Ximena wanted me to photograph her while her heart was breaking. It’s a fucking mess, she said. I first saw her in a pop-up art exhibition sponsored by a vodka brand, in a massive Williamsburg warehouse. She was dressed as a nymph, glacial and motionless on an elevated Nordic tableau, obviously put together at great expense. She was posing along with three other ethereal, bare-breasted women in translucent skirts, surrounded by an ice sculpture, staring into the distance. Her melancholic, surreal beauty transfixed me. A weak spotlight shone directly on her face, and glycerin stars trickled down her eyes. I wondered why her naked skin, silvery in the industrial gloom, didn’t have goose bumps in the subzero temperature although her nipples were hard, purple buttons of flesh in the blue light. Tiny clouds formed around her mouth every time she exhaled and evaporated magically moments later. I walked back a few yards and observed her from a distance. She was like a goddess out of some futuristic fairytale. I went close to the platform she was standing upon and left a note with my phone number at her feet.
I climb the stairs to Dr. Spielman’s office with my heart hammering like a bird gone mad inside a burning cage, my head full of wild, jagged thoughts. A sinewy black man fucking a big black woman in the ass, as their golden retriever licked her face. A scene with a young, gay Xavier Bardem, set in Che Guevara’s Cuba, kept repeating itself. Xavier’s tight, muscular body coiled fiercely around another man’s back, pinning him against the wall, thrusting into him. Josephine turning to look at me one last time, Josephine leaning in to kiss me, Josephine scratching at my eyes with her long blue nails. Blood dripping on my white Martin Margiela shirt, a bright crimson spot, then two, and then three. The eagle swooping down to snatch my sandwich in school, leaving a deep painful gash on my cheek. Josephine opening the door, Josephine walking out of my car, out of my life, Josephine leaving me blinded and bleeding.
Ximena called the next day. She asked to meet in Bryant Park. It was freezing cold but we sat there on the bench in our thick coats, watching the spindly, dark souls of trees reaching up to the barren sky. She was a struggling actress from Tijuana. No one wanted to hire a Mexican girl with an accent for roles other than that of a maid. Even those were hard to get. Hispanic Americans had that market cornered. Her lover, Robert, was a real estate developer from Long Island. A year ago they met at a party where she was paid to be a hostess. Two hundred dollars for five hours of work. It was the most money she had made in a day. She fell in love with his knowledge of art, his appreciation of her craft and his generosity. He got her some advertising work. He was well educated, handsome, and divorced. On their first date they drove to his Long Island mansion in his Porsche. Columbian help served them champagne, fresh lobster and watermelon sorbet. Afterwards they strolled hand-in-hand on his private beach and had sex on the sand with the warm salt water foaming around her naked back. They went back to the mansion and Robert laid out lines of coke on an antique hand-held mirror he said was a family heirloom. It was the first time she had fucked an American man. The first time she had taken drugs. The first time she felt understood and desired.
After a week in the Hamptons with Robert, she realized there was something wrong. At first she was lost in the thrill of being discovered, of extravagance and hedonism. She had played these scenarios in her head a hundred times: the decadence of America, rich playboys in their fancy cars with their gorgeous women in cocktail dresses and stilettos. But Robert wanted to wear her panties at night before they made love. He tried on her bra several times but the hooks always broke. He put on her lipstick before they went to bed, sometimes in the car, before they even undressed. He would lay her on his lap and beat her, lightly, the first few nights, and later so viciously she couldn’t sleep or walk without pain, her buttocks crimson and swollen from being paddled. Ximena’s desire for Robert was laced with trepidation, yet she fell madly in love with him. He was funny, extravagant and supportive. He drove her to the city Monday mornings and picked her up Thursday evenings. He lent her money when there was no work and nursed her when she was sick. He introduced her to important people, many of who were empathetic and equally generous. His cousin connected Ximena to an indie film director who offered her a role in a feature, with several lines of dialog, and scenes with the lead actor and actress. Robert was the pillar of support and affection she didn’t have even in Mexico.
Dr Spielman’s office is on the fourth floor but the elevator doesn’t work. My mouth is dry and I haven’t slept in days. I can’t feel my hands. Montague Street is bright blue and yellow and shiny and it’s the end of winter. There are fresh flowers in store windows and today’s newspapers on the magazine stands. Cops are already ticketing carelessly parked cars. In my head, Nazi punk kids chase me down the streets in Berlin; they have me trapped in an alleyway in Kreuzberg. There are four of them. A girl with spiked hair and a swastika tattooed on her forehead. Three skinny boys with studded boots and white make-up. One of them has a knife. He flicks it open. Josephine is lying on her back, her legs spread apart. She is touching herself as I undress. She says she cannot wait, just wants to be wet enough for me to enter, doesn’t want any foreplay. She wants penetration. She wants connection. Not even pleasure. She wants me to ejaculate as soon as I can. She wants my fluids inside her womb. She wants a synthesis of our genes. She says this is a distillation of our love. Just this night she wants my semen, not the rituals of joy.
But Josephine is far, far away now. She is in the stars. The stars are in an unknown galaxy, out of my reach. Does she believe in God? Dr Spielman’s assistant makes me fill out forms. Many forms. Insurance? Allergies? Family history of disease? STDs? I feel dizzy. I am sweating under my black jacket. I tear off my tie. It takes an effort. My legs feel watery. I wake up in my room at the Ritz Carlton in Berlin. The Nazi kids were a bad dream. It’s 3.12 am, the time I usually awake from my nightmares. My room faces an office building. The building is dark. Through a gap in the skyline I see Potsdamer Platz, its twinkling lights and glistening towers and lonely orphan cars cruising over steel blue roads. Josephine is gone and my heart is sinking, my t-shirt damp with sweat. I turn on the lights. There’s a soccer game on TV. I feel desolation creeping through my veins. I try to head it off. I call room service. Closed. I turn on my laptop. Facebook. Tube8. YouPorn. I click on a video. Hairy Japanese Mom Fucking Stepson. I click on another. Dark Secrets of a Church Girl. Two men are fucking a pretty young mid-western girl with a nose-ring and large pink breasts. She is on her knees sucking one of them. Saliva is dribbling from her mouth. The other man is entering her from behind. The camera doesn’t show the men. Just the girl with long blonde hair in close-up and POV, like an animal in heat, moaning, groaning, spreading, opening herself up for the pleasure of lonely insomniacs. But nothing moves inside me. No blood rush to my cock. No desire to empty myself of sorrow with body lotion into tissue paper. I walk to the window again and stare into darkness. Who can I call? Who in the world can comfort me tonight?
I dial my mother. It’s morning where she is, and I imagine her freshly bathed, in the tiny room in the big house where she now wants to spend all her time. Mother, how are you? Did the electrician fix the TV? Did you eat some breakfast? She doesn’t know whom she is talking to. I switch to Urdu, speaking louder into the phone. Outside, I see a helicopter circling the square. Mother, it’s me, your son. I am traveling; I am calling you from a hotel in Germany. Mother is confused, she says she doesn’t have a son; I must have the wrong number. She says she will get her daughter on the line. She says her daughter speaks better English. I hear her shout for my sister in the distance. I disconnect. The room is getting colder and I sit in bed, wrapped in blankets, sweating underneath. I switch off the lights and lean back against the bedpost, drifting into a desolate haze. In the gloom, I hear the monster breathing under my bed. I imagine its massive girth, flat and scaly like an iguana, and its many heads and eyes. I remember it rise on its hairy hind legs, tall as the ceiling of the hotel room, it’s soft, grey belly exposed, its claws tearing at the chandelier, eyes blaze; and its sulfur breath on my face. I remembered the last time it came down on me, mauling my skin; its crocodile jaws clamping my chest, crushing my ribs, tearing my heart out. I switch the lights back on. I hurry out of the room and sit on the carpeted floor outside in the hallway until I see the glint of morning light reflected in the steel and glass towers of Berlin.
Ximena called me on a Saturday afternoon. She was sobbing quietly. Things had gotten out of control. Robert’s cruelties now extended beyond the bedroom. Last night he had a party, a catered, black-tie event with the cream of Hampton’s society in attendance. Robert made her wear a sheer waitress’ dress with nothing underneath. It’s just a fantasy, he said. It would keep him turned on all evening pretending that she was just the help, who he would seduce later in the night. Ximena reluctantly played along but soon the humiliation began to gnaw at her. A young banker with slicked-back blond hair cornered her in the kitchen and ran his hand up her thigh. Is Robert fucking you? If not, I gladly will. You are such a sexy little bitch. She tried to ignore him and floated through the laughing, shouting crowd of beautiful people with a silver tray in her hand, offering canapés, champagne, and caviar. At one point Robert took her hand and led her into the study. A very important man I am doing business with seems to like you a lot, he said, already drunk. The man’s name is Philip, and he is going to come and find you here. Don’t leave. Just do whatever he wants. Got it?
Outside, snow was falling gently, hanging on electric wires, frosting naked branches of trees lined up in the park outside my apartment like Japanese widows, weeping. Ximena was terrified for the first time since she had known Robert. She fell silent on the phone and I had to urge her to complete the story. She ran upstairs to his bedroom and locked herself in. The party got louder, and she heard glasses shattering, women squealing in delight. Robert came looking for her, intoxicated and enraged. Open the fucking door. This is my fucking house. Open the goddamned door and come out. She shrank in fright at every word. How could she have loved someone so cruel? And yet, inside her, there was still a kernel of longing for him. Or of the dream she had created around him. She heard him storm away, thudding down the staircase. She could have escaped then. Begged someone to take her to the train station, but she stayed in the bedroom, too tired to move. She slumped into Robert’s favorite leather chair and drifted into sleep.
I started to put on my clothes as Ximena cried into the phone. She was home, and I knew I had to be with her immediately. The party ended at 4 am. Robert knocked on the door again and she woke abruptly to let him in. She always knew when he had ingested cocaine. His eyes glittered and his mouth twisted downward at the corners when he spoke. Coke amplified his deviancies. I’m sorry, she said. I am your lover, not a whore you can offer your friends. He said nothing. He was taking off his clothes. She tried to put her arms around him but he shook her off and went into the bathroom. She heard him snort inside and blow his nose. She heard the toilet flush as she sat in his chair. He emerged naked a few minutes later. He lifted her out of the chair and threw her on the bed. She was scared but offered no resistance. He tied her to the bedpost with handcuffs they had used before. But there was something distant and sadistic in his eyes. He tied her legs with silk ropes they had recently bought from the East Village, and now she was spread-eagled but still in her transparent hostess dress. He ripped it off and stood staring at her naked body for a while as panic began to spread within her. He pulled the leather belt from the pants he had discarded on the floor. The first stroke was the most painful. After that, she said, it got easier and easier until he drove his fist into her face and she blacked out.
It had stopped snowing when I arrived at her door in the Lower East Side. I put my arms around Ximena and let her cry. Dry heaves from deep within at first, and then shallow gasps of sorrow accompanied by painful rivulets of tears. I took her into the bedroom and laid her down. A silver cross above the bed reflected the neon red light from the deli outside. She was badly marked across her torso and there were bleeding edges along the crimson welts crisscrossing her belly. Her eyes were swollen and purple. She didn’t want to file a report or get the cops involved. I brought bandages and medicine and soup from the deli and cleaned her wounds. As her terror subsided, I lay in bed with her and she fell asleep in my arms. Outside, a new morning was breaking in America.
Olivia’s peppermint and starch fragrance washes over me as she leans forward to unbutton my shirt. I try to say I can do it myself but can’t form the words anymore, gesturing uselessly with my hands. Her ponytail, the pink half-moons of her bra under her blue scrubs are all I want to focus on. She has a question mark tattooed behind her right ear. I watch it intently, dark hair curling around her neck like calligraphy. I want to whisper my pain to her. Inside, the hammering in my heart is accelerating. Dr. Spielman appears. He looks tired; reminds me of an elderly, kindly uncle. An uncle I never had. A fan of the Grateful Dead and other jam bands. He pokes and probes and asks questions, taking copious notes in the file Olivia has left behind. I feel faint. I want Olivia back. I ask Dr Spielman if she will return. Yes, he says, we need blood samples. You might need to check into a hospital, he says. Your blood pressure is 180/110. I can give you something now, but it will just be temporary relief. Your ECG concerns me too, Dr Spielman says. What do you think of Phish? I want to ask him. Will they tour again? He seems worried. I am fine, I want to say, I want to get up, but gravity is holding me down. I need to rest. Surrender. The world is turning, turning, dry mouth and dizzy head and quivering limbs, Olivia and Josephine and Ximena, love, sorrow and relief, and the beautiful upside down morning I left behind downstairs.
Olivia returns to draw blood. I sit up, now in a shapeless blue paper gown, feeling awkward and exposed. She has been told to keep me calm. She is talking about her Persian cats and mother in New Jersey but I can tell she is nervous. Are you OK honey, she asks, again. I want to lay my head on your shoulder and cry, I want to say. She ties a tourniquet around my bicep, tightens it so my veins pop out like sudden blue rivers in a desert. One day she was my lover, the keeper of my secrets, my soul mate, and the next day Josephine was gone and became my tormenter. At first I wanted to keep a diary of her cruelties. But as I started to crash, as my heart began to crumple and my life fell apart, I didn’t have the energy or will to do anything. All the turbulence and sorrow caused by her began to swirl into a bigger despair. Olivia inserts a needle into my vein. Nothing flows. Uh, oh, she says, this happens sometimes. She chooses a spot on my wrist, where veins are tangled like blue electrical wires. Another twinge of pain, but no crimson flow. Olivia looks into my eyes anxiously. How are we doing, honey? I feel a tingling in the fingers of my left hand. Perhaps my bloodstream is freezing over like a river in winter. I feel like glass has broken inside my chest, and small, sharp pieces are flowing through my arteries, creating a complex melody of pain. I squeeze Olivia’s arm, tightly. Her face is so close to mine I could kiss her, get lost in her peppermint mouth, hold her and never let her go. But her indigo eyes widen with alarm. Dr Spielman, we have an emergency, she shouts into the intercom. The doctor arrives with his assistant, an Asian woman with short, straight black hair. Korean or Japanese? I wonder. The ambulance is on its way, she says, calmly. Dr. Spielman is preparing a syringe. I’m flat on the examination table again, the pain a giant poisonous mushroom in my chest. I don’t even feel the needle this time.
I was lying in my brass bed in my room, in the throes of another renal colic attack. Mother was always by my side, holding my hand, caressing my forehead, hot water bottles and emergency medication close at hand, and Sheila, the nurse, right behind her. When the painkillers didn’t work, and I started screaming in agony, mother would signal Sheila to inject morphine intravenously. As the silver thread of relief coursed its way into my body, I could hear my mother pray. Dear God, please give my son’s pain to me. Dear God, please take my son’s pain away. And I would fade into oblivion in my mother’s arms.
Two weeks passed before I visited Ximena again, this time to photograph her. Her body had mostly healed but the heartbreak would take much longer. There was no elaborate set, no lighting or artifice. She covered the remaining bruises under her eyes with black eyeliner and mascara and took off her clothes. She wanted me to record the raw pain in her eyes and the marks on her skin, and capture the love, cruelty, rejection and sadism she had experienced. Make sure you don’t ignore the desire I felt for this man, that I still feel, she insisted. She struck all the poses, enacted all the scenes of her bittersweet love story with America and Robert, intimate, sad, angry and beautiful. Finally, she was playing the part that nobody had offered her in New York- a role with the emotional range and nuance that serious actresses dreamed of getting. The Role of a Lifetime, she said. Often, during the hours I shot her, she cried and tears smudged her eyes, transforming her into something even more beautiful and haunting. Her American adventure was over. In a few days she was returning to Mexico. I asked if she wanted to see the photographs before she left. She said she never wanted to see them. I dropped her off at JFK one bright winter morning. We weren’t lovers, or even friends, I suppose, but we held hands in the car, and kissed before we said goodbye. I never saw her again.
I notice the precision with which the EMS handle their equipment, question Dr. Spielman, and carry me downstairs. I don’t see Olivia and regret not having the chance to say goodbye. The elevator is still stuck. The drugs have made me sleepy but I see a brief patch of cloudless blue sky with a news helicopter suspended in it and remember that its still morning. People are at work. The city is alive. Soon I will be back in the fray. The siren wails down Henry Street, and as always I want to get out of the way, although I’m secured on a stretcher and a medic is holding my hand. Long Island City Hospital is not far away. I wake inside the ICU and it seems a long time has passed and I am lying on a raised hospital bed, tethered to all kinds of wires and tubes. I marvel at the sophistication of it all. I want to incorporate some of this in an art project. The pain in my heart has eased. The doctors have flushed all the broken glass from my arteries. I feel relieved and sorrow has been replaced by numbness. My head spins every time I move but the room settles again when I am still. A nurse arrives. Hello! Are you feeling better? Can you speak? I nod my head. You are out of danger now. Is there anyone you want to call? She asks. Trick question. I think of Josephine stepping out of the airport in LA, looking like a movie star, rushing into my arms. I ask for my IPhone. The nurse brings it to me, and a plastic tray with a box of orange juice, a cookie and a banana. I don’t feel hungry. There’s a number I want to call. It rings for a while and is picked up by the answering machine, a man’s gruff voice. I leave a message that gets cut off because it’s too long.
Spring might be around the corner as I walk through Cadman Plaza Park. The sun has spray painted branches of birch trees yellow, and I imagine birdsong. I take pictures of the park. I see tiny flowers defiantly bursting through the cold. Everything appears to be new and happening in slow motion, cars wait to let me cross the road, office-bound young women in tight skirts and sneakers running down the subway stairs looking lovely and hopeful. The A train arrives languidly, taking its time, its doors slide open and a small panorama of beautiful strangers beckon me inside. The voices in my head have settled, and I listen to music again when I ride. Music is my compass, my medicine cabinet, and every night I make a play list of songs for the next morning. I imagine the lives of the people huddled around me in the train as I listen to my soundtrack. How many hearts are breaking? How many bodies are on fire? How much loneliness is coursing through the veins of the people with whom I share these few minutes of the day? Josephine used to email me every morning. I would read her words as I emerged from the subway and walked from Spring Street to my office. Good morning, my darling. Can’t wait to see you. I missed you last night. Last week’s snow is now slush. Greybrown, ugly and wet, but the sun is shining like egg yolk and life is beautiful, sometimes tranquil like a dream, sometimes frantic like an animated GIF. The drugs have evened it all out.
I reach the office and my IPhone rings. It’s Olivia. Good morning, champ, are you OK? Remember to take the greenish pill in the square container in the morning. Break it in half. Or you can have all of it if you’re really low. At night you MUST take the round blue pill in the cylindrical container. Have the whole thing. It will help you sleep. And call Dr. Spielman tomorrow. Honey, are you there? Yes, Olivia, I’m here and I’m OK. The storm has passed. I don’t hear the monster breathing under the bed. I live day to day now. And today is calm and resplendent. Olivia and I have become friends. Her boyfriend is a musician. He plays electric guitar and is making a record. She has invited me to their apartment for dinner Friday night.
Six months have passed. I run four miles, five times a week and lift weights. It’s the most sensual summer I have seen in years. There have been nights of pleasure, experiences in flesh that have distanced me from her, but most nights I keep to myself. I limit my travel to cities I have friends in. Sometimes I still lie awake at night, sweating. Dr. Spielman has switched the drugs around and recommended talk therapy. He knows someone really good- a psychiatrist who helped Gabriel Byrne and an actress from Saturday Night Live whose name I forget. I ask him about weaning me off chemicals. How long will it take? At least another year, he says, and laughs sheepishly. I have patients who have been taking Zoloft and Xanax for a decade.
Saturday afternoons are the hardest. It was our time. I miss Josephine’s voice, her body, its bumps and crevices and sand dunes, its rivers and earthquakes. I miss our conversations and lovemaking and our silences that were more articulate than music. I wonder where she is and what she is doing. Is she laboring over her thesis? Is she training for the marathon? Has she left town? Is she giving her magic to someone else? Has she forgotten the love we once had? Josephine’s absence colors every season. The afternoon lingers on and I am riding on the wings of a dove on a cotton candy cloud. The bell rings, shocking me out of my stupor. I am expecting no one. I open the door.
Ximena hasn’t changed in the years since I have seen her. I am immobilized for a moment, speechless in the doorway. Finally, I step aside and let her in. We embrace. What are you doing here? I ask, finding my voice.
You called and I came, she says.