Sunday
Sep092012

Lady Liberty

Monica Drake


 

In the beer soaked corners of Los Amigos, I found the regulars scattered at side tables and playing pool. But there was a new man too, at the bar. I tried to look away. My eyes came back to him. Warmed by an amber beer light, the rumples of the man's white flounced shirt screamed secret history. He could've have bought that shirt at Forever 21, had it handmade in Venice, or stolen it from a Shakespeare festival.

Who dressed in soot-marked flounce?

Los Amigos is a dirty and dim place. I like it, especially on a Sunday. The bartender is this woman who I'd say works there because she wants an excuse, a paycheck, to be in a dive on her own and in charge. She wouldn't go in alone if she weren't working. She wouldn't stand behind that counter and pour drinks without a pistol. I'm American though, and American women drink by themselves just fine.

The new man rested his feet, in boots, on the wooden planks of the floor with a confidence beyond that of anyone I'd ever met.

I said a timid, "Hola." My Spanish was a revived high school class I'd been making use of up and down Mexico.

He nodded, and said, "Sit."

His was a command. He said it in English, and as though he knew me. I climbed onto the tall chair he indicated.

The bartender had black hair bleached blonde with long dark roots. Her shirt read Sonic Youth. Her apron said, "No hay resacas si sigue bebiendo." She held a pint glass in one thick hand, gave it a toss, caught it again, and scoffed at my willingness. I saw the roll of her eyes.

Everybody's jealous of Americans.

I wouldn't admit even to myself that maybe, secretly, I hoped I was the first to stand in the light of this man's blousy charisma. Maybe I was the first tourist traveling his path. I'd met guys like that since high school: overlooked. Hot, though in a way nobody else noticed. He had a fleck of napkin caught in the growth of his rough shave. Who else would see the charm of a man with lint on his face? It was like I'd found a steal in a Goodwill bargain bin, my raw diamond.

I'd polish him. I'd polish him hard.

This was in Guanajuato, which is to say officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Guanajuato, but nobody used that name.

Nobody used names much at all. Not my name, anyway. It surprised me then, when he asked what my name was.

"Maria de Socorro." Maria of help. Of aid. Of relief. Succor.

Or sucker. Maybe.

Where we sat wasn't his country, and it wasn't my country. It was a good bar with cold beer and no police.

Travelers together.

The map of wrinkles around his eyes was familiar as family. I said, "I've seen you before."

He said, "Sure. Picture the evening news." He made a gesture, as though slicing himself in half at the waist. "Historic uprising." He made the quotation-marks sign with one hand, around those words.

I said, "What's that?" He didn't look like a newscaster.

"I'm very 'televisual.'" He made the quotation marks again, with one curled hand. "Telegenic, according to Newsweek." His accent was decorative, and didn't interfere with his English.

That's when he told me—not a newscaster, he was the news. He gave me the run down. He said there was a little revolution! And he blew through narrow lips, making a dismissive sound. He lifted his beer in its sweating bottle and tipped it, then drank. He added, "Kicked out. After all I did for them."

He'd lost control of a whole country, sure as a car skidding down an embankment. "I am now," he said, "a deposed dictator."

My knees went wobbly, my spine hot: the baddest of bad boys. Yes, I have a weakness.

He smiled, and turned to me, and his lips were very red for a man's; he was Freddie Mercury. Freddie Mercury was alive, and in Mexico. Freddie Mercury had been, once upon a time, his own historic uprising, now deposed.

I swallowed, then said, "You were in Queen?"

He said, "Queens? No. I stay out of the U.S. I have a cousin there, though."

So he wasn't Freddie Mercury. His name wasn't Charles Taylor. It wasn't Manuel Noriega, the pineapple. It wasn't Maximiliano, Mustafa, Rafael, Idi, or Raoul. He was not Muammar, and not Hosni. That's all I can say—his name is confidential.

He said, "These days, I'm a shit magnet."

What did that make me? I refused to take it personally. He was hurt. He was a man who needed a country. I was a woman who needed a man. I'd be his country. He'd be my dictator. I saw our future unfold like a history book.

He looked at my feet. "Are those Israeli?"

My sandals.

I felt the need to stay neutral yet engaged. What was his relationship to Israel, pro or anti? The Gaza strip was in need of medicating, that's all I knew.

My mind blanked.

I lifted a foot, where I sat on the bar's high chair, and pulled my foot up until I could see the bottom of the sole. I looked for a brand. There was the worn tread of walking in a foreign country. A bottle cap surprised me, rammed into the high wedge heels. They were a comfort-stride cork heel. I could run in them when I had to, and still go out dancing. They were party shoes, of no particular political party.

He reached over and pried the beer cap from my cork sole. When it fell, it was a soft tap and rattle against the wood floor. His was a sweet gesture. He rubbed his fingers together to dust off grime. He said, "See those men near the door?"

Two men, at a table. Of course I saw them.

He said, "They're listening." He tipped his beer bottle to one side and let it roll one way, then back, with his hand on the bottle's thin neck.

The men were red-eyed, probably high, and had the thick waists of young drunks.

He whispered, "They're everywhere."

"Who?" Those two men couldn't be everywhere, but yes, young drunks basically dotted the landscape.

My dictator shook out his dark curls. He said, "What do you know about revolution, except from movies?"

I said, "And books." I felt smart, until I said it, until the word came out small and thin, and so I offered what my high school English teacher called supporting details. "Castro learned about revolution from Hemingway. For Whom the Bell Tolls. He learned how a small contingent can overthrow the ruling party." I nodded as though back in class, as though I hadn't given up on school a long time ago.

His nod was slow, qualified by doubt, as he turned to where his jacket hung on the back of his chair. He took a reporter's notebook from a pocket, found a pen and wrote it down: For Whom Bell Tolls.

There it was! I'd helped a dictator.

He read his own words over again. He scribbled something else, below the words. I let him write. A good woman knows when to stay out of the way.

It was two fast beers before I got up my courage and asked: "War crimes?" When you fall in love, you have to know dark things. And I was falling.

He laughed. His teeth were lovely. He was warming to me. He put down his pen. He said, "War crimes is a metaphor. People who haven't been there never understand."

He spit over his shoulder, onto the wooden floor.

I spit over my shoulder too, only more discretely, away from him. Practicing. I wanted to know how it felt to spit on a floor.

My spit landed on the back of my denim jacket. I wiped it with my palm, and felt my face go hot. I'd practice at home.

This man was my teacher, my father, my rock and roll crush. He ruffled my hair and said, "Some day, little one, maybe you'll manage your own country. You'll move beyond the books. Then you'll understand war crimes."

How did he know? Yes, I wanted power. I loved the very thought of it. But my power would come by association. My power would come by giving in to his.

The bartender put a finger in my beer bottle as she reached to take it away. She waggled her finger, the bottle dancing, and asked, "Más?"

She did that on purpose. There was still a good swig in the bottom of the bottle, but her fingers on the lip? Her finger inside it? It was practically gynecological. No thanks. She waited to see if we'd order more.

I waited to see if he'd buy.

He put his pen and notebook away. He said, "I'm broke. The military budget is over."

Didn't they get a severance package?

I pulled out a Visa card from my tiny purse, laid it on the worn wood of that bartop. The bartender looked with a steady gaze that conveyed so clearly her words: Are you joking? She didn't bother to say it out loud. The flair of her nostrils told me all: No credit here. I lived on credit. She uncrooked her finger to drop the bottle in the vat of empties.

I said, "My credit is great." I'd maxed out so many times, they raised my limits, back in the states; I could buy a whole mall.

The dictator said, "Give Miss America her credit." His words were a slur.

So he knew I was American? Even as Maria de Socorro, my attempt at acculturation.

The bartender put a hand under the counter. Did she reach for her soda or the pistol? Either way, we were done. Negotiations over.

I reached, and lifted the spot of napkin from the rough cut of my drinking man's beard-growth, tossed it on the floor, a speck. "Let me walk you home."

He laughed. I thought he laughed at me—walk a dictator home?—but no, he pushed against the bar's counter and climbed off his tall chair. "Adios, Los Amigos," he said to the bar.

He'd leave with me!

The bartender leaned against the wall and dried a glass with a rag.

My heart picked up. He was wobbly. He needed me. I was his support. I pushed against the heavy wooden door until it opened. He stumbled; the floor was uneven. Outside, a small dog ran up to our ankles. My dictator said, "There you are, Little Lick."

He crouched, and both his knees crackled at once. His jeans were rock-and-roll snug. The dog gave my dictator long-tongued kisses all over his face and the dictator closed his eyes and let it happen. He smiled, and said, "We call him Lichtenstein because he's so very small."

Then he stood and kicked the dog. Or he didn't kick it exactly, but gave it a good solid push with one booted foot. He pushed the dog this way, then that way, as we walked. The dog ran ahead and came back for more.

The dog loved it! It ran at my man's side, tongue out. That dog was in love. That dog was proof: this man was loveable. He was kind, even in his gentle kicks of military combat.

He murmured, "Are they following us?"

The night was dark, the Sunday streets empty. "There's nobody." There was nobody, except a couple of old men, smoking. My dictator saw them and turned down a narrow alley. "Quick," he said.

Is it wise to go down a narrow alley with a drunk and paranoid deposed dictator? It was new terrain. And me, without a pistol. I wasn't the bartender, with her weapon. I was an adventurer, a student of no school, giving myself credit for any experience at all.

He was older than I was. He knew the alleys. I followed like the dog at our feet. My currency was my body. I'd spend it how I liked. Why not? My heart beat harder.

The dog came back for a kick but moved under the deposed dictator's feet too fast and the man stumbled over Lichtenstein. He might've fallen except I stepped in close, put my shoulder under his arm, his arm around me, and he didn't hit the ground. I wobbled in my possibly-Israeli heels.

I said, "Sir, I will be your human shield."

He said, "Let a falling dictator fall." He was drunk and in a blue mood.

I said, "I have a better plan."

"Miss America has a plan!" He liked it, if he liked anything, in his bitter buzz.

I unbuttoned his pants. I slid the zipper down. In the back alley I released the scent that is what it means to get to know a man. There's nothing like that moment: cock unwrapped, the first time.

He was sweaty. He'd had long days.

I slid my hand down along the line of fur that was his hair. He leaned back against the cracked wall of a building. My fingers reached lower. What I found: he was soft, not hard.

He said, "Human shield, I'm no threat to anyone these days."

"Hush, hush. It's the booze. I can erect you," I whispered, like he was a statue, a sculpture, a building on the verge of collapse. I thought it was what he'd like to hear.

He said, "It's the decline of civilization."

That's what he really wanted to hear: civilization there, in his cock.

I tried again, with politico sweet-talk. "The dollar is still strong."

"Your dollar, propped up by foreign interests."

I had his foreign interests covered. "I'm interested, Mr. Fahrenheit," a pet name plucked from a Queen song, the code of Queen lyrics. He didn't let on if he recognized it. I said, "Let's go to your place." I tugged his pants closed.

We walked stumbling steps together in the alley, his arm over my shoulders. He said, "We can't wake my mom."

"Your mom lives with you?"

He said, "Only temporary. Until a country lets me in." He seemed to grow smaller, there at my side.

Where was my danger zone, my adventure? I'd dated this man before. But I'd loved men like this before, and I wouldn't give up. We kissed then, long and damp in the dark alley. I kissed my dictator.

When he pulled away from me, I murmured, "You're making me live." Another Queen line.

He whispered, "I used to make people do all kinds of things."

His words gave me chills. I moved in closer. "I'm here to polish my diamond," I said. That diamond in the rough. I loved him for his faults as much as I did his jawbone, his hair, his political power.

He stumbled backward and tripped on boards piled there. Lichtenstein was underfoot, and the dog yapped as the man went down. I went down too, one hand to his head, holding him close. We sprawled on the bricks and packed earth. My teeth clicked against each other as we hit.

"Miss America, it's too late," he said.

I lay on top of him, ran my fingers through his black and grey curls, and said, "No hay resacas si sigue bebiendo." It was from the bartendress's apron: No hangovers if we keep drinking. The only way out was forward! "You'll find a new country." I licked his face. His stubble was rough under my tongue. I licked his face again. He rolled away. Lichtenstein joined in the mix, ran his tongue over my dictator's check.

"I'll be a dictator's wife. You'll be my commander." Our future was delicious, and it was so clear! "I'll look good at your side."

"That you would," he agreed.

I had a vision: We'd climb the political ladder. I'd channel my repressed drives into conspicuous consumption, a beacon for the hopes of the people. Maybe I'd buy shoes, like Imelda Marcos. I'd move so far beyond my possibly-Israeli sandals. We'd make love and babies. We wouldn't know who to trust, but we'd be in it together—and that's a tight marriage.

I'd write magazine articles on politically-induced monogamy. Why not? A fine housewife's hobby. His Shakespearean shirt fluttered against the dark and cluttered alley. "We'll be televisual together," I said.

Shadows fell across us, a flicker in dim light. Somebody passed at the mouth of the alley. He said, "We could both be killed."

I whispered, "Sure. In grade school, a boy choked on Jello, it's that common." I laughed, drunk on our future. Death seemed a small risk. "We can have the world."

He said, "We have the world. This is it." His fingernails were dirty, as he traced a line over packed dirt, between bricks. He rapped hirsute knuckles on the bricks we lay on.

"We can have the moon." I looked for the moon in the slice of sky over our alley, though it wasn't there.

My dictator's head rested on a stack of boards. A rusted nail poked through one plank. "Young Lady Liberty, my Miss America, you're too young to remember Rome. But here we are, the fall of Empire. This one's yours."

We were tangled, arms and legs, the family dog, a short, shared history. I said, "We're a triumvirate!"

He said, "You don't know politics yet."

I offered my best party trick, stood, and hoisted my skirt. I slid my underwear down my thighs, to pee against the wall, pee like a man. I have good muscles. My urine, that hot human truth, drew a slim dark river over the old bricks of that alley. I raised the hand that wasn't lifting my skirt, raised it like the Statue of Liberty, as though holding a burning torch. "Give me your poor, your muddled asses."

He said, "Really? And what would you do with them?"

I laughed out loud. I was still a free agent. I lay alongside him on the dirt and brick, kissed him deeply, beer-sweetened mouths open. I was Lady Liberty and I was Maria de Socorro, there to help. "I don't know," I said. "But you're mine. What we have, my dictator, my war machine—what we have, you and me, is a grand love. Where can we go?"

He said, "My mom's cool with it."

I had bigger plans.

The earth between bricks was so dry, it was like fired pottery. The rivulet of my urine took the shape of Florida. I said, "Florida!" and pointed. Our future? My deposed dictator half sat up, to see what I saw. Would Florida welcome us? But by the time he looked the spot had morphed, its ragged edge expanding.

"Zimbabwe," he said, with less enthusiasm.

Our future wasn't finished finding its shape yet. There was South Sudan, then Coasta Rica, then Venezuela clear as day. Stop! I hoped for Venezuela, and held my breath. It was like a roulette table in that way, but the mark kept moving.

A silhouette blocked the mouth of the alley. Enemy or wanderer? The streetlight came back to the alley, the interloper had moved on. My dictator extended a single finger, stretched his arm, reached. He touched my urine. It was an intimate move. It was dirty.

I loved this man. He drew a complicated, jagged line, a country I couldn't recognize. "Las Vegas?"

"Congo." His sly smile offered a challenge.

The Congo? Perhaps the worst place on earth to be female. At least in the top five.

Clearly, our relationship was suffering from a cultural difference, or his lousy childhood, or my failure to communicate. I ran my hand over his drawing, put my fingers in my own urine, tried to change his mind. "This is what you've done to me, what I've become." Yes, I tried guilt, even as I surrendered to his influence.

He said, "Stay here." He jogged to the end of the alley.

I rested my head on the board, closed my eyes, and waited under that moonless sky. In our future together, I'd sign my name Lady Liberty, as he christened me. He'd come back with an apology; we'd forget the Congo. He couldn't possibly mean it.

I heard his feet over loose stones. My head was throbbing. I listened to the lullaby of street sounds. I could hear actual music, a bar in the distance. And other than that, the alley grew so quiet.

When I sat up, nobody was there. I walked to the end of the alley, called my man's name. He'd disappeared; "Dictator? Honey? Sweet pea?" My voice cracked, under smoke and booze.

"We can try Congo," I offered, ready to make concessions. I spoke to the dark. But I knew, already, I was on my own. The world was one big political party. I, American in body and spirit, healthy, debauched and dedicated to travel, had no date. I felt a simmering discontent. What good was freedom when I wasn't free to hand it over, what use was the currency of my body if I couldn't spend it?

I left the alley, headed back toward the smoke-filled rooms where I'd find another entrenched leader, a dictator, an accomplice, my shill, deep in the next dark bar.