Diane Sawyer asks me if I feel a calling. Given all the stories in my past about being a “party girl,” why am I now touring the country to raise awareness about the crisis of children excluded because they are HIV-positive? I gaze at her face—open, devout, with lips perhaps too swollen for a woman her age—and feel a lancing pity. Federico García Lorca whispers to me:
I have sung through the world
with my mouth of seven petals.
My galleys of amaranth
have gone without ropes or oars.
I have lived in the lands
of others, My secrets
round my throat,
without my realizing it, were open!
I think this is true of Diane Sawyer as well. I think the secrets around her throat are open. But I don’t think she realizes it.
A man named Bottoms now follows me from place to place. He murmurs into a tiny machine clipped to his shoulder, which squawks back at him. He commands half a dozen men, each thick with muscle under a dark suit. No one comes near me without his permission.
Larry King asks about Iraq. Naturally. There is a scurry in the dim back corridors of his studio. (His producers are proud of him.) Television is the box in which we hope to capture our religious needs. Here is shame! Here is redemption! Don’t you understand, Mr. King? I am Iraq. This flesh, this pearlescent lipstick, the bundling of my bosom under secret snaps and fabrics. Every war is fought for virgins, for delusions of the innocent made corruptible. I am the daughter of the president of the United States of America, the sweet nexus of all imperial pornography. If you dream of defiling me, sir (as you do), war must be made on the barbarians.
I lament my face. I stand in the bathroom of the bookstore moments before my reading. I perform the Tree of Life pose. I look up and the thing looking back at me in the mirror is … an Eskimo. I close my eyes and focus on Eskimos, who have another name now, and I wonder if they struggle with HIV in that community. Then my phone beeps—it’s a text message from my beloved Henry: U R Not an Eskimo!
12:38 a.m. I should sleep. (Three more readings this week.) But I keep thinking about the time Henry “proposed” to me at Capital Grille, that solemn look on his face as he lowered himself to one knee and handed me an embossed envelope. His note said: “U R Not an Eskimo.” What did it mean? I felt confused and misled. Ana never had anyone propose to her. She was beaten and abused by her grandfather and left to fend for herself. Her boyfriend “proposed” that they have sex (I guess). But then he gave her the HIV virus. And now she lives her brave doomed life. So much pain! So much suffering! I need to eat something.
I awaken, in the gauzy dawn, with a stone atop my hope.
I awaken, in the hazy dawn, with a burden in my breast.
I awaken, in the gazy dawn, burdened, my hope a stone.
The dawn awakens gauzy and I am stoned by burden.
And what of Buenos Aires? Those long nights of riotous celebration? The air vibrating its ancient disco and smoke, the glittering stink of the Río de la Plata moonlit below our balcony. Was Ana waiting for me then, also, with her poisoned blood, while I filled my throat with liquor and honey under the glaring lanterns and let boys touch me with their rough thumbs?
Bottoms drops me off at the hotel. I call Henry and read to him from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“I love thee to the level of everyday’s / Most quiet need …”). He pants like a rogue. “Remember Stowe?” he says. “The Jacuzzi?” There is something tender in his voice. He asks what I’m wearing.
Idea for my next book. Young-adult novel about a princess and a puma who fall in love. Set in the ancient times. The princess thinks she’s ugly, but the puma loves her, and they buy a boat and travel the high seas and eat guacamole all day.
More notes for the new novel: The puma has a Southern accent, and the princess believes she’s an Eskimo (is she or not?). Her father is a powerful king. He is worried about his legacy, so won’t let his daughter marry a puma. (The narrative obstacle!) Also: the Eskimo princess has a twin sister and they communicate via ESP. The princess contracts a fatal sickness from the thorn of a poisonous rose. She and the puma set sail looking for the cure. (Verisimilitude problem: guacamole would spoil. Solution: sushi.)
Another hospital visit. Here is misfortune gathered in the shiny robes of public relation, little faces of courageous death. I lay my giant hand on their shoulders, one after another, the brittle, yearning scapulas. They confess to me the dreams they have prepared for a month—to play football, to dance at the prom—then, like soldiers, we smile for the flash.
Someone told me Soledad O’Brien is 41. No way.
On hotel rooms: Suppose they contain just a little bit of the souls of the people who pass through them, like a fingernail of their souls, and that time, changing of the days, acts as the clipper. And the carpet, or perhaps the bedspread, is the place where the clippings of soul gather. Would that explain the vaporous anguish in which I toss?
Once, when we were just girls, Barbara and I undressed and explored the folds of our girlhood. This was in Crawford, beneath the famous brush, where Daddy went to pour his sadness into heavy tumblers. I touched a spot that made me twinge and stifled a giggle. Barbara regarded me with her cautious, feline curiosity. My fingertips smelled of the ocean. I thought of my mother in her fortress of books, a dead body on her conscience. The soft clench of her jaw. I touched again, harder.
And where the Guatemala of my room-service dreams? The papery skin of the curanderas? The brooms of healing herb and shanks of goat? The tiny turquoise homes of Champerico and Zacapa? The birds of Puerto Barrios? Where is Ana? In the narrow white bed of the clínica? Walking the rotting path to Quetzaltenango? Does she weep only in darkness, as her daughter plays on the floor below, making a death rattle of her bottled pills? What have I done with my life, Jesus? Tell me. Will the poor testify on my behalf now, or ever?
Snowfall on another tarmac. The buildings look like ornate cakes. Only Bottoms remains. In the limo, I ask him about despair: is it fate or a kind of sickness? But Bottoms never speaks. His face is a pale blade. For a moment, I want to pound his chest, rip his heart free, lick the blood clean. Instead, I sleep away the day. Later, the lights come on. An audience assembles before me. I open the book of my life. Is there no one so happy as I am?