By Ariel lewiton
V and I flew to New Orleans and checked into India House five months before the hurricane blew through and sunk the first floor under five feet of water. The carved sign above the door read Laissez les bon temps rouler and a man by the guestbook claimed to be the King of Swaziland.
He really is, said a girl on the couch with a cat on her lap. I didn’t believe it either at first. In the late-afternoon sun she and the cat glowed red along their edges. The King shook our hands and faded down a hallway.
V had gotten us a room off a courtyard of dirt and ragged chickens. When we tossed our bags down and sprawled across the mattress her shirt rumpled up and I saw how her skin stretched taut and bluish over her bones. She had always been beautiful but now she looked beautiful and haunted. Just when did you get so skinny, I asked her and she shrugged and said I don’t know– I’ve been sick but I’m good now.
Good — I wanted to snap one of her long fine wrists just to show her I could.
We rode a streetcar across town and slouched into peeled vinyl booths for oyster po’boys. I’d waited months for bayou cooking but V had become so spectrally thin that eating in her presence seemed profane. We crumbled the baguettes to pieces. Aren’t you going to eat, she asked, and I said What about you. Beside her I felt soft and excessive. In any case the oysters were hideous, sliming out of their bread and batter.
Back at India House everyone was going dancing. V and I retreated to our room to assemble outfits of straps and sparkle. Later at the club, we floated through the heat and dark while the King of Swaziland bought us rounds of Miller Genuine Draft. When the strobes flashed across V’s face she looked rapturous, as if made of light. An hour later I held her hair back while she vomited foam out the emergency exit into a back alley. I took her home to India House, and she slept there for days.
V was never one to tell a story straight if she could get to it another way, with hints and half-admissions. But between stretches of fevered sleep she rolled her cheek along the edge of the pillow and spoke into the feather down, and if I lay with my ear close to her lips I could hear her. She said antibiotics made birth control pills stop working, but she kept getting these infections. She said she knew better, but sometimes she forgot.
What had happened was she didn’t want to admit she needed an abortion so she’d just gotten drunk and partied and slept around until she bled it out. By the time we got to New Orleans it had been nearly a month. She hadn’t told anyone about it. I don’t want to say it even in the voice inside my head, she said. While she lay in bed at India House the leftover tissue was turning toxic inside her but we didn’t know it yet because she refused to see a doctor.
When she was awake I lay next to her and held her hand because I didn’t know what else to do. When she fell asleep I let myself out of the room.
For days I sat on a picnic bench in the courtyard and scuffed the henpecked dirt. V wouldn’t eat so I didn’t, either. I smoked cigarettes to stave off hunger pangs. What is a pang but an ache suffused with longing. I longed for something halfway between making V better and making myself more like her, dissolving as she had into a gaunt and frightful beauty.
One afternoon I went to a voodoo temple and laid down sixty dollars for a priestess to throw bones across a brocaded cloth and read my fortune in them. She touched my hand and said, Why are girls your age always so tired? She said in the year of my birth she had witnessed an ice storm in Connecticut that split the trunks of trees to splinters; that I showed a strong Jupiter; that I shouldn’t worry so much about the future. I told her I failed to see any connection. She squeezed my hand and said, You’ll be all right; you’ll get everything you need. She said Sometimes you might think it’s the end of the world but it’s not.
I took a streetcar named Cemetery back to India House and lay down on the bed beside V. She opened her eyes and smiled up at me. Did you have a good time, she asked, and I said: Yes
Hot Tin Roof is a program to showcase current literary work produced in Iowa City. The series is organized and juried by representatives of three Iowa City-based cultural advocacy organizations: The Englert Theatre, Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and Little Village magazine.