Song saw the man she called father on the back porch every night, talking into his collar and charting the paths of stars with a correcting fluid pen on the black of a star-map, looking for UFO's. Most people's obsessions, Song reasoned, came with a price. Of the many things she knew him to preoccupy his days with, this seemed most harmless. She checked her cell phone. Jimmy would be out of work soon, and she'd pick him up in her Pathfinder and they would go to the top of Harris Hill and sit on the stones of the hilltop parking lot until her ass hurt, and she would listen to him talk and rub his back until her fingers cramped. This was his love for her, manifested in guilt and punctuated by tears of frustration and the occasional moody silence.

As they'd ridden out the crest of a high wave in the Gulf of Thailand she'd listened to her father's heartbeat as she clung to him and tried not to kick her sister Tran, who had been lodged underneath his raised leg. A toothless woman with a long scar on her neck pressed against Song's back, unable to move against the crush of bodies, and on the bright day when the Cambodian pirates had torn her from her father's arms, she saw the woman beating her arms wildly against the backs of the widely grinning men and saw her father shudder under the blows. As another pirate held her tightly, her sister was thrown overboard, never making a sound as she parted the waters. The look on the woman's face, the woman she thought had been her mother, the high keening sound in her throat as she stretched her arm toward Tran, eyes wide with fear and foreknowledge, was what Song thought of when she thought of love, which was not often, and only when she was with Jimmy.

Tonight she would play at relationship again, sit by his side and stroke his hair and murmur to him. He in turn would transfix her with the fierce light of his own obsession, touch her cheek. They would sink as one to the ground and she would pull her jacket under herself at the last moment while returning his kiss and breathing in his ear. She might come; she might not. But his need spoke volumes for her and the sharp stones would remind her at every thrust that love was something other than what they were making, and she would stiffen. He would notice and cover her face with kisses and tears, and she would pull his head into her neck and stare into the sky herself, watching as Arcturus bloomed suddenly in a freshet of light, and she would see that woman's face in her mind, and Rick on the porch at home fiddling with his focus, and know that the touch of body on body would be all she could hope for for now.

***

Song caught her breath less easily these days. As she huffed and puffed her way through an abs-and-butt workout, her mind wandered to Jimmy, and to her father. Her emotional confusion of boyfriend and father was strictly textbook psycho-drama. She knew that intellectually, but it was hard not to stress about it, even during the tensing and relaxing of her buttocks that so reminded her of sex. The thing that relaxed her, or was supposed to, exercise, no longer kept her occupied. When she wondered, would it stop? She pushed her thighs up and arched her back.

Before Jimmy, her current barely-throttled obsession, there had been no one, really. She'd wandered into cornfields with Jimmy, pulling the broad leaves and the smooth silk from the ears and eating them raw. She'd taken on her foster father Rick's less noble traits—guardedness, arrogance, guile—and mixed them crazily into another thing entirely, the prostitute gook in a postmodern postpunk rage, complete with pink hair and a degree in Renaissance literature. It made what Rick needed her to do easier to conceal, but made her long for someone to be real with. Which was where Jimmy and his aggressive need to be saved came in. He needed saving; she needed to save, something. So that night she watched him chew white corn to the cob with his perfect white teeth and she laid with him under the stars in the smell of earth and seed, giggling occasionally and feeling his vegetable love for her grow into something deeper. She held herself back even as she stared into his eyes and pledged her body to him night after night, to try to help him, she supposed.

All those nights of sexual drama were doing her in, though, she thought, lifting herself up into a sitting position as sweat dripped into her eyes. It was well and good for him to think of her as mysterious, like the trench-coated enemy in a cheap chop-socky, but the deception became less easy as she spent more time with him and he become more entranced with her, and in truth, her with him. It was hard to deny his little-boy-Byron insistence that his problems were solvable and his emotional position was perilously near insanity.

"It's just that no one listens like you do," he'd said, brushing the top of her head with his soft lips.

"Have you ever talked with anyone else?" she'd said, holding him close and wishing she were somewhere else.

"Just Rick."

She'd buried her head in his chest to hide a smile. Rick, of all people, would have no sympathy. "Americans," Rick had said to her once, "have no shame, and real answers to their country's problems elude them because of that. If they were ever ashamed of what they did. . ." and he had stubbed his cigarette out on the bottom of his shoe and stared into her eyes for a long moment. He had plucked her from the boat, and now she was duty-bound to help him do the same for others, because she was ashamed of her own survival. As Rick had held her close she could smell his cigarette smoke and the insistent push of his erection at her thigh, something she had only known since with Jimmy. Though nothing had ever come of it, every man since became Rick and she found herself seeking a savior in them, and failing that (always and forever failing that), to save someone, anyone, everyone. As the memory swirled around her, with the drone and thud of the TV, and sweat dripping down her back, her tears at Jimmy and Rick felt no less real than the ones she shed for herself.

When Jimmy had stopped talking that night, only to find her sobbing into his breast, he thought she was sobbing for him.

***

Song affected the patience and pose of the historical Buddha whenever Jimmy confronted her with questions like where did she go sometimes and how did she live before him. He marked his life as it had grown from their first tenuous car ride to Harris Hill to see the stars. He wanted to know at which point her life had begun, but only because he was afraid he knew the answer already. He watched as Song folded her hands into her lap, twisting the jade ring he'd given her around and around.

"How can we be together forever?" Song lifted her eyes to Jimmy's in the smoke of the restaurant and he pledged his heart and balls to her again in his mind, if it would help, but said nothing like that.

"I just wondered, you know. I mean, we've been through stuff, we know things about each other. It seems like time we did something else." He stretched his open palms out to her.

"Commitment is not the way." Song looked up at him unblinkingly as she sucked her chocolate shake into her hollowed cheeks. Jimmy grabbed the shake from her mouth and put it to the side.

"What kind of horseshit is that?" Jimmy sat back and watched as her bushy eyebrows rose and fell. He wanted to know what she thought. It was that simple. "Drop the pose, wouldja?"

"I'm not posing." She flipped her hair back with one hand and lit a cigarette in defiance of the new natural laws of the restaurant. She'd recently died the tips orange all the way around, and her face looked haloed in fire as a result. He'd never seen her natural hair color in the two years he'd known her. Every three to four weeks would find him watching her get the Brilliant Blue or Marmalade Yellow box of dye from the CVS, and he would sit on her tub as she knelt in front of him. He would rub the dye in, sometimes in simple symmetrical patterns which he always failed to stain properly.

"And I'm not joking," Jimmy said. "Why do you always dye your hair?"

"What are we talking about again?" Song blew her smoke away from his face from the side of her lip and grinned.

"Christsakes." Jimmy got up and paid for Song's shake at the front counter, and she tottered out to him slowly in her high-heeled sneakers and he wanted to catch her, because he knew she would fall as she traversed the mop-slick floor, but she wobbled only slightly and caught his arm as they neared the door, and he felt a sudden rush of shame. What right did he have to try to save her, from falling or from anything else? Or worse, to want her to save him. Or could he be satisfied for the time being with her arm steady in the crook of his elbow?

They sat down on her front porch steps just after midnight. Her father Rick was on the back deck with his telescope, tracing a new comet in its path, so the chaise longues and cushioned deck chairs were out of the question. Any soul-searching questioning tonight would have to be done in the musty smell of a leaf pile and the sour oily smell of the lawnmower gas-oil mixture Rick had left open on the porch rail.

Jimmy took her hand in his as they leaned on the rail and Song smoked. "I'm trying to find a way to tell you—"

"Look," she said. "Let me give you a lesson my father taught me." She pulled her hair into a soft bun at the back of her neck, and threw her leather jacket onto the ground near the front walk, pulling Jimmy down beside her. She ground her cigarette out on the bottom of her shoe and placed it carefully on a nearby flagstone. Jimmy wondered how she would disarm him this time, with her body or with words.

Song picked up a single leaf and held it in front of his face. She grinned slowly, and he felt the wind stir the pile of leaves behind her, and thought he knew how it would go.

"Here we go. Mystic Sage, woman. Show me your Oriental mysteries, love of my life and queen of my dreams." Jimmy resigned himself to another night of slow teasing not-answers, and reached for the back of her neck, and Song's face changed in a flicker as her hand slapped his away.

"Hey now." Jimmy sat back and threw his hands up. "I just wanted to tell you—" and then he stopped as Song turned her back and went to the porch, fiddling in her purse for something,. Later on, long afterward, Jimmy remembered her left leg trembling.

"This is what my father taught me," Song said, her lips trembling in a half-smile, "and just so you don't get confused the way you seem to sometimes, even though I try and try to tell you the obvious, you never seem to listen to me, but just want to fuck instead." Song paused again here. "Sometimes, this is the way your life goes, when your father is not your father." She looked longingly past Jimmy, though he believed (wanted to believe) that she was looking at him, clutched at the can of gas and oil, threw it against the wall, and flicked her expensive stainless steel Zippo, the same one that he had gotten her six months before in a biker bar in Horseheads. "Sometimes, Jimmy, your life is nothing important for anybody." She stepped off the porch and tossed her lighter behind her and the wood and gas exploded in a soft puff of flame.

***

Jimmy woke up sore and sweating. The constant clang of the heater had kept him awake for most of the night, and Song had pummeled him in her sleep. It often happened this way, that they would fall quietly asleep on the floor in front of the television, wrapped tightly in an old afghan or two, and Song would sleep well in his arms, for a time. Then, in the dark of the morning she would wake suddenly and panic, pushing and clawing at his hands and clothes, screaming and crying in low and twangy Vietnamese, and he could only try and fail to hold her. The ghosts of his past were enough for him to wake sweating, but he could only dream about the things she had gone through — nightmare flight in holed-already boats, the low gleam of a horizon in flames, bodies underfoot — and hope that what he could give her would be enough.

He stretched and saw her seated already at the window, scribbling furiously in her notebook. Jimmy knew that book and was jealous of it. He wanted to be her confidante, wanted to know that he could provide her with more than those cold pages could. When he had said as much to her, she'd laughed and called him over-emotional. Jimmy had to agree, and wondered at what point he might be able to confront her about these dreams.

"You're awake." Song tucked her pen into the knot of hair at her neck. Jimmy had a quick flash of embarrassment. He could feel his ribs creak from the knee she'd put into them the night before.

"Hey." So much power and fear in her tiny body. Jimmy knew that was what held them together, sometimes. Both had faced fears that others could not imagine.

"You okay?" Song's pink hair dominated her features. She let it down as she slid out of the afghan. Her pen clattered under the couch.

"Yeah. Just a little rough, though. Do you remember anything?" He pulled her closer.

Song sighed and tucked her head into his neck. "Next subject."

Jimmy tightened his grip. He wanted to be supportive. He did. His therapist had told him to act kindly toward the people he hated, even. So he had not shied away from her father, had done his best to put up with the inscrutable faces and constant yeses he would get from her when they discussed tough subjects. He supposed a straight answer like she had given might even be a breakthrough of sorts.

Song glanced at her wrist and jumped up. "Shit! We have to be at the hospital at 10:00." He watched her grab her clothes from the sofa and walk to the bathroom. One of the many things his doctors had told him to do was to volunteer his time, to force his way back into the community acceptance that had been denied him since the accident. Song's job as a candy-striper had only made the decision easier and he had found himself singing folk songs and doing modified jumping jacks with the elderly patients at Arnot-Ogden Hospital. It was Song's avocation, and they had simply molded their life together around it. He sighed and followed her into the shower, where she'd already begun rinsing. Their breath and the shower's mist had frozen on the window, and he could see their reflection, the top of her head barely showing under his chin as he put his arms around her. Soon they might find other common ground. He hoped fervently as he watched her bathe, that it would be sooner than later.

Their first task (sometimes their only task) would be to make the rounds of the terminally ill, which was both depressing and occasionally funny. Mr. Queeg, Song's favorite, had recently been given an ultimatum about harassing the young women who came by, one he paid little attention to. Song merely bent further over him as she adjusted his oxygen nose-piece.

"Hands off the boobs, Mister." Song gently removed them. "Where will you go when they kick you out for feeling me up?" Mr. Queeg cackled through his false teeth and winked at Jimmy, who bent over and cranked his bed up roughly.

"There you go." Jimmy crossed his arms and waited for Song to finish her chit-chat. He knew she was avoiding Mr. Queeg's roommate, Tony Marinaella, who was not her favorite. Mr. Marinaella ("goddammit, call me Tony!") will lose his life sooner than the rest, as he had recently lost his foot to complications from diabetes. He'd turned from jovial to black-hearted in the space of a night, and once in the pain of a hard massage had called Song a slope, which though it had not bothered Song visibly, had torn Jimmy up. Predictably, Song would not speak with him about it. Jimmy had avoided the room whenever possible, but it was clear that their visit would not matter in a week or so.

"Jimmy. How you like this shit." Tony pointed to his foot, wrapped in a tight rubber sheath.

"It's tough, sir." Jimmy tried to keep his face impassive. Tony had become a wisp, one of those old bony men who might have been lifted with one hand were it not for the sheer breadth of their once-strong bodies.

"Tough. Hah. You don't know tough like this chick knows tough." Tony coughed as Song came by and put her hand on Tony's arm. "Whyn't you tell him about it all? He'd love to hear it."

"Can I get something for you, Mr. Marinaella?" Song's hand had come down on the old man's bare lower leg. She was stroking softly.

"Hah. Funny. That's funny. Got another foot?" Tony laughed and coughed again, deeper and from the gut. Jimmy reached over to give him water, which Tony turned away with a feeble wave.

"I can't give you what you want." For a moment Jimmy thought Song was speaking to him, but she was bent at the side of Tony's bed, one hand still idly stroking the hairy old leg, her eyes already clouded over with water. Jimmy thought he saw something in her eyes, thought she might be somewhere else in her mind, but her hand kept moving slowly and softly.

"No. I suppose not." Tony Marinaella's eyes filmed over. He took her other hand. Song motioned Jimmy over with a quick head motion, and he knelt by the bed and took Tony's other hand. He wanted to touch Song, but couldn't. The bed was too wide.

"You're good kids to do this."

Song leaned into Tony's face. Jimmy could see her lips begin to move and he heard a soft song come out from what seemed her very soul, a lilting melody that he had never heard, in a language he could barely recognize, and the thought crashed over him like so much cold water. Here was a woman he could never really know. So Jimmy listened to her song until it was through. He hoped it would be quick.

[Originally published in Buzzwords: Issue 19]
fiction non-fiction poetry art sounds
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