A Kind of Cleansing

The bus did not remind her of her high-school years, where the furthest seat back had been the scene of her first kiss, as well as other infractions on her carefully secreted innocence, but the bus from her elementary school years; the monkey-face years, the four eyes, train track face, your mama’s so fat years.  The stench of it made her think idly of puking even now, fifteen years after the last taunt had followed her down the three stairs, onto the sidewalk and off towards her unremarkable home in a unremarkable suburb of the unremarkable Cleveland.  She had gone to her aunt’s that summer, determined to begin her freshman year with a slender, boyish body, sans glasses and braces, and the last of the perm that had been her sister’s idea cut out.  All of which she had accomplished, completing the transformation from TackyJacky to a more glamorous Jacq between June and August, after which she refused to answer to anything else.  She even wrote Jacq in the nickname section of every “get to know you” form in the local public school she had begged to attend, a battle that concluded in her favor after she went three days with out eating. From the year she turned 14, she answered to nothing else.  By the time she got into Law school at William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA, even her signature had shortened from the lengthy Jacqueline Randolph to simply Jacq.

All of which, in a round about way, explained the bus, which had progressed a matter of feet in the 20 minutes since it had stopped at the guard station, a length of time which, on a normal day, would have been quite sufficient to take her from the visitor’s center to the metro station at Rosslyn, where a orange line train was waiting to take her to an apartment on the edges of Capitol Hill, and with any luck, into the arms of her lover, who would be waiting.  The bus was filled with her classmates, fellow trainees in the Foreign Service, veterans of the irritating written examination with its irrelevant questions on the 5th person in succession to the Presidency, in the case that the previous four met with an untimely end, which had only been the beginning.  The test started at 9:00 on a Saturday morning, in a room filled with a number of people Jacq had only hoped wouldn’t pass.  The collective polish wouldn’t have been adequate for a pair of boots, never mind for representing the country abroad.  Only one of the dubious candidates made it to the oral exam, the second and final trial-by-fire, administered by a set of stern-faced examiners with no discernible personality.  He left looking beaten, and was not seen again. 

 By then she was simply a medical exam away from her chosen destination – the Foreign Service Institute and training for the life of a Junior officer, Economic Cone.  Hence the school bus, hence the yammering of her classmates, the endless discussion of the relative merits of various destinations.  Hence the frenzied applications of her husband, who was leaving his position with a local think tank to travel with her, to numerous distance learning institutions.  Hence his compulsive purchasing of books he was sure would be necessary to his research and unavailable, wherever they ended up. 

 The question of where to go was no longer a matter of idle curiosity, as it had been in the late nights of the previous June, two months after the exam, but before the results arrived in an officially mundane white envelope.  Now there were forms to fill out, the mysterious bidding cycle to be jumped into like trying to follow Massachusetts Ave around Dupont Circle, differentials to consider, the length of training involved, quality of life, mobility and the local flora and fauna.  For months, her top three had constantly exchanging places, and with rare exception, Romania, Argentina and Chile simply rotated through the top spot.  Occasionally, Mongolia came up, but only on those days when she was feeling rather overwhelmed.  The deciding powers, through the bidding cycle, had determined she was headed for Romania and Bucharest where even yet young boys with their feet and hands brutally amputated crawled like crabs along the dirty streets, begging for spare change. 

 The truth be told, Jacq saw herself as an unwilling accessory to the main action in her life, simply the kind of girl who had a problem saying “no”.  Her husband had been with her at William and Mary, they had met in the cafeteria over a congealed white lump labeled Fettuccini Alfredo.  Their eyes had met, they smirked ruefully like conspirators of the same joke, and he offered to take her to dinner.  So it was that she found herself eating spoon bread at Christiana Campbell’s for the first time.  After that, the tavern where George Washington ate once became a regular Thursday evening routine, and the rest is history.  He asked over roasted chicken, she said yes, and that was that. 

 The Foreign Service Exam had been a lark, something to try on a Saturday morning and no more.  She had not expected to pass.  And when she did, well, one does follow through, doesn’t one?  Why not show up for the oral exams, dressed in a retro-styled blue suit?  When that was over and she had not been selected out of the process, it felt much too late to say no.  So she said yes. 

Similarly, she felt no real control over the arrival of a lover in her otherwise uneventful married life.

 Goran, the Serbian boy with too many scars, showed up on the second floor of the Martin Luther King Library late one Saturday morning; he had heard there was tutoring available for free.  It was true enough.  Jacq and a handful of other local professionals spent their Saturday mornings in the library, offering free help in English or literacy to an unpredictable clientele of half-crazy homeless people, elderly black men from Anacostia, welfare mothers and the Hispanic immigrants that washed dishes at the restaurants their tutors regularly frequented.  The other tutors were finishing up their conversations, gathering books, and locating their keys.  Jacq had gotten lost in the World Almanac, studying weather data and geography (this was early in May, the exam taken but not concluded, and everything was possible.) 

So when Goran had stepped up to the desk and asked politely, the only thing to be seen of her comrades were canvas totes with logos for Whole Foods, and RedJellyFish long distance service.  Later on, she could not remember whether it was the way the scar that ran the length of his right cheek made him seem dangerous when he smiled, or the reckless way his hair sprang from his head that made him irresistible.  Maybe it was the fragile way he asked for help.

 It wasn’t like he was asking some lady behind a desk.  He was asking her specifically, and she could not say no.  They sat together for two hours working on pronunciation and grammar, and then they went to coffee.  The next week, he was there first thing and they spent the 3 hours together with out even looking at the clock.  It was the same the week after, and the third full Saturday, he tucked her hair behind her ear.  His hand lingered on her jaw line momentarily, with intent. 

 Jacq protested the whole way to Starbucks.  She protested all the way to his apartment.  She protested as he locked the door and removed his shirt, revealing a pattern of scars like hoarfrost on a window pane.  He answered her quietly – to deny the body is to deny God – and kissed her.  She did not protest again; instead her hands traveled the length and breadth of his geography, the strange texture of scarred skin where no downy hair grew, the muscles counted one by one: tricep, bicep, deltoid, pectoral, adductor, abdomen, quadriceps, calf. 

There was nothing for it. In the ragged light that filtered through the last murky rain of the month, on a bed with sheets that had not seen detergent in weeks, with a cockroach climbing the wall slowly, she lay down, she kissed his mouth back and gasped slightly at the weight of his body both inside and on top of her.  He heard, and moved gently, but only at first. 

When it was over, he rolled over and said something in his native tongue that might have been reverent or bawdy, she couldn’t tell.

This part she remembered better than anything else of that day:  They showered together and while she tried to keep her riotous body covered somehow, the thighs that had lost their perfect smoothness since she had first slept with her husband some 7 years ago, the breasts that lacked the taunt sauciness they once had, he sat back at perfect ease with the ghosts carved on his skin, closing his eyes to the steam.  He seemed sculpted from something cool and hard, impervious to the rules of mere mortals.  No jealousy, no insanity, just simple wanting, no more. 

Some months later, when she was practicing her ritual worship of the scars, worrying one and then another with the ease of a rosary, she asked him for a story, the history of one particular scar that ran from his groin in a half circle around his naval.  A woman he said, and for a long moment, that was all.  Then, in a low voice, only that it was not how one acquired a scar that mattered, but how one lived through and with it.  And would say no more. 

Even that was months ago.  She had been through training in the ways of an Economic Officer, the duties and assignments that would be hers as a junior officer.  She had discerned the pattern to the labyrinth passages at the Foreign Service Institute, attended Christmas parties with her fellow officers, husband dutifully in tow, and progressed reasonably in Romanian.  It was now back into the spring again, her departure with her husband dragging behind her like a limp banner a scant month and a half away.   They had been to CostCo for the first installment of groceries that must last for two years, items that would not be guaranteed in Bucharest; pristine, white toilet paper, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, sweetened-condensed milk, catsup, mayonnaise, flour, spices – they arrived at the check-out line with two shopping carts loaded down and paid close to eight hundred dollars for the purely American bounty. 

In a week, her husband would attend classes with her to prepare for the adjustments of foreign service life, and then in a month they would begin to pack, to say goodbye, to take a few weeks to travel to their respective families and field questions about when the children would come, how such things might be managed in some god-forsaken corner of the planet, degree plans and the like. 

Both sets of parents were convinced they had lost their respective minds, but had given up attempting to dissuade them.  And after that, the final items packed carefully and either stored or shipped, and to a plane out of Dulles airport which would eventually take them to Bucharest and their government issue household. 

The bus did not move, except by fractions of centimeters.  A white car turned into the State Department facility.  Jacq counted back the days until the beginning of her last period.  Thirty two.  She counted back to the last time she had wrapped her legs around Goran and begged incoherently for more.  Eighteen.  The last time her husband had found her at the dishes, and slid his slender hands down the front of her pants.  Nineteen. 

They had progressed now far enough to see the flashing blue lights of several police cars, and two pulsing red sweeps of light from an ambulance and a fire truck.  Jacq studied her reflection in the glass.  Impeccable up-do.  Perfectly painted lips.  Smooth skin.  Pearls settled in the warm curve of her neck.  She pulled out her compact and dusted powder over her nose and forehead.    This bus-ride from hell couldn’t take much longer. 

The police cars pushed the traffic into a single lane, up a hill and onto a street she had not taken before. They were fully into traffic now, crawling along slowly, but crawling.  In another minute, once the curve of the road was entered, she would be able to see the action, the cause of all of these minutes slipping out of her hands, minutes that should be taking her to Goran, swiftly, and in the train.  Goran.  Dangerous Goran.  Goran with the insistent hands and the unforgiving ropes.  Goran with the mouth like fire, and eyes made of ice.  Goran who waited naked for the sound of her key in his door, his erection hours old, her desire still older. 

There, all this fuss for a car with the front driver side tire over the Jersey wall.  An older, squarish Toyota, gray like Goran’s 5 speed, and with DC plates.  Jacq wasn’t much of a car person – had it not been for the fact that the car looked exactly like Goran’s, she wouldn’t have know the make, or seen the way the bumper was more angular than a recent model Toyota.  There was only a swarthy man, sitting on the median barrier with his arms crossed and a blank expression on his face. 

The ambulance was full of its bloody cargo – this seemed obvious by the red smear on the ground that had no obvious antecedent.  Where else for all that blood, but in the ambulance, which was turning around slowly and starting up the siren to announce its sorrowful duty all the way to the hospital.  Maybe they were just waiting for the second tow truck – the precariously perched car seemed to have all of its glass yet there were thousands of glittering shards spread across the pavement – the first car must have been removed. 

 The detoured route took longer, past colonial houses, brick apartment buildings, but eventually past the giant stone marbles in the middle of Rosslyn, past the New Orleans restaurant, and left her in front of the Metro.  Twenty-five minutes of close association with the freaks and lunatics that habitually populate the subway, and Jacq was back in the sunlight walking from the Capitol Hill metro station up C street in the direction of Goran’s apartment. 

She did not see his car in its usual spot and thought again of the turtle-on-its-back look of the vehicle that caused her delayed arrival.    No matter.  She let herself in and busied herself making tea, washing dishes and puttering about like the squalid rooms were of her choosing, like they comprised her true home. 

Long after she should have made her way to her tidy apartment with its white carpets and scrubbed tile floors, Jacq let herself into the dingy, yellowed hallway, walked slowly down the stairs and into the street, oblivious to the natty neighborhood, the boys sitting on steps with halos of black hair, their girlfriends just beginning to work tiny, perfect braids out of the outsized curls.  Her desire had finally dried up and disappeared.

That night, Jacq woke up twice in a cold sweat.  The first dream was of a road in Romania, two black cars like might be found in a gangster movie found each other instead.  She could see the wreckage, and that both she and Goran were thrown from one vehicle, while the driver of the other vehicle sat in the middle of the road smoking, his embers sizzling momentarily on the blood on the pavement, and then fizzling out.  She could see herself at awkward angles, one hand reaching inevitably towards Goran, her eyes fixed in the other direction, her eyes frozen on the driver of the other car. 

From her distance as observer, she knows she will never reach Goran, and will never effect appropriate punishment on the driver she stares down so intently in death.  She wakes up gasping. 

The second dream found her leaping from her seat in the State Department shuttle, thrusting the doors open and running clumsily down the grass hill to beat on the doors of the ambulance.  She dreams she slips on the blood and the glass, cutting her own hands wide open.  Again, she wakes up gasping and drenched in cold sweat. 

There is no news of the identity of the unfortunates in the accident in the Metro section of the Washington Post.  There is no mention of the accident at all.  On Friday afternoon, she returns to Goran’s apartment, though there were no notes waiting in their usual places – the forgotten Walt Whitman in the poetry section, empty.  The zippered pouch on her bike, empty.  Her cell phone’s in-box, empty.  The place smells musty and old – it is clear Goran has not been here since she was.  Jacq wipes down every surface that she remembers touching, and some that she doesn’t, before letting herself out one last time, into the urine-colored hallway and then into the darkness.  Under the first streetlamp, she doubles over and throws up into the sewer.  Once, then again.

She will throw up on the plane, all the way across the Atlantic, and through the first two months of her tour in Romania.  The baby will arrive exactly 7 months after they first set foot in Bucharest, a beautiful girl with icy blue eyes, dark hair and a dimple in her right cheek that seems to her mother remarkably like a scar.    The child’s name is Adanna, which Jacq found in one of her many books of names for children, a Nigerian name meaning “her father’s daughter.”

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A Kind of Cleansing

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