Melanie Minnie Lena Conroy-Goldman

1. Love Letters

He wanted dirty letters, but was a little shy to ask. After we'd hung up, I understood what for. "The old right hand," he'd said, and laughed.

Standing there in the phone booth, I felt—

I'd felt this thing before. The week before, in the metro a stranger rubbed against me. At first, his fingers barely moving, I reassured myself,

Could be the motion of the train, must be an accident.

By the time I was sure, something pressing, wriggling into the warm clenched space between my legs, I was too crammed in to move. It was rush hour. People wanted to get home and — this was years ago — I was only nineteen. Putain, a woman in a hat said under the mutter of the train. This stranger's face grew red, his breathing heavy, with pleasure—

I imagined my boyfriend's face that way, reading my letters. (Later, I would think, this is the feeling that defines pornography. 'I can't tell you what it is,' that judge said, 'but I know it when I see it.' Pornography is a tightness in my throat, a burning at my cheeks, the halting spurt of his thick white fluid I could not watch: the money shot.)

I might have written my boyfriend about it. Would it have made him angry halfway across the world, where he was waiting for hot words? But I was afraid he'd ask, why didn't you just scream? Or, I was afraid of the old right hand. So, instead, I put the metro man on a folded-over page of my diary. With a pencil sharp enough to write on uncooked rice, I spelled Pervert in the smallest script my big hands could manage.

Out there, my lover was waiting.

Soon! I promised in my next letter: bridges crossed and churches seen. A famous painting! A café where writers met! I'm working on those other ones, those ones you want.

His letters back were how he missed me when he went by the Greek place, his boss made him clean the popcorn machine for fuck's sake, they kept my picture from Hallowe'en, when I was Elvira, on the fridge. And did he say he missed me? He meant missed (he underlined it twice) and it would help if I could write him something to go on.

For inspiration, I bought a copy of Anais Nin at Shakespeare & Co. On the back I read that "the erotic is a loving form of expression that treats both men and women with dignity, respect and affection." Which I decided might mean I didn't have to say fuck or cunt or cock. When we were together, he was always kind enough to say frisky, which sounded cute. Horny or turned on made me think of prostitutes, made me blush to hear out loud. But at a distance, I didn't know if the gentle words would do what they were supposed to. The old right hand. Funny, I thought, crumpling another sheet of airmail paper, that I am shyer to write these things than to do them. The one I sent went

Dear Lover,
Last night, I took a chocolate to bed with me. I thought of you and ended up with sticky mess, though the chocolate dissolved neatly on my tongue. I miss you. Love,

After I mailed it, I reached my hand into the letter box and tried to pull it back. Too late. In a few weeks, his reply arrived. I did, I waited a whole day before I could open it.

Dear Lover,
You will be bent over your work. You will not here me come in. You will feel me hard against your ass. I will push my fingers in your mouth and find the chocolate still there. Love,

I cringed at the errors, among other things.

2. The Gare St. Lazare

The couple I live with keep a tiny silver lock on the phone so that I cannot dial out. They do not lack confiance in me, but this way it is much more facile. They fear I could make un erreur. So, I have to phone you from the street. My alarm is set for three a.m., when, in California, you will be getting home from work. But the ugly muffled sex in the next room is keeping me from loosening into dreams, where I could forget the waiting time.

One a.m. Every time I close my eyes, I have a peculiar sensation: hundreds of tiny feet padding on my skin, disturbing the hairs on my arms. When I open my eyes, the sensation disappears. But it is a convincing illusion. Finally, I turn on the lights and search my bed for insect carcasses. Nothing.

One fifteen a.m. I am not hungry, but I mix couscous with hot water and bouillon cubes in the sink. With my fingers, I scoop mouthfuls, unsoftened, too salty, and clumped like oatmeal. I mix myself another bowl, and another until the box is empty and I can see the unnatural bulge in my stomach as the grain absorbs water, expands.

One twenty-five a.m. In the light of the refrigerator, I find the frozen bread and toast two slices. While I am waiting for the white to singe so I can soundlessly ease up the lever, I eat the rest of the frozen loaf. My gums are numb by the time I eat the buttered slices. I must remember to replace the loaf before the De Cortas wake in the morning.

One forty-eight a.m.: I walk to the Gare St. Lazare, the only place awake at this time. The bums who sleep on cardboard, stretched out, in the center of the sidewalks, do not seem afraid like the huddled homeless on the streets where you are. They are beggars, I'll tell you, winos, old bearded men who smell of grapes. They sleep with their begging cups stuffed like their hands in their pants. Me, too.

In the Gare, I feed francs into slots, then madeleine after sticky madeleine into my mouth. The first one tastes of preservatives, the butter pan spray I used to stay small when we were together. The next tastes of nothing, is not swallowed before I cram another yellow cake into my mouth. I sit for an hour, watching the trains come in, reading the pornography in the shop, waiting for the ache in my stomach to subside. St. Lazare, I think, Lazarus. Another insomniac.

At three exactly I call you from a dark phone booth. I avert my eyes from the glass where I might see my face, puffed from food while I listen to you talk. How are you sleeping lover? I hear your breath change, your voice go deep. You tell me that you miss my body. So much that you forget to eat. Come home, you say. Come home. Yesterday, I went unconscious. When I came to, I realized that it had been three days since my last meal.

Yes, I think, my own face in front of me instead of yours, I'm starving too.

3. Crash Diet

"I hope you didn't cut your hair or anything," he says. "I like the way you look in that picture you sent me."

I am on my way back, as far as Boston, but there is still a continent to go. When I tell him I'm taking the train from Boston to San Francisco, I blame my mother and National Security.

"She thinks there's a hijacker on every TWA," I tell him on the phone. "Terror in the skies, safety on the ground." He believes me, though I've just flown from Paris.

The truth is, I need the four days for my diet.

The sleeping cars cost 100 a night, so I lean back my chair and try not to touch my neighbor's arm. She is annoyed by the whine of my shrinking stomach. We don't speak. We're too close. When I need to move, I walk to the snack car, which is also the smoking closet. Fifteen or twenty people crowded into two booths. I get to know the regulars, the heavy smokers, because, after all, I'm puffing instead of eating.

A gen-u-ine cowboy has just come off three weeks alone in the mountains with the herd. Another six months of this, he says, and then never again. He wants me to know he's good about keeping clean —has his dignity, even out there— and also that I've got mighty pretty eyes.

The refugee was one of a thousand to scale a certain Rumanian wall to freedom, and the only one to make it. His girlfriend-he doesn't know. She was right behind him, and then she was gone. In the picture, she has her legs wrapped around the back of a chair, wears a red teddy. I am nineteen and ask if she knows he's showing that picture to strangers. Why, he tells me, you're no stranger.

The seventy-year-old ex showgirl taught aerobics until her hip gave out last year. Still, after the mini bottles of Gallo, she shows me her trademark shimmy. She could have married a sheik, she says, but she ended up with the lounge act. There's no stopping it, at a certain point, they just don't look at you that way anymore. Have a back up plan, she tells me, suggests alimony.

The travelers all have this in common: they are terrified of flying. You, too? They ask. No, I think, I'm on a diet.

Every afternoon at four, I select a whole rice cake. This is my only nourishment, apart from Diet Coke and smoke, so I deserve a cake which is not missing chunks. I measure with my pocket ruler a millimeter of salami, an eighth-inch of cheddar. It takes me an hour to dissolve the meal on my tongue.

At a certain point in the trip, the concession runs out of all cigarettes except Virginia Slims. So the showgirl, the cowboy, the refugee and I all cram into the booths and smoke two at a time.

Time passes.

On the third morning, I call from the base of the Rocky Mountains to tell my boyfriend I have reached his time zone. It is just seven.

"No it's not," he groans. "It's only six."

I am better at calculating how many Diet Cokes I've drunk. The number is forty-five. I get back on the train.

On the morning of the fourth day, I rise at dawn. I lock myself in the bathroom and wash my hair, strand my strand, in the sink. The water stops if I release the handle. I have to use the bar of soap as shampoo, hand lotion to tame flyaways and split ends. The Virginia Slims have left my teeth a peculiar yellow, almost fluorescent, that will not be brushed off. I stretch the wrinkles out of my favorite dress, have to re-pencil my eyebrows five times to get them right. I feel my stomach. It has shrunk. Mission accomplished.

When we pull into the station, my friends from the smoking car watch to see the boy I've come so far for. But he is late.

"Do you want a ride somewhere?" the showgirl asks. Her granddaughter has met her with a little French car and they understand about men.

While I am thinking if there's anywhere to go, he arrives. He stops a few feet in front of me and looks me over.

"You look great," he says.

Nine thousand miles slip back between us, an ocean, a pair of continents. The showgirl and her daughter wave at us from their little red car, as if they do not notice.

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