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Peer Work

Home  >  Peer Work
Painkillers
By Martha Amore
Genre: Fiction Level: College
Year: 2004 Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

Her photography mentor's name is Rodolfo Luis Jimenez Anaya. I don't even have a middle name. I'm slumped against a cracked Plexiglas shelter, waving on bus after bus, taking hits of cherry-flavored cough syrup. The cold San Francisco fog forms tiny beads of moisture on my leather jacket and my legs feel heavy within my dampening jeans. I know I should have arrived to Anna's exhibit opening early to help set up, but I just don't have the strength. The sooner I get there, the sooner I'll meet her mentor, and there I'll be caught between his brilliance and her dark, sparkling eyes.

When Anna smiles, her eyes effervesce. Imagine a black champagne.

She said they were her grandmother's eyes, the one who emigrated from China with six kids, determined to see them all become successful. Not one child disappointed her. It didn't surprise me. Anna never had trouble convincing me to do anything. I'd see her enthusiasm fizz up from the very center of her pupils, and that was it - I was completely drawn in. This is why I agreed to move to San Francisco with her and become starving artists, though I had only been able to finish one single story so far in my pitiful writing career. Anna is also the reason I ended up cleaning houses to cover our high rent. Just think, Henry, our own little business.

I'm harboring this fantasy of storming through the gallery doors - they have to be swinging doors like in the Wild West - and grabbing Anna's hand, then tackling Rodolfo Luis Jimenez Anaya to the floor and squeezing his throat until his mouth falls slack and his eyes roll back into his brilliant head.

But that isn't going to happen.

Codeine is not a drug that induces violent action, or any action at all. Once the soft waves begin to lap through me, I am able to see events as if from very far away, like some sea-faring deity watching over the earth with a mild but idle interest. Memory comes easy. I can recall the early days in San Francisco without the hidden dagger of the future twisting into my heart. In this sense, codeine is a preservative.

Before Rodolfo Luis Jimenez Anaya, there was only Anna and I, unashamed in our olive leaves. Poor as we were, we had faith in each other and this led to a faith in the City, a warm knowledge that the urban garden of San Francisco would always provide for us. The little fruit and vegetable markets in the Mission practically gave food away: browning avocados, side-split tomatoes, stacks and stacks of day-old corn tortillas, huge chunks of raw, white Mexican cheese. Oh, and the mangos! Bright red-yellow skins, swollen tight with juice. This succulent, almost perverse, dumpster-bound food could be had for just fifteen bucks a week. We spent more than that on coffee. Anna preferred eating outdoors, so once a day we'd heave a backpack full of the near rotten food up, always up, to picnic atop Bernal Heights or Twin Peaks or, if I could convince her to a less strenuous hike, the crumbling bump called Billy Goat Hill. Perched together from these heights, we'd gaze down on our fair city, which was fat and full of promise as the mangos in our pack. It's all right here for us, Henry.

Anna has strong arms for a girl. A crushing hug. She used to lock herself around me with such ferocity that when I kissed her, I kissed hard. I had never been like this with any other girl. Before her, I was a stumbling idiot around women: sweating palms, stuttered words, burning with shame rather than desire. Anna cut through all that. She made it easy for me to love her.

Now that I have competition, I understand the dangers of this quality in her. I suppose that even before Rodolfo Luis Jimenez Anaya, Anna sometimes scared me. The first time, we were posting flyers for our cleaning service around town, me on my mountain bike, Anna holding my seat post, trailing behind me on roller blades. As we dropped down the Haight Street hill, Anna kept yelling at me to pedal faster. She never wore a helmet. I ignored her and continued to ease on the brakes as a bus roared beside us. We were closing in on the intersection at the bottom of the hill.

"Come on, Henry! We can make the light!" she yelled.

I shook my head, clamping down harder on the brakes. Anna glided up a few inches, right next to me, and crouched like a speed skater. Next thing I knew, she was sailing down the hill alone. I couldn't have been more shocked had she taken flight. My vision narrowed, became tunnel-like, as she shot into the busy intersection. And then all sound and motion slowed.

She made it to the other side, car horns blaring, and raised her fists high into the air.

It was some minutes before I could catch up to her because I had missed the light. When I did, I was still heaving such violent hiccup-like breaths I couldn't talk.

"Henry! Are you okay?"

"You could have been killed!"

"The light was green," she said, flipping her mass of glossy hair away from her face, laughing.

"It was red, Anna! There were cars in the intersection."

"No way! It was totally yellow!"

Our advertising efforts paid off. Within a few months, we had five days a week booked solid and were turning jobs away. There were a couple of secrets to our success. Clients trusted Anna to the point where they were not only referring us to their friends, but they would leave the house while we worked. Even the crabbiest old lady melted in Anna's presence, losing all suspicion to those black flashing eyes. And to my surprise, I had a natural talent for the business: cleaning bathrooms. I had them figured out. Bathrooms are all about grout - use a stiff bristled toothbrush dipped in bleach and never, never rush the job. It's the details that make the difference. My mantra: It's not clean until the grout gleams.

At this point, Anna and I had only one major conflict. She believed in the environmentally friendly Simple Green while I was a bleach man.

"Bleach kills dolphins or whales or something," she said. "It's poisoning our waterways."

"But Simple Green smells worse than piss ," I argued. "And it leaves a slimy residue." I hated these fights. It was the one thing she could never change my mind about. "If I'm going to spend all this time cleaning, I want my bathrooms to smell like swimming pools."

"Oh, Henry," she said. "You and your sacred toilets. These rich bastards are just coming home and taking s---- in them, anyway."

The problem with Anna was that while she may have cared about our business, she had no respect for the work.

Here within the codeine's warm embrace, I can look this fact straight in the eye. No problema. Now that I think about it, she rarely double-rinsed her floors, leaving them just a trace sticky. Sometimes her windows and mirrors shone with long arcing streaks, and don't even get me started on her kitchen counters (fine as long as you don't move the appliances).

I'm holding the thick plastic bottle up to the streetlight across from my bus shelter. It's been empty for some time. I need to board a bus. I have to get to the gallery before my armor wears thin.

But now I ask myself: Who was Anna before Rodolfo Luis Jimenez Anaya?

One morning on a city bus, at the peak of our good fortune, she slumped against my shoulder and sighed. I put my arm around her and closed my eyes, hoping she was just tired. But her breathing was too fast and she squirmed under the weight of my arm. I know I should have asked if she was okay, but my strategy has always been to just hunker down and keep my mouth shut and wait for the thing to blow over.

The bus jolted and snorted up a steep hill. We shook with its trembling effort and held tight to the buckets of cleaning supplies at our feet. Anna sighed again but remained quiet. I knew it wouldn't last.

Sure enough, she jerked upright and said, "Henry."

"Mm, hmm?" I barely cracked my eyes, as if I had been in a deep sleep.

"What are we doing?"

"We're on a bus, going to work." I felt a pressure building under my ribs.

"Yeah, but what's the point of it? What are we actually accomplishing?"

I stared at the broom handle in front of me and didn't answer.

"I mean, I didn't get an art degree from Michigan for this s---," she said, kicking her bucket.

I shut my eye. What could I possibly do for her?

"I mean, Jesus, Henry. My grandmother cleaned houses. Is this how far we've come?"

"It's not forever, Anna," I ventured. "We're artists." My voice was small and pathetic and I wished we'd get to our stop already.

"I haven't done anything since we moved here. Not one picture, Henry. All I've done is scrubbed other people's toilets."

"Bathrooms are mine," I reminded her.

"Do you even understand what I'm talking about?"

The bus lurched and I felt tension rising up my neck into my skull. I suddenly wanted to scream at her: Why can't you just be happy about us? Instead, I pressed my fingers against my eyes and swallowed down my dry throat. "I haven't written anything this whole time, either."

She gave me a look then, full of either pity or encouragement, and I guess it was an okay thing to say because she turned her gaze out the bus window and let me off the hook.

But I wasn't off any hook. Anna decided it was time for us to live up to our artistic natures. She began taking pictures and applying for internships, while I lay on the floor for an hour every evening with a pen and paper. I told her I was starting a story but I always had a crossword puzzle hidden in the pages of my notebook. After two weeks, she wanted an exchange: her pictures for my draft.

"But it sucks," I said.

"Isn't that part of the process? Come on, I'm letting you see some pretty bad stuff myself."

When I met Anna, I was finishing up the last few credits of my history degree by taking a creative writing class. I was only able to finish one story, about a crazed, homicidal hippopotamus that escaped from a zoo and wreaked havoc on a town. Because it slogged through a low-income housing complex and chomped off the heads of poor children, the story was given quite a bit of recognition. As it turns out, our town's mayor was making a run for governor on an anti-welfare campaign, and he detested low-income units. Political satire, everybody said. My story won a contest and was printed in the newspaper. Anna read it during our second date and before I could tell her that the hippopotamus was just a hippopotamus, she was blinking those big eyes at me. I kept my mouth shut.

Now she was insisting on seeing further proof of my genius. "You want to see what I've been working on?" I pulled the stack of unfinished crossword puzzles from my notebook and dropped them in her lap. I'm not even very good at those.

"Hmm," she said, "writer's block?" She nodded her head and frowned.

"I just don't have anything to write about," I said. I didn't think I could get away with any more animals escaping from the zoo.

"What about your family?"

"What about my family?"

She looked at the back of her hand and spoke softly. "I don't know. Your mother?"

"What about my mother?"

"There might be some material there. She's not exactly the most demonstrative person in the world."

"What do you mean by that?"

"She's just so ... untouchable. She treats you with this extreme politeness, but, I don't know. It couldn't have been easy for you growing up, that's all."

I took the crossword puzzles from her lap and searched one of the vertical columns. Seven-letter word for cabal.

"Hey, Henry," she said. She put her fingers gently under my chin so that I would look at her. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to put your mother down."

I shrugged.

"Come on," she said. "I'll let you insult my mother."

"What's to insult?" I said.

"Are you kidding? My mother? She's completely crazy. She's still convinced I'm going to be president someday." Anna crossed her eyes and stretched her lips wide with her fingers.

I flung the puzzles to the floor and pulled her into my lap. She was soft and warm as a rabbit, her little heart ticking away. "But then you wouldn't have any time for me."

***

Anna was hoping to get an internship with a gallery in the Mission but was rejected. She didn't seem upset; she just kept applying for others. Around this time, she lifted our business to a whole new, albeit criminal, level. We were working in a beautiful restored Victorian in Pacific Heights when Anna laid a hand on my sweaty back. Grinning, she shook a brown plastic pill container at me.

"Guess what I found in the kitchen cabinet?"

"I give up."

"Valium! And the prescription date is from, like, two years ago. They'll never notice."
"I don't know, Anna."

"But it'll make the day so much more interesting."

I worried about getting caught and ruining our business, but there were Anna's dark eyes on mine. We took three pills each and within the hour, my body lightened, my thoughts puffed along swaddled in a deep goose down and my cleaning launched into a whole new philosophic trajectory. It became less about the finished product, more about the process. I thought about those innocent dolphins and relented, taking up Simple Green for the sinks and tubs. Zen had entered my bathrooms.

"I'm coming to an understanding about toilets," I called to Anna.

"I've already transcended understanding," she yelled back.

"No, really, you have to hear this. I'm serious." I was afraid I'd lose it, the moment would pass and then it would be gone forever. She settled on the edge of the tub to hear me out. "Everything," I said, "has a bright and dark side. In this sense, a toilet is always both clean and dirty."

Anna leapt up and hugged me. "A breakthrough, Henry! You've just experienced a breakthrough!"

I was terribly excited.

By the next week, we were popping pills in every house. Codeine, Demerol, Stadol, Vicodin ... It's amazing how overly prescribed rich Californians are. They never seem to finish the course of their drugs and yet they never throw them out. I thought it strange that we'd find the mother lode of pills in the kitchen rather than the bathroom until Anna pointed out the labels: take with food.

It wasn't long before we were taking other liberties on the job.

"Uh oh," Anna said, peering into a liquor cabinet in a Castro apartment. "I spy a fine Bordeaux that's just wasting away in here." We began washing the pills down with the world's finest wines and liqueurs, careful to only prey on the open bottles and never drain them entirely. This is when I noticed that the quality of our work was dipping below my former standards. We made the savvy business decision to cut down our workload in order to spend more time on each home. Loosening our schedule also made room for some extracurricular activities on the job. We watched movies, played Nintendo, read aloud from our clients' diaries. And with all of the Jacuzzi tubs, king-sized canopy beds, and velvety couches, we couldn't help but take our clothes off. We stopped having sex altogether in our own apartment - why would we? Our place was a dump.

Anna's cameras disappeared back into the closet and she quit asking me about my writer's block. We were just ... happy.

I'll always savor our last job together, just before the news of her internship came through. The condo not only had morphine but an indoor rock-climbing wall.

"I can't imagine anywhere I'd rather be," I whispered to her as we lay on the wrestling mat in the front room.

She was quiet, studying my hand in hers. For a moment I thought she was going to cry and, even through the clouds of morphine, I felt a sting. But then she said, "I can't imagine anyone I'd rather be with."

I rolled onto my back and watched the dust dancing in the sunlight. She got up to study the CD collection. It seemed to take an awfully long time. The second hit of morphine had broken down some sort of dichotomy within me. My body and mind were inseparable. As my thoughts leapt about, I could feel my whole physical self soaring right along with them.

"This guy's all class," I heard Anna shout from across the room. "Oh man! Can we handle Satie? We might be too high."

"You can never be too high," I said.

"Okay, but this is one of my favorites. 'Gymnopedie.' You have to really listen to it. I mean it, Henry. You have to soak it up through your skin. Your teeth."

"Is that possible?" I asked.

She held a finger to her lips and pressed play and then came and lay next to me on the mat in the streaming sunlight. The music began; the sound of a Michigan summer blowing so gently through the room my pores really did open up to receive it.

"Jesus," I said.

Anna covered my mouth with her hand. I kissed her fingers, swirled my tongue along them. Warm, undulating waves rinsed through me, and the sun glowed a pomegranate orange through my closed eyelids. Anna lifted my shirt off and her skin on mine was like some warm, whipped substance, so ethereal I could barely feel her. Everywhere there was pulsing and fluttering and flowing rhythms of sound. I fell into Anna as she was falling away from me into some other place and then we were plummeting together, dropping as one through this beautiful, endless breath of music.

***

Two days later she started her internship for the photography magazine. She rushed, cheeks flushed, eyes swashing with spirit, up our apartment stairs and said the four words that continue to pound through my brain today: Rodolfo Luis Jimenez Anaya.
Anna left me to clean alone. At first, I'd bring her presents of Vicodin or Stadol but she wouldn't touch any of it, not even Tylenol Three. She said she had to keep focused. That's when I started swallowing her share of the pills as well as my own. When I ran out of Simple Green, I went back to bleach and when I ran out of that, I'd just scrub with whatever the client had, sometimes resorting to liquid soap or even, on a really bad day, tap water. Things no longer seemed to have both a bright and dark side. A bathroom is a disgusting, germ-filled place no matter what you do.

This is why I'm huddled in my Plexiglas shelter instead of sharing my love's finest moment. But enough is enough. I'm two hours late and the codeine has seriously begun to ebb. I hail an incoming bus.

As of yet, there is no hard evidence of an affair. In fact, I know very little about Rodolfo Luis Jimenez Anaya beyond his much touted brilliance. But some weeks ago, she spread a number of photographs on our apartment's stained carpet and told me that he felt it was her greatest work. She wanted my opinion. I never knew what to say; I don't know much about photography. But these pictures were something else altogether. Close-up black and white shots of bare, mud-covered legs. Flexed shins, bent knees, shapely thighs. I wasn't sure until I saw the foot. The toes were squat and fat and the littlest one curled sharply inward.

"This is you," I said. She must have been nude, or mostly nude, when she took them.

"Yeah, Rodolfo's gotten me into this whole self-exploration thing."

My breath caught high in my chest. I didn't know where to look. I fought the urge to kick through her neat little display, to scream at her. There was no doubt in my mind he had been there in the room with her.

I grabbed some Valium from my bucket of cleaning supplies and left the apartment.

Is she sleeping with him? I don't know. But it's been an excruciating process, watching Anna turn away from me, toward him. I'd almost rather she drive the knife through my heart, dump me and be done with it. Instead, she moves with the grace of a potted flower that leans toward the greater light.

***

By the time I reach the gallery, a yellow stucco building with a display window of headless mannequins, I'm dangerously close to sober. I've waited too long. Sweat is dripping from my underarms and I'm shivering. I stand outside the door for a while - it isn't a swinging one - clenching my fists in my pockets.

"You coming in?" a man in a fringed vest asks.

I pass through the doorway and am struck by the bright, white-walled room and the pressing noise of a hundred conversations. People swarm about the gallery, laughing, sipping wine, in constant motion. Like a worm, I find myself wriggling through them into a darkened corner. I need to see her with him.

No luck! Anna appears suddenly at my side. She's wrapping her hands around my arm.

"You're so late, Henry. I can't believe this. I mean, this is my opening."

"Sorry, I got on the wrong bus." I'm madly scanning the crowd, looking for him. I know I'll recognize him the minute I see him.

"Nobody was here! The place was empty for so long!"

I'm barely listening, but I feel her fingers digging into my arm. "There are tons of people here," I say.

"Well, they all came in the last half hour. I've been freaking out! I needed you, Henry." She presses close against me and I catch the lovely scent of her hair - sharp as lemon rinds - and glance down to see her face. How full it is, pink-cheeked, healthy. But there is a broken look in her eyes. "It's like you don't care about anything anymore," she says. "Not even me."

"I do, too. I'm here, right?"

"Yeah, but you weren't here when I really, really -" she shuts her eyes and pinches the bridge of her nose. "Okay. Okay, you're here now. But I swear to God I can't keep forgiving you, Henry."

An impulse lurches within me to pull her close and tell her that I love her. "So where's Rodolfo?" I ask instead. Rodolfo Luis Jimenez Anaya, Rodolfo Luis Jimenez Anaya - the name jackhammers through me like an angry poem.

She points to the wine bar and in one room-tilting moment, I see him. He's tall and powerfully built, dressed in a suit, an entirely black suit - tie, shirt, everything. His thick hair is slicked away from his forehead, setting off his heavy eyebrows and huge, immobile jaw. I can tell by his chest-forward stance that he's fierce, hungry. A wolf of a man. This is so much worse than I thought.

She's waving him over.

"You never mentioned how good-looking he was," I say. I'm visualizing the day's take of prescriptions hidden in my red plastic bucket back home.

"I guess I just think of Rodolfo the artist, not the man," she says. She gives my arm a fierce squeeze. "Please, Henry. Don't tell me you're jealous?"

"Of course not," I say. Then I try to think of a single reason why I wouldn't be.

Rodolfo joins us with two glasses of wine. I'm surprised that, after offering one to Anna, he hands the other to me. "The elusive Henry," he says. "Anna's love. Anna's anchor."

It didn't sound sarcastic. Anna is still holding onto my arm.

"Without you," he continues, "I'm afraid our Anna might just float away."

My mind races, trying to think of something to say, but I'm struck dumb.

"Believe me," Anna says, "when this place was like a morgue earlier tonight, I was definitely making plans to float off into the sunset."

"I told you nobody ever comes on time to anything in California," Rodolfo says. "Too many of us Salvadorenos, eh Carlito?"

A stocky man with a goatee has joined us, followed by a woman in orange-tinted glasses and a stooping old man in coveralls. Anna introduces everyone, explaining they're all from the magazine.

I still haven't said a word. I should be flooded with relief. The brilliant Rodolfo Luis Jimenez Anaya, the torment of my soul, is apparently benign. I look into his face and I just know. If he were sleeping with Anna, I would see it there, in his eyes. But the relief doesn't come. What I'm feeling now is outnumbered.

Rodolfo whistles as if he's calling a cat. "Look over there." He's pointing to a shaggy-haired man studying one of her photographs. "There's the Chronicle. And I believe the Bay Guardian just came in the door."

Anna grabs my hand. "Come with me, Henry," she says.

"No, you go on. I'd just get in the way."

***

I cross the room to the far wall. I think I'm going through the exhibit backwards and wonder if that matters. The first picture I move in on is a cactus.

"Anna really is quite good," I hear a voice say. It's Rodolfo. Because he says it with compassion, I turn and give him a tired smile. "Sometimes," he says, "that's not so easy."

I realize how incredibly exhausted I am. An overpowering desire to sink down into a big, easy chair. "Rodolfo," I say, "I'll be honest. I just don't understand what this is supposed to mean." I nod toward the cactus.

"I guess it means whatever you feel when you look at it."

I stare into the photograph. A black and white still of a small, dead, potted cactus. It's shriveled up and desiccated, desperately reaching out with its mangled twist of spines. There's no heart, no juice left in the plant, just the tough, empty husk. I look quickly away.

"Sometimes," he says, "you might see what you don't want to see."

I tip the wineglass up to my lips but it's empty. Across the room, Anna is surrounded by men. They're talking about light and depth and god knows what else.

"Why do I have to see anything in it at all? Why can't it just be a cactus?" I ask.

He laughs and punches me lightly on the arm. "Because Anna has gotten to it."

I look back at her; she's blooming, unfolding, nourished by the rich, black compost of her own mind. Anna. My tormentor. Now she's raising her eyes to mine. She throws a hand over her lips and flings it toward me.

I don't want this bright space between us. I want to feel her against my skin, to let her feel me, the warm, dark, agonized mess of us. Her eyes are still on me. I know what she's waiting for. My hand reaching into the air, clamping to my chest. But there's so much more.


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