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Vol. 4, No. 3

Properties of the Body
by Jason Coleman

It was their fourth day in Amsterdam, and she still refused to leave the hotel room. Scott sat on the edge of her bed, next to all the magazines she'd bought at the airport in Phoenix and reread dozens of times. Her used tissues littered the floor. His voice was gentle. He was trying to be patient. "Bev," he said calmly, "has this ever happened to you before? Before you met me, I mean—have you ever been afraid to leave your room?'
    She shook her head.
    He never dreamed he'd have to ask anyone such a thing. It was a newlywed's question: there was still a lot he didn't know about her.
    "Do you think you could at least go downstairs with me? Do you think you could eat something?"
    She had no immediate response to this. She should have looked pitiful, but her natural beauty was laid on in thick coats that didn't crack, even in her worst moments.
    "I'm still not feeling well," she finally said, and got up. He watched her go into the bathroom. From behind the door he heard the sound of running water: she always turned on the tap when she was in the bathroom.
    When she came out, he knew, the conversation would turn to her physical complaints. Had it been a specific ailment—appendicitis, say, or mercury poisoning—they could have picked the proper course of action and laid it to rest. But it was a vague mixture of symptoms—headaches, some nausea, fatigue—and, thus, open to endless discussion. Three, four times a day she offered it up for conversation, and they laid into it like two mad scientists.
    The intricacies of her condition fascinated her far more than any mere city ever could. Amsterdam was nothing compared to the grand architecture of her unwellness.
    He collected her tissues, stuffed them in his pocket. With Beverly a constant presence, the maid couldn't get in to clean, and their room was going to seed. Used towels lay in heaps; empty Coke cans stood on the bureau, on the windowsill. The wastebasket spilled over. Their beds—which, at the beginning of the week, had felt like cotton fortresses—had gone thin and slack in the sheets and begun to feel like old newspaper. Hotel beds, Scott was discovering, had no stamina.
    He had begun to see their hotel room almost as a living thing—as a body that was trying to reject Beverly like a virus or a transplanted organ. Failing this, the room was dying before his eyes.
    He glanced out the window at the costly view. It was still morning, but he sensed another day collapsing on him. The water continued behind the closed bathroom door. Waiting, he picked up one of her magazines. On the cover: Ten Secrets of Beauty—The Things You Never Knew.

 

~

She would not have sexual intercourse with him until a minister pronounced them married under the eyes of God and the State of Arizona. On this she was firm. Their discussions on the matter were brief and focused, as if bound by mathematical law. She called it that, "sexual intercourse." The term always deflated him; it suggested something dry, complex. Something requiring the presence of an attorney, or an anesthesiologist. But Scott, who had his own word for it, could not continue much longer without it. And so, knowing he was beat, he married her.
    She was, naturally, a beautiful bride. First, his own eyes registered this as a simple act. And then people said so—literally told him, "Beverly is such a beautiful bride"—whispered it, as though they were warning him of something. Even people he didn't know, men and women, came up to him and, without introducing themselves, said, "Lovely girl you've got there." Said to him, "You're very lucky."
    Like most great beauties, she narrowly missed homeliness. Her eyes were almost too large, her nose almost too long. Almost. He could see the same features going unchecked in the rest of her family, in whom these traits raced to their natural conclusions. Beverly's father had eyes so large, you could imagine goldfish swimming in them.
    She flirted with fatness but just avoided it, and was ripe and full. She moved across the wedding hall, a great white float—a fistful of wedding dress in each hand—not so much walking as advancing. She threw her bouquet over her shoulder, and hands up into the air. When she pulled up her skirt so he could remove her garter, the sight of her bare leg was so striking, it was as if a small wild animal had entered the hall. He noticed a sudden quiet as he worked the garter down her leg, and when he looked up he saw a round of blank, concentrated faces on the crowd of bachelors. He fired the garter into the air; it lay on the floor for a full second before the men collected themselves and raced after it.
    A gray-haired man—married, too old to be chasing garters—leaned over to Scott and said, "You have a beautiful wife."
    Wife, not bride. So wife it was now.
    "You don't know me." He smiled, stuck out his hand to shake. "I'm Bobby Gragg. I worked with your father for twenty years at Belton Cheney. That's my wife over there"—he pointed—"and those are our daughters, Pam and Lois." They were speaking with the bride. Scott studied the broad white image of her. She looked huge. Which she wasn't; but as she stood there, talking to Pam and Lois Gragg, it was easy to believe that the other two women had crept out from under her skirt—that they all had, in fact, everyone here.
    He ached to get her home.
    Outside they threw birdseed instead of rice. Rice, the wedding director had explained, would explode in a sparrow's stomach.

 

~

At his home that night—not yet their home, not quite—she kept him waiting. She was a long time in the bathroom, then on the phone with her parents. Then with her sister. Another session in the bathroom; he listened too the tap running. It was very late when she finally got into bed. Her nightgown was thick, long-sleeved. She was cold, she said.
    He touched her, then very gradually, like a tide moving in, enwrapped her. He'd had no idea he could move so slowly. A hidden talent.
    He listened to her wedding dinner trickle down through her. He could hear it so clearly, he could almost see it, and he wondered if, inside, she was as perfect as she was outside. She lay very still. Wonderful, shattering thoughts visited him.
    Then he noticed a certain rhythm in her breathing. He spoke her name in the dark, but received no answer. This was not poise; it was sleep.
    Presently a small snore began to develop. It started as a periodic sigh. Then it built, gathered force, cultivated itself into a great, gaping sound. As if she'd been waiting to do it all day.
    He moved into the living room, tried to read. Whole sentences failed to stick to his mind, so he picked up a book of baby names—15,000 suggestions, with origins and variations. He had once looked up her name and found that it was Anglican and meant "beaver field." She didn't enjoy this, not even as joke, and he decided against informing her that it was originally a man's name.
    He finally fell asleep in his chair, the names of 15,000 unborn children troubling his dreams. He woke up at dawn, with the lights still on.

 

~

A few hours later they were on the airplane. Her parents saw them off. He had the window seat; she got up a lot and wanted the aisle. He had to glance sideways to see her. On the cheek facing him was the red imprint of her mother's kiss, the lips slightly parted, as if they were about to speak. The airplane cabin produced its loud non-sound, and Scott wondered if, on the return flight, he would be able to tell the plane was pointed in the opposite direction.
    Hours passed. Beverly fell asleep over Greenland.
    A pen fell from her hand; a notebook lay open on her lap. There was no writing, only an elaborate doodle at the top of the page: a circle of stars enclosed a smaller circle of alternating black and white balls, which in turn enclosed a slender rectangle whose sides waved like water and inside of which lay the scribbled-over writing out of which the whole drawing radiated and which, before being crossed out, had read: "Things To Do In Amsterdam."

 

~

They flew with the spin of the earth and missed an entire night. It was morning when they arrived. Their room wasn't yet ready, so they left their bags with the desk clerk and walked through the city. Though summer, it was cool; the sun was white in a gray sky, and objects cast pale, bloodless shadows.
    The streets were narrow, the blocks like broom closets, but through a slice of sky Beverly spotted a church steeple, and they made for it.
    They rounded a corner. "Christmas lights," Beverly said, delighted. Scott looked away from her and saw that a line of red lights was indeed strung up in a row of trees running along the canal. "Oh, there it is, Scott." The church was built of the same gray stone that, carved up in blocks, was fitted into its walkways, so that the whole structure seemed to have grown straight out of the ground. Beverly found a plaque near the entrance; she bent her head down and began reading out loud: "The cornerstone of the Oude Kerk was laid in—"
    Scott's gaze drifted upward and came to rest on a woman standing at a window. She noticed him watching, smiled, and stepped out of her robe. The first thought that entered his head, once he realized that the woman was naked, was if she were warm enough. All around him the air was cold. Then he realized that it was warm where she was, and at the thought of that warmth something tightened in his throat and he understood what he was looking at.
    Beverly read: "The Oude Kerk, literally Old Church, did what no other house of worship in Amsterdam would do—welcome the ladies of the night into its congregation." The letters were raised bronze; Beverly's fingers brushed across them as she read, but lifted at the second clause and drifted to her scarf.
    It had arrived like that moment in a Western, when the settlers realize they've been surrounded b y Indians all along. They were being watched from dozens of windows, all framed by red neon tubing, deadened in the daylight. The glass was exceedingly clean. From behind it, women beckoned to Scott—some fervently, as if a long-distance phone call awaited him inside. And, though it brought him no pleasure, he could not take his eyes away.
    For the women looked at him as if they knew him. As if they knew that he had spent his wedding night in the living room. They saw all the way to Phoenix, saw him sleeping in a chair. Saw the cuffs of his new bride's nightgown hugging her wrists as she slept, saw the hem that reached to her ankles. And the little card with the hotel room diagram that the desk clerk had shown them just this morning, Beverly looking at the twin beds and asking him which one he wanted—the one by the window or the one nearest the bathroom? Because she may have to get up in the night.
    Beverly took his arm and moved on, drawing her coat closer. Her pace quickened, as if she felt a downpour coming. On every corner they began noticing sex shops, the windows displaying pictures so anatomically explicit they suggested something more surgical than sexual.
    And the Americans had not yet even had their breakfast.
    She said she wasn't feeling well, and he guided her back to the hotel. She looked at the buildings' heights, painfully, the way you'd look at the sun. Inside the lobby she needed aspirin and went off to the hotel's gift shop. Scott took a seat in a leather chair facing two businessmen. One of the men glanced at Beverly heading into the shop and nudged his partner, who also looked. His bottom lip swallowed the upper as he nodded. "Die vrouw heeft Ôn lekkere volle kont," he commented.
    The first man grinned. He turned to Scott: "Do you know what he just said about your girlfriend?" The other man frowned, turned to his newspaper. "He said she has a sweet fat ass."
    That afternoon, as they slept off their flight in parallel beds, he dreamt of his wedding, the guests taking him aside one by one and repeating the Dutchman's words.

Scott dug the used tissues—damp, stiff with snot—from his pocket and dropped them in the wastebasket just outside the dining room. For the third morning in a row, he ate alone.
    He tried to work on his postcards, but they were as tough as algebra. He wrote without pronouns, to cover Beverly's absence. "Went to the Rijksmuseum." ""Ate raw herring. Good!" Always mentioned how nice the room was. What could Beverly be writing in hers? He wondered how their postcards might be received back home. Like the wrong color smoke floating out of the Vatican.
    He couldn't tell them that Beverly stayed in all day, and at night retreated to her own bed—said she was exhausted, mouthed "good night" to him from across the room. Hid in her illness. He lay in bed, monitoring her sleep. Studied the rise and fall of her hip. He thought of pulling her blanket away, an inch at a time, but knew her eyes would snap open on him. Instead, he lay awake, and in his mind Beverly said things she'd never said in life. Did things.
    When he was done with his breakfast, he made a second tray of food, to take upstairs. The first morning he'd done this, he had actually asked permission. "Can I take food out of the dining room? It's for my wife," he asked the first hotel employee he saw—the hotel detective—who looked up from his coffee and told Scott in perfect English that he really didn't care where he took it.
    The desk clerk noticed him on his way up. He looked soberly at the tray of provisions and told Scott he didn't have to take it up himself—that the hotel paid people to do that sort of thing. Scott smiled, shook his head—held up one hand, international symbol for Everything's under control.
    When he reached their floor, he saw the maid's trolley parked outside a vacated room. The door stood wide open like the mouth of a dental patient. His step grew slower: he wanted to avoid the maid. She had taken her shutout as an insult; he often sensed her lurking in the corridor like a jilted lover. When he passed the room the maid's back was to him and she had the vacuum going. She eased it back in forth across the carpet in broad even strokes that never covered the same ground.
    When he reached his room, he could hear the television through the door: ""By unhinging his jaw," a voice said, "the snake can open his mouth wide enough to swallow the egg whole. A special bone in the back of the throat fractures the shell, which is then expelled in one swift motion." Down the hall the sound of the vacuum cleaner snapped off.
    When he opened the door he sensed a sudden humidity, which he took for shower steam, and observed two things he had never seen before—a snake swallowing an egg and, near the full-length mirror, Beverly naked.
    Her finger grazed her throat; here eyes were fixed and calm. She was studying her reflection.
    "Beverly," he said. In a different century he might have sung it.
    When she saw him looking at her, she took a sweatshirt from the bed and held it up to her chest. Her bare hips were visible at the shirt's edges; in the mirror he could see the reflection of her tensed shoulders and buttocks. The sweatshirt was from an old ski trip, and read GO FOR IT!
    "I'll be done in a minute," she said, not taking her eyes off him.
    When she didn't move, he knew what she meant.
    She wanted him to leave. And he did—he couldn't stay, Beverly's stare forced him out. But he left talking. He told her she'd have to give all the wedding presents back, left her with words like "unconsummated" and "annulment," words that he couldn't even spell, that felt hot in his own ears as he closed the door and felt as foreign in his mouth as "sexual intercourse."

 

~

He didn't know how to return to her. He patrolled the city; filled up with regret at every sight. By nightfall, he sat at an outdoor cafŽ, drinking beer brewed by Trappist monks.
    A candle burned at each table. He shared the space with other bodies, people who cleaned their plates, pushed them away, and, shifting their weight, rolled their own cigarettes, twirling them over the open mouths of the candle holders' glass chimneys till they caught fire. They exhaled, and clouds of smoke passed through them. How could their lungs hold so much? He was getting used to such thoughts: his mind was filled with the properties of the body.
    The sight of Beverly without clothes, watching herself in the mirror, was still settling in him. He realized that, before that moment, he hadn't fully comprehended that Beverly could even be naked—hadn't quite believed it, in the same way that we can't believe that we will die one day. He found himself imagining her just before he'd opened the door, and just after he'd left. These thoughts were breaking off from the greater mass of his feelings and entering an orbit all their own.
    Buzzing hard, he authored a dozen postcards in which Beverly magically rose out of herself. "She's having a wonderful time. Glad we came!" It was what they wanted to hear. It was what he most wanted—was what they all wanted. Couldn't she see she was outnumbered?
    The crowds thinned. The waiters blew out candles, began moving tables inside. They stacked chairs and chained them together. Scott finally left when he noticed them standing at the bar with their arms crossed, staring at him. He finished writing. "Beverly found a little cafŽ."
    The city grew stark with moonlight and shadow. He saw two teenagers of undetermined gender necking in a phone booth. A car with German plates sped by, in reverse. Back in Phoenix, his electric lawn sprinkler would be starting up right about now.
    Not far from his hotel he found a red postbox. He took out his postcards and fed them into the slot like he was stuffing a ballot box.

 

~

When he opened the door of his room, the moon was so bright he thought a light must be on. His eyes found no color, but outlines and surfaces stood out, and he saw quite clearly that the room had been cleaned.
    More than clean, it looked vacated. He wondered for a moment if the wedding had really happened. Then he heard her speak.
    "Where were you all this time?"
    A shadow lay across her bed. He could just make out her form, sitting up.
    He shrugged. "Amsterdam."
    He went into the bathroom—the towels were off the floor now, the door swung open easily—and drew a glass of water. His path back was clear; nothing on the floor but the carpet that covered it, He set the glass down on the table next to his bed. No more used tissues, Coke cans all gone. Beverly in the corner of his eye. Still sitting up, watching him.
    His clothes still smelled of cigarette smoke; even his shoes smelled of smoke. His blood felt like sour milk in his veins, and when he shut his eyes the bed commenced a slow, dull spin. He could have passed out in his clothes, but he felt the bed tip with her weight. He opened his eyes and saw her sitting on the edge of the bed. She watched her own hands lying limp in her lap, and he watched them with her.
    "You cleaned the room," he said.
    "The maid. I asked her."
    "What'd you do all day...?"
    "I was on the phone. My mother." She laughed, once, but it was mirthless and sounded like someone blowing out a match. "She said you were right."
    "About what?"
    She stared at him.
    "She said you were right about the wedding presents."
    Not since they'd been married had she looked so hard at him. He thought she was going to hit him; he even sensed a tingle rise to his face, anticipating where the blow would come. But instead, she raised her nightgown over her head. The air shrank around him as he witnessed it.
    Moonlight glowed in the hollows under her arms with a larval paleness. She brought her arms down and held them close, as if through sheer posture she could be less naked. He wondered how long ago she had made the decision, how many hours she'd been waiting to do this. There was no expression on her face. What she must have looked like when she let the maid in, he thought. What she must have looked like when she got off the phone. He realized, joylessly, that he could do anything he wanted. The fact presented itself almost palpably, like a third person in the room.
    There was still a chill in the air; when he touched her, her skin was cool. He held her breast—calmly, the way you'd feel a sick child's forehead. It lay in his palm with a dumb, simple heft, and he felt he could have stood up and carried it away with him, as easily as he might have carried off that glass of water standing on the table.
    She didn't move, didn't touch him. But she would; there was no other way it could be. Later, and for the rest of their trip, she would stay close to him—sharing his twin bed, reaching for his hand across dining tables, in the backs of cabs, almost until he was embarrassed—presenting something new and strange to him, something residing in her weight, in her smell, in the air she exhaled. He would find he no longer knew if she was beautiful, ugly, what. But she would remain close. So close, in fact, that sometimes he wanted to get away. He would wake up in the middle of the night with her pressing against his back, his arm dangling from the bed, his knuckles meeting the floor's hardness. As he crept from the bed, he would glance back at her form, and he would find in the dark that he was unable to remember exactly what she looked like.
    But for now, he watched her fold her nightgown and place it under the pillow. Something—a breast, an elbow—brushed against him. She sat up straight. "What do you want me to do?" she asked.
    "Help me," he answered, for he was so weary he doubted he could get his own clothes off.

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