Corinne was married once. When she lived in Seattle. When she cut her hair so short scars showed up on her scalp like pencil shavings. One afternoon her husband came home drenched in salmon-coloured paint and told her he’d been laid off from his job at the renovation company. She was seven-months pregnant. She covered her mouth and nose with her hand. Outside of Eugene, Oregon, up a hill by some hot springs, she had the baby. Danny was tripping on mushrooms when her water broke and one girl went to find him while another spread newspapers on the floor of a broken-down school bus. Something went wrong. She drifted into darkness and woke to a black silk dress, a hat that her mother made her wear. A coffin so small and shiny it looked like a wooden box for holding photographs. Danny in the doorway. Face ashen. Hand tight around Corinne’s shoulder. Holding on.
Our hotel room looks down on an overgrown park where teenagers meet for dates, kiss awkwardly at dusk. In the distance, the volcano smokes. William’s monkey sits on the dresser, chewing wands of sugar cane, its red leash trailing down to the dirty tiles. You have to be careful with it, Corinne tells me, as if I’m concerned about the monkey at all, as if we have a relationship. It turns nuts over in its tiny hands and drops papaya seeds onto the floor, the sound like far-off fire crackers, like that all-night dance party we went to a month ago in Argentina where she and some Czech guy got together. When she woke, the sun was glowing through the grape-leaves and her jeans were soaked with mud. As she climbed into the top bunk at the hostel, I was shaken awake. Hey, I whispered, but she didn’t answer. Just rotated toward the cement-block wall and stayed like that until morning wore away.
Corinne and William met the third night we were in town. We were switching hotels because we kept coming back after midnight and the owner would tell us off when he unlocked the door. William was watching TV in the lobby of our new place and laughed along with the other men when Corinne confused the word key for ham. He had these dark eyes, this black hair. I was standing behind Corinne, but I could still see her blush, the colour spreading across the back of her neck.
A blue scarf on the doorknob is our signal.
I’ve been to the hot baths three times, hiked into the foothills with a Russian girl, even gone down to the river with two teenagers from Brazil, dragging my fingers through the soft ash as they talk in Portuguese. I’ve asked her to come with me but she doesn’t. She buys fruit at the market. Flies crowd around the green and red rinds in our garbage can. She goes to William’s family home for meals. The first time, his mother touched her sixteen times. She counted. We have been here a week and I am ready to go to the coast but Corinne won’t leave. She stays in the hotel room or sits in the park reading an English novel she found in a bookstore in Quito. Her skin is pale. The monkey climbs around the room as if looking for a way out. I don’t like when it walks on my bed but she doesn’t do anything. It is like that here: all these abandoned creatures poking their noses against you, prodding your hands open for food. Stray dogs, even an orphan, a little boy who lives off scraps, bits of chicken and rice given by local families and the occasional dinner bought by tourists he’s learned how to charm. By now we are known in this town. It is almost empty. Most people left when the volcano erupted three weeks ago and some came back to protect their property from looters. Banners and signs mark the evacuation route and the ancient frescoes in the basilica show scenes of dark orange lava flowing beneath angels floating barefoot in the sky. Sunlight stings my eyes when I leave the dark church. I go to a French restaurant recommended by my guidebook and eat fish with stewed tomatoes and look at my watch, waiting for evening.
I don’t mind being alone. But not in foreign places where I don’t know the language. It’s like I’m carrying a small glass bowl I often drop and catch right before it shatters. Like a superhero. Saving the day. Scooping it out of the air moments before it hits the pavement. But rather than feeling victorious, I’m shaky. Like even though it didn’t break, there’s a crack. Something leaking out.
William is around all the time now. Corinne looks after his pet monkey like it’s also hers, as if they share custody. Soft and grey, it sits in her arms like a slip of something else. That much is obvious. Everyone knows that. Even Corinne’s mother, who has become friends with mine and ends up with the phone in her hand when I call home. I tell them things they’d want to hear – humongous papayas, groundhogs grilling on spits in the street, all the beautiful waterfalls.
A monkey, Ellie says. CBC in the background. Coffee mugs cracking on the new granite counter-top. Well, maybe that’s good for her.
She likes it enough, I reply.
As long as she doesn’t try to bring it home.
Of course not, I say. William and the volcano go unmentioned.
At night, I dream about Thomas. The last time I saw him was in the fall in Toronto, at the end of an ice storm. Fish-tailing down a side street while I cried in the passenger’s seat of his car. It was all too complicated, he said. It’s wearing me down..
Like I was a hard thing. Rough and abrasive. Rubbing away his skin.
On the plane back to Vancouver, I flew from dusk into bright daylight and my nose kept pinching like I was breathing fumes from a solvent. I visualized him getting smaller and smaller, swirling down the drain. After midnight, my mother picked me up at the airport and I announced that I’d be travelling soon. Bigger places, I meant. Not Canada.
In one of my dreams we’re at a restaurant. Thomas at the head of the table, holding the hand of another woman. Birds are stuffed in the bronze and black coffee thermos and the patrons eat them by biting off their heads. The waitress ignores me. There’s also something about the volcano. A flood of lava. Disintegrating glass. But I can’t quite remember that part.
Tonight is the opening of William’s uncle’s bar. When I get back from the restaurant, Corinne is putting on make-up. Her black eyes widen in the mirror as she coats her lashes with dark brown mascara. Down below, the kids gather to couple up and walk a few circles around town before ending up back at the park. Corinne takes a cigarette out of my pack and shakes it. The filters rattle but we’ve never cut them open to see what’s inside. I light one and toss the pack of matches onto her bed.
William, she says, as the small fire flares, asked me to marry him.
An explosion of smoke when I laugh. I wave a hand in front of my face and push the window open and sit on the sill. The street band is playing. They play every day. Usually I don’t hear them anymore.
He did, she says.
I don’t doubt it, I reply.
We stare at each other. Ants crawl over the sticky floor. Our room smells like urine and decaying earth. The mushroom smell of sex; something slowly rooting.
I’m sure you’ll be very happy, I say.
You don’t have to be like that.
She pushes one shoe off with her toes and then the other and sits cross-legged on the bed. Loose threads loop like miniature mountain ranges and she plucks at them, pulling them out.
Did the army loot his house? I ask. She taps the ashes onto the floor. Don’t do that.
What? she says. They clean. They’ll clean tonight.
Only if we ask them.
Don’t you think we should?
I look at her. As if I am the messy one. As if it is me devouring fruit, shedding hair, dropping my dirty underwear all over the place.
Most of the cobblestone roads in this town end at dirt paths that snake up into the mountains. There’s an artist who hikes down and spreads his paintings on a wool blanket for tourists to buy. Scenes on stretched-skin canvases of peasants in traditional hats and ponchos, some holding curved scythes. The sky on each is a different colour. Mustard yellow. Aqua blue. A menacing red-pink, dark as blood above the flat-topped volcano. The paint is hard, like nail polish. I’ve purchased two of them. One to remember the place by, the other for Corinne.
Corinne had been friends with my sister in high school. After she and Danny broke up and she moved back to Vancouver, she started coming to the Y where I worked. She came for Tuesday afternoon boot camp. I knew what had happened to her but I didn’t say anything, just filled her in on my sister in theatre school in Toronto and tried to ignore how impressed she was, how over-effusive.
Getting rid of the baby fat, she said one day. Her eyes touched mine.
That fucking sucked, I said.
After my shift, we went out for beer. We talked about all the places we wanted to see. Three drinks in, we started planning our trip.
At the bar, the monkey sits on the counter. William’s cousin strokes its head. William’s uncles sit on straight-back chairs, drinking. They dip clay mugs into a collective bowl and pull out a cloudy mixture that tastes sweet and sour. Corinne shuffles a deck of cards. The hem of a woman’s blue dress sways and the orphan boy stands in the doorway, smoking while he watches. William leans back in his chair, tapping a rhythm on Corinne’s shoulder. His eyes float around the room until they land on me. There are bodies between us, breaking our gaze. We take a drink at the same time. A skinny teenager who pointed out the word blonde to me one day in the dictionary asks me to dance. The uncles fill my mug again and again and the alcohol dulls the sense that I am waiting. Before we were here we were in Quito where a pickpocket tore open the side-pocket of my cargo pants and stole fifty American dollars without my even noticing. Three weeks ago, we were in Tilcara, Argentina where there were not enough hotel rooms and we had to share with a college boy headed for Bolivia. He kissed Corinne on a large flat rock by a cemetery full of plastic flowers. Bright fuchsia against the gravel-covered graves.
Corinne doesn’t know it, but I met William first.
I touched him first. He touched me.
After we checked into our second hotel, I went out to buy Band-Aids and the street band was playing. As I walked by, his damp hand seized mine.
Bailar? he asked, pulling me to him before I answered. His knee thrust between my thighs. His hand pressed against my lower back. Sweat prickled my armpits as I turned in circles, uncertain of the steps. Tranquilo, he breathed in my ear, his body instructing mine.
Back at the hotel that afternoon, Corinne was sorting through her underwear, separating them into piles.
Your face is all red, she said.
I started to tell her but then stopped to light a cigarette. She held a pink and silver thong in one hand. With the other, she reached for a drag. Smoke leaked through her lips when she asked me what I thought of William. He’s cute, I said, and opened the window. The band had finished. He was gone.
Corinne rests her fingers on the table’s edge, squats beside me. Cramps, she says.
Should I come?
She shakes her head. Stands up. One of the uncles refills my cup.
That stuff is deadly, she says. He speaks to her in Spanish and she answers but no one translates. On the other side of the bar, the monkey climbs into her arms and William leaves with her, winking at me before they step through the doorway, into the dark.
When they’re gone, I accept another drink and light a cigarette. Leave it burning in the ashtray and use the point of a pen to dig open the filter of another. Inside are black nuggets of charcoal. I make a pile on the table. Fuel for a cold English cottage. The uncles laugh. My blackened fingers beckon one of them to dance. We circle the floor. My body caught in the angles of his arms. His wife watches, hands clapping. Over the man’s broad shoulder, I see William return. When the song is over, he guides me to a table in the corner. All the women’s eyes are sharp as pins. Even the uncles are staring. But my thighs open to his hand under the tablecloth and I am swimming, held by wet heat, wanting more. Hovering over danger. Asking it to suck me in.
Outside, William pushes me against a wall and then Corinne is back. White like steam before her face comes clear. She stares as I push him away and laugh. Pretend we’ve only been playing, and say, the words warm stones in my mouth, he was just walking me home.
Hung-over, vomiting in the bathroom down the hall and hoping I don’t clog the toilet. Corinne stays with me. Like a mother, she leads me back to the bed, dampens a washcloth and lays it on my forehead, asking again if anything happened. I don’t care, she says. I just want to know.
We were playing, I tell her.
Pretty serious playing.
You have a brother, I say. It was brotherly.
The dancing gets pretty hot, she says.
So it got hot?
I lift a flap of the blue cloth and squint at her.
Are you going to marry him? I ask.
I don’t know.
She lights a cigarette. I point to window. She stands up and pushes it open. The strange songs of foreign birds float up from the park.
I know it’s only dancing, says Corinne, turning back to me. Over her shoulder, ash floats down from the sky.
Corinne goes out to buy bananas, bread and coffee. She leaves a bucket beside my bed. The sour green liquid gushes out of me with no warning. Tenderly, I touch the small bruises on my thighs. They throb hotly like some sort of pressure crack. I’ve decided to go to the coast. Like a tourist, I will take a boat to the Galapagos Islands. I will wear a see-through rain poncho. Point my camera at blue-skinned iguanas and the sloppy sand nests of tortoise eggs. All sorts of extraordinary things.
Thomas calls me into the living room. Nudges the air with the remote control. Isn’t that where you were? he asks.
Cobblestone streets. The sharp staccato sound of the flute. The television camera enters the church, illuminates the worn frescoes of past eruptions. Thomas starts to talk but I hold up one hand. Lava runs down the dirt trails and I think about William, his family, the artist from up in the hills. Corinne came home pregnant. The baby is eighteen months.
Are you ready? Thomas asks, checking his watch.
At the Christmas party, silver and green garlands twinkle around the brick fireplace with the blocked hearth. Inside, the air smells like cedar and cinnamon but I stand on the porch with the smokers. All around me, orange tips crackle and Thomas watches me through the window, its cold glass speckled with sticky, fake snow. There’s a flush on my cheeks from a single glass of wine. I feel it. Like I have a fever. Like I’m burning up inside.
Lauren Carter is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry living in Orillia, Ontario. Her work has appeared in Descant, Prairie Fire, Grain, Event, the Globe and Mail, NOW Magazine and several other publications and has been short-listed for This Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt and earned merit-based scholarships to the Summer Literary Seminars. She has published one collection of poetry, Lichen Bright, which was long-listed for the ReLit Award. “Extraordinary Things” was a finalist for The Malahat Review’s Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction. Visit Lauren at www.laurencarter.ca