Tamar Perla

Her ex calls again about their only daughter, the one they did not have.

“How is my baby girl?” he asks.

“Who?” Annie says, startled out of a TV show. “What?”

“I hope she’s feeling better,” he says. He wants to know if she has gotten the toys he sent: seven colors in a paint box, a baton with white leatherette ends wrapped in purple cellophane, an old-fashioned straw doll in a gingham dress.

“She’s too young for the baton,” Annie says, “and the dolly looks like straight out of Children of the Corn.”

“She requested those specifically,” he puzzles.

“You know—” Annie says. Then, more kindly, “But please, I mean, stop it. No more. Please.” She turns off the television and goes to bed. She dreams of overcrowded beaches, her toddler who needs to be changed, restrooms that are filthy inside, locks that wiggle free. There is a house with a stove and a pan on fire; rain is falling in sheets between Plexiglas walls. She sees a cartoon girl sleeping in a mausoleum drawer. The drawer is fur-lined. The girl is cozy but not smiling.

A few months and then he calls again. He is urgent: “I have some information.”

Annie says, gently, “She sees us here, together and talking, and she’s happy. She understands, Paul.”

“I’m just trying to deliver a message,” he mutters.

Annie hangs up the phone. This time she feels the baby’s presence. “You can go, now,” Annie says into the empty room. “I’ve got it covered.” The baby shrinks slightly, hesitates. “You’ve got no body,” Annie calls out, “I have the body here!” She is livid, but the baby is leaving, leaves, will stay gone for a while, maybe.

On the doctor’s table Annie barely feels the effects of the Valium. She squeezes the nurse’s offered hand and wills herself out of her body, her pain, for the few minutes it takes to perform the procedure. She imagines she sees the baby girl, curled on her side and perfect in a pool that could be beet juice, aspic; the baby is a pretty jelly in a small silver bowl. Of course Annie never sees her, never knows if she is a daughter or a son; the doctor never says. The baby hangs on, regardless, the most powerful thing Annie has ever had to destroy, up to this point.

They decide to put it behind them and go to Hawaii, like they could do this as easily as walking out of a crowded subway car to get some air, changing seats in a movie theater to distance themselves from the talkers, ordering a strong drink to erase the memory of a bad day at work. Stepping from the plane into the oppressive overcast of the Big Island is the seventh sign of how bad things have gotten between them. The plane ride itself is the sixth, so different from their first, first-class time when he had lost a big case but still made millions for the firm, when they were celebrating, excited to be alone together, and everything was a treat from the cheap champagne to the ice cream sundaes. Now they are seated next to a family of missionaries, but they are so high on crystal meth that nothing is certain but Paul’s irritation with the woman whose shoe is tap, tapping at the back of his seat throughout the whole flight. Then stepping off, Paul is sure he left his cell phone on the plane and not at home or in the cab, and he goes back for it or they leave it, paranoid about re-entering security; Annie can’t say what really happens. Just that their descent into hell has begun, and they are paying for it, pouring tokens in and in until they are back in line for the return flight home, more strange to each other than before they met.

Their room in the luxe, beachfront hotel is beautiful with a lanai that is private and a big, soft bed, but they can’t see it. They’re getting high. This is difficult to look back on since Annie knows it turns out badly. At the time, all they wanted was to see. Annie could walk down a busy sidewalk back in the city, and instead of her usual habit, self-consciously training her eyes away from people, she would look into each face and make the connection, recognize something unique but equal in each. She could hear all their private conversations as if she suddenly had wolf ears: “Have you noticed how many beautiful girls are out today? Unusually beautiful…” She would be one of those girls, seeing her own beauty though their eyes.

Their daughter never grows up to be beautiful. She grows into something: Annie knows it makes no sense, she doesn’t believe in such things, but the baby is a winged chunkalunk, a drooling, purring demon. In a tower, the baby braids her baby fine hair into a weak, blond rope, lets it fall to the Earth, climbs down to find them. Here they are: sucking down smoke, rolling around like wrestlers, yelling, biting, pummeling. They throw bowls of water at each other, screaming, “Die, witch, die!” They rip books apart, and jewelry, and Annie pounds the back of Paul’s chest as if she could beat the poison out of him. They are like frenzied gods who tear the heads from their sacrifices and drink the blood. The baby looks on adoringly, thumb in her mouth, gurgling at every hurled object and word. She has no choice in this; she loves them simply and beyond reason.

In Hawaii, the old alchemy fails to work. Gold turns to lead in their lungs and in their hands. The amount of money they spend—charge to cards they will not be able to pay off for years—buys them no pleasure. Annie gets her own room, finally, because she can’t stand the fighting. There is no love, just a rock that takes away the fear before replacing it with an entire world turned against them; there is no love, just exorcism after exorcism, and still the world hates. The beach sand glitters with garnet, feldspar, quartz: they would smoke it if they could. Everything tastes bitter, and she can’t imagine why they have come here to crash and burn, why they insist upon the rhythm of full circle, good to bad, why they must climb again into the highest tower only to throw themselves out of it.

It is a while since they have seen each other, and they meet at the movies. In the late afternoon light, she observes Paul as a stranger, too-thin and nervous, already worn by his twenty-something years. They buy pizza, but he doesn’t eat his. They watch Doctor Dolittle, and Paul is seeing the sub-text, the hidden messages, the way the women in the theater look at him condemningly—he is wearing an amulet for protection and the mark of havoc on his forehead, in his creased and troubled brow. Sitting between them and settled in now, the baby is gumming popcorn into butter-flavored pabulum. Annie wears her tight pink and sparkly t-shirt that says bad kitty, but it doesn’t make her feel sexy, just as if she’s advertising. They are only three ghosts, so exorcise them, Annie thinks. Dear Doctor Dolittle, she prays to the make-believe world, to Eddie Murphy, Please make the voices stop. Make Paul better. Make me better. Make the sickness go away.

“Bad mommy,” the baby says, sucking Pepsi out of her bottle. She giggles at the talking animals on the big screen; she presses first into Annie’s side, hiding her face against Annie’s breast, then flops her golden head across Paul’s twitching thighs. In the baby’s heaven they are always together, just like this, the three of them holding hands in a sea of luminosity, a family of lighthouses blinking love signals at each other across the treacherous shoals.

When the phone rings, she is not so surprised to hear his voice. A year has passed, and he is on the East Coast at a mountain festival, seeing colors. Thousands of miles from the firm, his old connections, he says, “I feel good! Strong. Sold the Lexus and bought a bicycle.” Unasked, he describes his companions; they sound like hobbits and elves, wear women’s cast-off clothing, walk on stilts.

“Did you get my present?” his voice pitches and wheels, exuding bells and wildflowers. He tells her that he senses cops before they pull up beside him, recognizes the treefolk and the animal spirits, will soon master the craft of transmutation, is a cultivator of herbs and grasses. She thinks, with a relief so great that it hurts her to admit it, she may not need to see him again.

A week later, the package arrives. It has been lost in the mail, and she wonders where it has been, who handled and dented it, sprinkled it with fairy dust or baser vibrations. It is filled with seashells for his girls. These are encased in a paper globe, like an ornament, and are evidence of what Paul and Annie have made together, their beautiful, broken plans. They are mixed with grits of sand, and they rattle when she shakes them out onto the kitchen table: mottled Venus, periwinkle, baby bonnet, slipper, razor, cask, angel wings. At first she doesn’t see the gold band, two times too big for her own finger, how she had to guess at his size. Annie feels something inside her begin to claw to the surface, shuts it down hard before it has time to flower and bleed.

On their first, first-class flight together after Paul loses a big case but still makes millions for the firm, the ordinary ice cream they are offered tastes exciting and foreign so far from the surface of the planet. Then they join the mile-high club—the digital age, they joke later—beneath their first-class-issue blanket. Buzzing with sugar and sex, they circle over Maui and don’t notice how their shoes tap the seats in front of them in anticipation. As the wheels of the plane scrape against the hot ground, Paul does not yet say, “I want you to have my baby, baby,” and Annie does not yet say, “Let’s get married first, my love.”

But seconds after they enter their first-class hotel room with a penthouse view of the Pacific Ocean bordered by three silvery blue, interconnected swimming pools, Annie pulls her dress over her head the way she has seen it done in movies, and Paul reaches for her, helps her onto his lap so that they make the kind of fit she has also seen before. She rocks over him in a mindless delirium, high on the fact of his success that will surely continue, his eyes that remain open, locked on hers even as she goes blind with pleasure. Then there is nothing at all they can think of to do but order delicious, expensive food and cocktails and stare out into the circling sea.

Tamar Perla’s fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including The North American Review, Ascent, Monologues from the Road (ed. Lavonne Mueller), and Secrets (ed. Linny Stovall). Her nonfiction essay, Transmissions and Transgressions of the Holy, was a finalist in the New Letters Literary Awards (2002). Tamar currently lives in San Diego, California, where she is working on a collection of short stories and teaching writing at Cuyamaca and Palomar Colleges.