You are down in Mexico on a pity holiday. Someone’s brother’s parent’s who were fearful of travel, rumors of drug wars and swine flu, left an empty villa with no one to fill it. But you. Poor you. The house has wide arches and open rooms and the mosquitoes are voracious. You ran out of repellent two days ago and are covered in red welts. You are afraid of Mexico. You would never admit this to anyone. Your recently ex-boyfriend was a world traveler and he would have snorted in disgust. You fear the darkness of the land and the way the people look through your blue eyes as if there were nothing behind them. You fear the overripe mangos bursting from their skins, oozing sticky sweetness. You fear the dogs with their raw mangy skin and drooping teats.
You can’t make yourself walk outside the front door. You can’t face the rotting and deterioration on the streets and the knowledge of it in the people’s eyes, the apathetic acceptance of it all.
You had stopped answering the door. Usually it’s someone selling interior car fresheners in the shape of bananas or small religious icons made of bendable plastic. Two days ago it was a woman selling Virgin Mary pens that lit up like flashlights. When the electricity went out that night you suspected you were being disciplined and regretted shutting the door in her face.
Yesterday you made list of lovers you’ve never had. A rockstar, a celebrity, a fireman and most important of all, a lover named Jesus. Being the black sheep of a Catholic family puts the Jesus lover at the top of your list. So when the doorbell rings and you tentatively open the door to find a man standing two feet from you, grinning and saying, ‘I am Jesus’, you think it is a joke.
But the Jesus standing in front of you can’t be a joke. You haven’t left the house in over a week and no one has been inside to read your list of lovers. It’s hot in Mexico, smothering hot and you spend a lot of the day on your back next to the pool watching clouds blow by at such alarming speeds they make you spin. At first most of the clouds look like fire breathing dragons or cherubs from hell, but by the time they pass over, they have metamorphosed into Lady Gaga in one of her desperate outfits or Johnny Depp in drag, which makes you wince.
The knock on your door had been persistent and you thought you recognized a tune in the beat, Ave Maria, and although you are no longer religious, the coincidence of religious happenings still thrill you. When the cheese sandwich, with the imprint of the Virgin Mary, appeared for sale on E-bay, you bid on it until the price exceeded your bank account. It sold for twenty-eight thousand dollars and the new owners promised the sandwich would go on tour. You’re still waiting.
And so you opened the door and now stand looking into the black eyes of a small dark man.
‘I am Jesus,’ he repeats.
Your head feels light and no words come out of your mouth.
‘I am early.’
You shake your head sadly. ‘Maybe you are too late.’
His thick lashes cast a shadow onto the tops of his cheeks. ‘We have una cita,’ he says.
‘I am the man of the pool.’ His face is smooth, expressionless, wiped clean from centuries of practice.
‘Oh,’ you smile in relief. Your face stretches, you haven’t smiled in two weeks. ‘Yes, come in.’
The pool is not set in the ground the traditional way. It’s built partially above ground so that when you stand in it you are about three feet above ground. A white bottomed basin full of sky blue water. When you float in the center, you feel as though you are drowning in the sky. However, due to your neglect, the pool is now teaming with brilliant emerald green algae.
Jesus arranges an assortment of brushes and containers. Then he cleans a broom with chlorine and brushes the sides of the pool by sweeping them with firm downward stokes, in one direction, as though they are giant teeth. His shirt begins to cling to his back and he unbuttons it and carefully hangs it on a nail on the wall you have never noticed. His body is brown and compact. He is perfectly proportioned, but small compared to the long, pale men you know. His muscles are round and smooth, not angular like the gym rats of America.
The pool turns an opaque green. You can no longer see the drain at the bottom. Jesus brushes away, his skin gleaming and a sweat mark at the base of his spine appears on his pants. You imagine him 1200 years ago as a slave, building the Mayan ruins. Then you see him as a ruler with a loincloth and leather sandals that wrap around his legs that you know are not chicken skinny, but sturdy and solid.
‘How long you will stay?’ he asks.
‘I don’t know.’
The thought of returning to your life makes you shiver. Your failure has made you fearful. A week ago your assistant director found you huddled at your local Manhattan bar, tears dripping into your whiskey sour. She arranged for this house in Mexico. She paid for the ticket with your credit card. You have noticed there are no sharp knives in the kitchen. You are not suicidal, but you wish you were. This morning you stood in front of the mirror with a razor but were not compelled to push the blade into your wrist. Instead you scraped off a few blue flakes from around the mirror rim.
Sean, your boyfriend of seven years, told you all along that your movie was a losing proposal. He was livid when he found out how much of your joint money you had invested into your project. He moved out. Took the parrot and his cashmere robe. He’s an accountant and never understood lifelong dreams. You were born with this need to visualize the images in your head. You have had many ideas, but none as brilliant as this one, you would have sold your baby sister to fulfill your dream – you basically did…
It’s been described as giving birth, but it’s not. It’s so much more. You take the seed of an idea, expand it into a skeleton, break it into scenes, flesh them out, create characters that contradict, so they are human, yet are hero enough to inspire awe. You vacillated over the end – a Hollywood sunset or kill them all off.
Of course you wanted to direct it, you wrote it, who better to realize your goal? But no studio would give you, a first time director, money so you found your own. You wheedled and cajoled your family and friends and convinced them of the films genius. You filled their heads with images of Cannes and Sundance and their names in lights. They wrote you checks and transferred money into your bank account.
You heard from your hairdresser that Troy, the younger brother of his much more famous sister, was bartending down the street and he wanted to be an actor. Suddenly you had a well known name in your movie. At this point the project snowballed, locations, casting, wardrobe, rehearsals. Adrenaline was pumping and everyone was sure this was the next Juno. Now it’s you and your bad reviews and an empty bed.
It starts to rain. There is a crack of thunder over your head and a lightening bolt illuminates the sky. You run away from the pool and stand under the terrace roof. You remember the lesson regarding lightening and bodies of water. Jesus ignores the storm and continues cleaning the pool. He has no fear.
You don’t sleep at night thinking of the return of Jesus. You practice sentences in Spanish that you will say to him. ‘How can I keep the blue sky in my pool? Why do the clouds move so quickly here?’
The next morning you get up early and wash your hair. You use the special fruit enzyme shampoo you found hidden under the bathroom sink. It smells so fresh your stomach growls and you crave a juicy mandarin. You are nearly out of food and have resorted to eating the owners stash in the cupboard with the note ‘do not eat.’ You shave your legs several times over, slowly pulling the razor along your skin, fingertips running behind until you are as smooth as a glass bowl.
The one thing you dreaded touched off a myriad of fears…an avalanche of insecurities. The end of the shoot was the worst. You became family with your director of photography, your editor, your second assistant director, even the makeup girl and costume woman were like cousins. You saw each other every day and struggled through the hours. You laughed at ridiculous dialogue that came out of the actor’s mouths and scenes with stray dogs running through. Then it ended and everyone left with high hopes and kisses.
You hate the sunsets here. Your throat tightens when an orange hue infuses the air and everything become drenched in a heavy auburn wash so thick you could gag. Your skin is bronzed and healthy, your hair sun-streaked, yet inside you are feverish and trembling. So weak.
“Unimaginatively shot,” “non sympathetic lead,” “wandering plot,” “a plot so simple, it lost its way.” That last one from an ex-boyfriend.
It’s three days before Jesus returns. By then you have forgotten your Spanish phrases and your hair no longer smells of oranges. Last night you gnawed on raw strands of spaghetti and drank seven shots of tequila. You put on your darkest sunglasses before answering the door and look away, sure that he will know that you have been dreaming of him.
You stand to the side of the pool and watch Jesus unravel the hose and turn on the spigot to replace the several inches of water that the pool vacuum has sucked out. The hose hooks on a planter and you run to unwind it before it knocks over the planter and displaces the bougainvillea. You give it a strong tug and hear a splash behind you. You turn to see Jesus swimming to the surface. He whips his hair out of his face and looks at you.
I am so sorry, you say.
You stand at the edge of the pool aware that he can see up your skirt. You crouch down, pushing the fabric between your legs and offer him your hand. He puts out his hand and when your hands are locked a devilish smile traipses across his face and with a big yank, you are tumbling into the pool. You come up choking and his mask is back on.
I didn’t mean to do that, he says.
We stand apart and stare at each other. You wonder if you should be afraid of Jesus. He is your height, but seems smaller, more compact. You know this is deceptive and men are stronger. You can remember the last time in your life when you were able to physically beat a boy. You were twelve years old and Mr. Greene took your class on a field trip to the Pinnacles, a small mountain outcrop with geological significance. The path to the top wound around promontories and beside cacti.
“First one to the top gets a milkshake on the way back,’ Mr. Greene said.
And we were off. There were several of us who ran track. Back then it was boys and girls on the same team. The group started off in a great puff of red dust. The day was hot and growing hotter. After fifteen minutes most of the group slowed down to a walk, talking and joking and teasing each other with cruel preteen insouciance.
Six of us, three girls and three boys headed up the mountain with determination. Soon the girls and one of the boys dropped back. It was only you and Randy Batterman and Jeff Davis. You kept ahead of them by a small lead. Every time they would get close to you, you took off up the hill. They taunted you. The insults started out tame and progressed into threats. But you ran ahead, slowed down, then raced off again when they began to near. It was a game of catch-me-if-you-can trapped between adolescence and adulthood.
You won. You reached the peak first. It wasn’t about the milkshake and Randy and Jeff knew it. The three of you stood panting, faces pulsing red, overlooking the valley. Far below you could hear the voices of the others. Randy put his hands on his hips and leaned over as if he were going to be sick.
“If you were a guy, I’d beat the shit out of you.’
You didn’t say anything, you gazed down at the dry slope and stomped the dust off your sneakers. That was the last time.
Jesus, you ask him. Can you walk on water?
I can do anything.
Walk on water.
He nods and gets out of the pool. He launches himself off the edge and moves his feet slowly while he is in the air, as if is walking. For a moment, it works, he walks on the water, then he drops like a rock into the water. His eyes and hair are so black you can’t see anything beyond them.
Now you do something, he says.
I don’t do virgin births.
Don’t joke about the virgin. He is serious. He holds out his left hand. I want you to heal me, he says.
The tip of his middle finger is missing. Cut off right at the joint. He steps close to you, takes your hand and inspects it. Turns it over and traces along the fingers. His hands are rough with small tapered fingers. They are beautiful hands and yours look unearthly long and white between his two dark ones. His touch is gentle, reverent and he seems to forget what he is doing, lost in the length of your fingers.
You stare at each other and you see something else in his eyes, something that you know, but can’t place. He drops your hand and steps back. You lean toward him trying to decipher the look in his eyes and then it comes to you … behind the desire you see another emotion raging – fear. He is afraid of your pale skin, your see-thru eyes, your fragile limbs. He is afraid of your eight lane freeways, your supermalls and two hundred dollar jeans. He is as afraid of you as you are of him.
Your brain clicks into action and projects several endings to this awkward scene: A lightening bolt streaks down and strikes him dead leaving you sobbing for unrequited love or he blinks, removes the fear from his eyes and takes you by the shoulders and kisses you fiercely or he simply turns, packs up his equipment and leaves …
Laureen Vonnegut is an American writer living between Romania and Mexico. Her novel, OASIS, was launched in New York by literary press Counterpoint/Perseus Books. Last year her newest novel, TWIN LIES, was published by Skorpion Press and is read in book clubs from Alaska to Romania.