earth, of sleeping man. She wanted to be filled by his warmth - by some warmth.

René slept, or pretended to.

In the tin moonlight, the dark stubble on his face looked like an erasure. She drew her finger over his jaw line. She marked the sensation of coarse grit sand paper with her fingertips. He rolled over sharply and drew the blanket over his broad shoulder, clutching it like a child, like a man-child.

The place where his head had lain was drenched. Black locks of his hair clung to his broad forehead like seaweed. She wanted to pull it away in tenderness, like a mother, but she didn't risk disturbing him again.

Her husband didn't shave on the weekends. He shaved every Monday and every other day of the work week, but never on the weekends. René never shaved for her anymore. Sometimes, earlier in their marriage, her face had been rubbed raw from his coarse whiskers. Her skin was much too thin. Now she could wish for that sting again.

Lila wanted to kiss him. Instead, she succumbed to her urge to touch him. She touched his dark beard with infinitesimally slight pressure. This time he did not stir.

She undressed silently, carefully slipped into the bed and curled naked white against his back in the darkness. She felt his heat on her skin; it soothed her, but it could no longer penetrate her body. Her own body had grown as alien to her as someone else's arm, void of feeling, dead to will. She threaded her own arm around the small of his waist and pulled herself to him.

“Are you trying to wake me?” His voice was heavy, thick with sleep, thick with accented English.

“No, sorry,” she whispered.

The ceiling of the room collapsed on her, forcing breath from her chest. The floor fell away at the same time, spinning her into vertigo. Her hands went cold as in premonition of death. Then he drew a sharp breath and sighed.


“Yes, René?”

“I am too hot. You make me too hot. Can you sleep on your side of the bed?”

Lila retreated from his back, pulled away into darkness, into her private sorrow of cold, white sheets. Against her will tears welled up, filling the bony sockets of her eyes like two mineral springs in a rock desert. The salty pools brimmed over silently. The rivulets made streaks of warmth on her cheeks. Her loss filled her body as he would not.

* * *

Driving while thinking deeply about things that cannot be changed can be dangerous. René used to do this all the time. Lila's hands mechanically pulled the steering wheel as a car cut off her lane and then thrust red brake lights into her eyes. The rush hour bridge traffic was normal - thick and fast. Somewhere she knew she would always wonder about René.

* * *

Seeing Melanie later that evening was a salve for Lila. No gray areas, no moral quandaries twisting in the wind, no ill-timed sorrow. Their monthly dinner rendezvous had persisted for a decade, even though Mel had decided by that first New Year's to go back to her husband. Their dinner conversations were still about the impossibility of love. Lila put her back story on the table this evening - an inelegant, dirty secret.

“My father had been the youngest child - an unplanned, unwelcome baby, a burden on the family, born at the beginning of the Great Depression,” she said, breaking a piece of bread.

"I could have done something if I didn't have so many kids,” Lila's grandfather had muttered to his cigar, sitting in a dirty armchair stuffed with good intentions. He played an unending game of solitaire on a board across his knees. His little tow-headed boy had hated the snapping sound that the cards made.

“Then I had been an unplanned pregnancy also. I was conceived illegitimately a few weeks before my parent's wedding. They got married in a big rush.” Lila was born into a happier I-like-Ike era, but the small town stain on her origins had been concealed from her by convenient lies her parents had perpetrated.

“Well, now you have the undistorted truth,” Mel said softly in consolation. Even benign deceptions undergo a metamorphosis after forty years that one truth cannot undo. Her parents' harangues on premarital sex did not stop even after she married René; they only stopped a couple of years before she was separated. A lifetime of irrational hypocrisy could not be erased now.

The waiter brought their food.

“So how does it feel to be a living symbol?” Mel asked. Lila valued Melanie for many reasons but, above all, because acerbic wit was always in short supply.

“I wonder,” Mel mused out loud in sing-song, “if anyone has studied how the circumstances of conception,” her voice inflected up, her finger traced the rim of her wine glass, “affect possible outcomes in later forming successful parent-child bonds?” Mel's unending intellect could not be masked by any of her wispy femininity and soft drawl.

“I don't know,” Lila answered her. “I should look into it. That could make a good story.”

Mel smiled; the waiter brought cappuccinos. Wordlessly, Lila stirred insight into her coffee.

* * *

Lila could see her father in her mind's eye. At the end of each year, throughout Lila's childhood, her mother had always found a gift of beautiful underwear under the tree on Christmas morning. Sitting on the braid rug, legs akimbo, turning the pages of a new book, Lila glimpsed the silky panties with rose lace as her mother lifted them out of the tissue paper. Her father's face was changed as he watched her mother unwrap this last gift before she got up to cook the family's breakfast.

Lila knew this gift was given only to a woman – a married woman - not a girl. She knew her mom only pretended to be surprised; her mother knew who Santa was. Lila knew too. She knew one day she would stop being a girl, although she didn't know how she would stop. She knew one day she would stop wearing white cotton underwear.

Even though Lila's father had always desired his wife, the subsonic message from her childhood - that she herself, Lila, was unfit - had been imperceptibly drummed by René for another eighteen years. She had never understood why he had devalued her, why he couldn't even fuck her, couldn't even bring himself to fuck his own wife.

After René had revealed his cheap infidelity to her, Lila bought a set of beautiful, expensive black lingerie for herself. Thirty six years after her birth, eighteen years after her wedding, six months after her marriage was over, she stopped being a girl.

Lila saw the final paradox; although her father devalued her mother intellectually, he had highly valued Lila in this way- an Athena in a school girl's jumper and penny loafers, sprung from the head of Zeus. Her marriage to René had provided her with some intellectual companionship, but never the gift-wrapped box of underwear. She sighed. What to make of all of this, she did not know. It would be a fascinating dialectic if it were someone else's fucking life.

She remembered that kiss. Adam connected emotionally with her; he also connected intellectually. When they made love, there was hunger. There was also a catch. In middle age, there was always a catch.

Lila's computer exhausted warmed air through her nightgown, onto her thighs. Her neck hurt. She had given up on solitaire. Lila typed blindly as words came to her fingertips. She had learned that when she loved a man, she experienced a sexual hunger for him that would crush her bones. She craved sexual healing, not only because that was one area she expected a man to value a woman, but also because this confounding aspect of herself had defied her comprehension.

Simple exhaustion pulled insistently on the corners of her eyes and of her mouth. Her monkey-mind had gone too far. Even if she couldn't lay it out with infallible logic, she felt the raw truth of it anyway. She would decide about breaking it off with Adam in the morning. She would know what to do. She knew she didn't need a gift-wrapped box of rose lace anymore; she could make do without it.


words: Laura Riggs, California (e-maill)
original publication: The Palindrome / Exquisite Corpse Dec '08

image: Rachel Barenblat, New England (Velveteen Rabbi)
original publication: Morning Star / qarrtsiluni


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