READ LOCAL First represents Utah’s most comprehensive collection of celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary nonfiction, and memoir. This week we bring you poet, fiction writer, essayist, and translator Andrew Haley.
Haley received a Master’s of Arts in British and American Literature from the University of Utah and now resides in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Good Eurydice (Otis Nebula, 2011). His co-translation (with Sybil Perez) of Roberto Bolaño’s “The Final Interview” was included in Roberto Bolaño: The Final Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House, 2009). Haley’s writing has appeared in various magazines and journals, including BlazeVOX, Fanzine, Western Humanities Review, Quarterly West, and Sugar House Review, among others. Recent poems are forthcoming from Windowcat.
Now, his short story, Romeo.
It was the worst winter of my life. Ice hung from the trees. First it snowed then as the world purged the last flickering gloaming of the afternoon the snowmelt froze on the upper sides of the leaves and the trees hung glumly under this white enamel. I had started smoking again, not because I wanted to, but out of some cocktail of boredom and spite, and because I could no longer afford whiskey. Sitting at the window, with the oven open and roaring 500°, the wind of molecules blowing through the grimy pane, I smoked until my throat was raw, turning the pages of the newspaper and spilling ashes on my thighs.
I read about the usual gang rapes and lynchings, starvation in countries where a tube of toothpaste amounted to more real wealth than a wheelbarrow fluttering with currency. I read about a woman who had been bayoneted and hamstringed eight months pregnant and gave birth alone in a road and was unable to fight off the dogs that came along and ate her newborn off the pulsing vine of the umbilical cord. She lived in a convent somewhere in Africa and said she had made peace with God. The kitchen was warm and fetid, but try as I might I could not tell if it was my clothes or the pineapple that had sat uncut on the counter for weeks that I was smelling.
Worried it was the former, I went into the bedroom and dug through mounds of filthy laundry for something better. I found eleven dollars in the pocket of a pair of trousers and was worth eleven dollars. Pure elation. I tried them on. How was it poverty made you fatter? Poor Rubens. Would he were a painter of our modern era. Fat kid on a blighted swing.
I went through the living room and checked the mousetraps. Romeo wouldn’t let up. He called again and again, saying nothing, leaving me fumbling for words during his enormous pauses. It was difficult being Romeo. No one ever got past the name. Try as he might, there was no escaping it. He tried it accented on the E but Latinized the connotations were perverse and stronger. He went by Rom, briefly, until acquaintances began referring to him as random access memory, which was accurate, if non sequitur. Romo he hated. I still called him Rom.
Rom was having a crisis of faith. Sophie, his girlfriend of eight long years, had written him an email explaining that she was pregnant with the child of a nightclub owner in Martinique named Manuel Negus. She started working at the nightclub by the sea several months back and now she was pregnant. She was never coming back. She was thinking of moving to Barcelona or Paris, but not now and maybe never. She hoped he was fine and she hoped he wanted her to be happy. She was happy. She was excited about the baby. She loved Manuel Negus and Martinique and the nightclub by the sea and she was happy. Rom was in a state of near total despair.
On the phone he never talked of such things. At least never to me. He called and said nothing. This was how we communicated. He called, offered a few words, mentioned an article in the Times and waited, sometimes half a minute, for me to tell him that I had already read it, that the coup in Fiji was sure to fail, that the dissolution of the Latvian government was improbable, that, God damn it, things were going to remain exactly as they were, no matter how many cobbles were pried from the Old Square, no matter how many volcanoes buried a thousand villagers in soot or filled a thousand streets with glowing lava.
As for Sophie, I got an earful of nothing. I had corroborated certain details from Tony and Ulrich’s divergent versions. For some reason Rom trusted them with certain kinds of gossip, with things he never told me, though he must have been certain that I would eventually catch wind of everything he said. Tony and Ulrich were stoners and gossips and couldn’t be trusted to watch a pot of soup or to keep a clock wound. They told me everything. Of course they embellished, but each did so in his own way, so that by laying both stories against one another with the commonalities overlapped the truth emerged like a silhouette forged from two slips of construction paper.
According to Tony and Ulrich Sophie met Manuel Negus swimming off some beach in Martinique. He swam up to her and pulled off her bikini. This was how they met. He was older. I imagined him grizzled and lean, like a marine biologist, but he could have been short and bald with a tub of hairy flesh hanging over the waistband of his Speedo because Rom never bothered with those details, either because Sophie had spared him, or because she hadn’t and it was simply too painful for him to share. Either way, Manuel Negus swam up to Rom’s girlfriend of eight long years and pulled off her bikini in the surf off Martinique and now she was pregnant and lived a few blocks from the nightclub by the sea.
According to Tony, Sophie fell in love at first sight. Overpowered by an older and sexually aggressive foreigner she felt transformed into an object of desire that confirmed all her narcissistic fantasies. She had, according to Tony, never felt so wanted. She felt instantly, he said, like Cleopatra. In Ulrich’s version, Sophie thought she was about to be pulled underwater and raped like a peasant from Ovid and immediately bloodied Manuel Negus’ nose before swimming away. Only later, riding in an old beige bus with rounded corners towards a mountain village famous for the butterflies that hovered over its drooping cornices for twelve days once a year, did love strike her, suddenly, as if a viper had lashed out and bitten the exposed portion of her breast. According to Ulrich, she stopped the bus, got off on a barren road surrounded by fields of sugar cane, hoisted on her filthy backpack, and started walking towards the nightclub by the sea.
Either way, now she was pregnant and Rom was in a state of near total despair. All four of us had slept with Sophie at least once, but Rom fell for her like a statue dropped overboard. She was beautiful, and like some women, she became more beautiful with age. But there was more to her than the surfaces she came wrapped in. She possessed a strange remoteness, like a mountain on the horizon, an innocence that seemed weathered and often verged on fury. She walked with her intelligence before her. When I had my drunken flings with her there was something untrimmed, something hedged about her, something not yet fully formed.
Rom knew about her infidelities of course. Tony and Ulrich told him, and then confessed themselves. He bore this with a quiet, dogged restraint, though I’m sure at night it haunted him and our faces intruded when they made love or when he ventured down the self-pitying path of jealousy while masturbating in the shower. We weren’t the only ones. I had seen her eloping quietly from parties, slipping into the shadows of the cemetery with other men, or after half a fifth of gin stripping with bravado and inviting strangers into her bath.
Sophie wasn’t so much wild in bed as deceptively seductive. She had a way of giving up without giving in, surrendering to the whims of whomever wanted her while persisting, holding out on pleasure, never letting herself drift all the way into the mineral prayer of sexual abandon so that she left her lovers tired and defeated, like conquistadors starving and bewildered in the jungles of a continent improvised by a defunct God.
Sophie’s promiscuity was absentminded, something she pursued while thinking of something else. Her mind was elsewhere, as she was, like an explorer or a refugee always holding the experience of her life at a remove, holding up life to the mirror of a previous and unknown knowledge instead of swimming through its immediacy or drowning in it. This was, according to Ulrich, what attracted Rom to Sophie. He felt, in Ulrich’s words, that she had an innocence inside her none of us was born with; that she lived a life none of us was capable of, even as children.
We never came to a satisfactory explanation for what attracted Sophie to Rom, though we loyally enumerated his better traits. He was devilishly handsome, vulnerable but courageous, a wonderful pianist, a naturally gifted artist who could easily have lived off his painting if he had bothered, loyal to a fault, funny, a raconteur without being boring or self-obsessed, an honest man who made room for petty theft and vandalism, a trickster, and, above all, a man born with the preternatural sense that he would die heroically young. No matter how detailed our defense, our explanations always felt like excuses and none of us was ever convinced. It seemed that the only reasonable cause was that she had merely consented to love him, as she consented to so many other things. It was as if one day she just decided to, and then, eight years later, one day decided not.
Of course Rom can be blamed. Towards the end their relationship grew frayed. He showed up at my apartment several times a month, crying or drunk or both and drank until he danced around disrobing or cried until his face perked up into a raw, rosy smile and he staggered off in the direction of the piano and played blues riffs until the sun’s feeble swarm revealed the skeletons of winter trees and he passed out on the floor. Though in the course of eight years they had reached a working consensus regarding her serial infidelities, infidelities that never matured into affairs, when, one day, lying side by side on their cold mattress in their drafty winter room, Rom confessed that he had performed cunnilingus on a plump, mousy haired administrative assistant at an office party (this he told me) Sophie ended their relationship as casually as you shut a door.The next day, she moved her things into an aunt’s basement and took the Greyhound to El Paso.
Rom didn’t expect her to be gone more than a week, a month at the most. She had, he explained, (this Tony told me) expressed the kind of jealous curiosity about the details of his indiscretion only someone invested would, and they had (this Ulrich told me) made love in the changing room at a department store where she had gone to buy a jacket hours before she disappeared. These two facts propped up Rom’s hope of her return.
Week after week, he received emails about her journey: two nights in Juarez that made her believe in the devil, a third class train ride across the Chihuahuan desert that made her believe in eternity, a wild night in Zacatecas that made her believe in sobriety, a month in DF that made her believe in syntax, a bus ride south that made her believe in universal generosity, four nights in Oaxaca that made her believe in the healing powers of food and sex, a week on the coast south of Punta Maldonado that made her believe in solitude, ten days traversing Chiapas, village by village, where she discovered an amalgamation of Christianity and witchcraft that made her believe in religion, and finally a surfing village in the Yucatan where she came to believe in her self. The emails were sent to all of us, and though we were jealous of her adventure,and jealous of the men we imagined ravishing her in tiled salons and under the parabolas of mosquito nets while an old man somewhere strumming a guitar sang the old songs of solitude in a language we were barely able to imagine and the warm surf unfurled in the moonlight and bronzed young men rowed in nets of glittering fish or smoked joints laughing to the radio in rooms with raw planked floors, we felt each word passing like arrows in the direction of Rom’s heart.
He brushed off any suggestion that she was gone for good. It was impossible to him that she could turn off the current of love that Rom saw as one circuit looping between their halves. It made no sense to him that she could no longer love him so long as he continued to love her. In blind belief, with a martyr’s faith, he thought that it was impossible for her to stop loving him until he felt the charge within him flicker out and vanish into the emptiness of the world. To tell him otherwise was, as Ulrich put it, like saying watermelon carburetor or backward loam. He answered her emails religiously, writing her ten page epistles when drunk, pouring out the tripe that is God’s mockery of our truest efforts at expression, or, when sober, sent curt and disinterested replies or lame jokes he imagined to be zingers.
Gradually, over the course of several years, Rom learned to admit that Sophie no longer loved him, but his close friends knew he didn’t believe what he said. You can smell it on him, Tony said. He began to affect a tough demeanor, drank all the time, grew beards, shaved them off, got laid, but several times a year, in a passing statement to a close friend, in a casual inquiry emailed at 3:57 AM, he let on that he was still wringing himself out inside. There were blow-ups.
One New Year’s Eve I wish I could forget, after vomiting up most of a bottle of peppermint schnapps, he went truly raving mad. He broke furniture. He punched Tony in the face. He disappeared into the bathroom and came out bleeding all over the floor, ranting about cutting his throat, with a three-inch incision in his arm. We should have recognized his belligerence as a plea for comfort, but we’re assholes, and men, and the thoroughly malign spirit of the Pernod the three of us were drinking tipped us over the edge and we let into him, chastising his inabilities, mocking his vision of their love. He shattered. He wept like only adolescents can. It made you want to vomit watching him cry. It made you want to beat him with a shovel.
Finally he calmed down. Somehow it was still early. Somehow the police hadn’t been called. We went out on the balcony, all of us eying one another behind his back in a secret arrangement to prevent him from jumping over the railing. He collapsed in one of those ridiculous loungers made of rope, Industrial Capitalism’s answer to the hammock, and began to tell us his memories. He told us of their travels together, of perfect afternoons they spent fighting at the grocery store, of a time they made love standing up through the sun roof of a car, of the simplest pleasures, of burning the mail, of the six month experiment they undertook to roast the perfect quail, of her smell when she came out of the bath at night and stood in the doorway dripping, of the way she clenched her fists around her thumbs and squinted into a distant privacy when she came under his mouth while he watched across the periplum of her naked body, of her moles in mysterious constellations from a universe where the sky at night is alabaster and the stars are brown, of the books she read to him with eager seriousness, of the secrets she conferred, oaths she made him swear, of an uncle who had murdered a gas station attendant when he was a teen, of her fear of madness he assured her all women had, of her strange obsessiveness as a student when she would stay up until dawn chain smoking two packs of cigarettes in order to write a four page essay on Discipline and Punish, of her secret shames, of her mysterious childhood moving from state to state, of her belief that she was conceived in an orgy, their love like a bond between children, a bond purer than anything two humans living are capable of, despite her adulteries, a bond that was the distilled essence of love, not the love man has for God but the inscrutable love God has for man, a sadomasochist devotion purer than anything other than the incomprehensible privacy of death.
You’re looking backwards, Ulrich told him. You have to face the future. Make a life for yourself. Move on. Rom looked at us with anguish, seeing our good faith but unable to reach it, his face contorting in a funny smile, like an assisted suicide gasping gratefully beneath his plastic bag.
Andrew Haley is the author of Good Eurydice (Otis Nebula, 2011). His English co-translation (with Ivana Gamarnik) of Lola Arias’ play “Mi Vida Después/My Life After appeared in a bilingual edition in Buenos Aires in 2009. His co-translation (with Sybil Perez) of Roberto Bolaño’s “The Final Interview” was included in Roberto Bolaño: The Final Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House, 2009). A Spanish translation (by Gamarnik) of Haley’s poem “Rauschenberg’s Prints” was anthologized in Color Pastel – fanzine de poesía: antología 2004-2012 (Buenos Aires: Weissi & Mazzini, 2017). Poems, essays, and stories have appeared in various magazines and journals including BlazeVOX, Fanzine, Otis Nebula, Kill Author, Girls With Insurance, Mapping SLC, Western Humanities Review, Quarterly West, and Sugar House Review. Recent poems are forthcoming from Windowcat. Haley received a master’s in British and American Literature from the University of Utah in 2002.