Trouble in Paradise
An excerpt from Gabrielle Chavela’s novel, Part of Your World
“What about these blankets over the mirrors?” Javier asked Kristina in a teasing voice. “Do you know what’s up with that?”
Kristina was flirting, squirting chocolate sauce on French toast. “Eva knows, you can ask Eva—there she is!”
When Javier turned toward where Kristina was indicating, Eva felt his glance shoot over her shoulder somehow. Or rather, she understood that he knew where her hands and her feet were and where they might move, but he was making no contact with her eyes and her face.
“Kristina can tell you,” she said softly. “Tell your father, about our mirror game.” She moved around the table where father and daughter sit, in the direction of the coffee pot, feeling how Javier’s eyes knew exactly where she was without exactly following her.
“A game!” Kristina’s eyes went round with shock— she tossed her head of unkempt curls. “It’s real.”
“What kind of real?” Javier said, then to Eva, “There’s more French toast in the oven, help yourself.”
“For the ghosts, Daddy,” Kristina explained. “So the ghosts don’t see us.”
“Ah, the ghosts,” said Javier, “Of course.”
“Because of, when the ghosts look at us.” Kristina fidgeted, rolling her head and looking at the ceiling. “Maybe they want what we have maybe…”
“You mean our Jewel Riders?” Javier said. “Our Barbie dolls?”
“More like our breath,” Kristina said. “They want our breath and our blood because they’re cold.”
“Really?” Javier said. “The ghosts behind the mirrors, they want that? But what about the ones that live under the water? Like in the fish pond maybe?”
A cold bolt ran down Eva’s spine. Her back was to them. She clutched her coffee mug, then set it down, carefully, without spilling.
“Sometimes if a child cannot sleep,” she said. “I tell a story.”
“Of course,” said Javier. Kristina was eating her French toast. A chocolate smudge grew around her mouth.
“I take the cloth down from the mirrors, now you are home,” Eva said. She was putting a single piece of French toast on a plate, which she placed on the table. Then she sat down behind it. Javier recalled in a flash just how the mirror in the bedroom had been unveiled the night before, but that seemed to have nothing to do with the girl who sat before him, eyes downcast, not touching her food.
“I don’t know,” Javier said, looking at Kristina. “I don’t guess I want ghosts looking at us, wanting what we got.”
Eva chopped off the corner of her toast and moved it away from the main slice with the tines of her fork.
“Maybe in the bathroom though,” Javier said. “It’s easier, for shaving.”
“Why don’t you take the day off?” Javier said, looking past Eva, through glass doors onto the terrace. “I’ll be with Kristina. It feels like I’ve been gone a long time. And you’ve been working twenty-four-seven.” He saw that Eva didn’t understand this expression, but it didn’t seem like it would improve things to explain it.
“Yes,” Eva said. “I go now?”
Javier thought about urging her to eat but didn’t.
Eva walked for a long time on the beach, swinging her bag and singing into the wind. She waded, holding her long skirt high, looking past the low breakers that foamed around her shinbones. Today she was not thinking of sharks so much, but of the golden fish that turned ceaselessly below the surface of the fish pond at Mister Connell’s house. Anba dlo. Anba dlo. Anba dlo m’ap tande…
Hunger overtook her in the afternoon. She walked inland to a different shopping strip, further away from the Connell house, and bought an order of fries and a Coke. When she had eaten she carried the bag into the bathroom and bolted herself into a stall to change into Trix’s clothes. With her long dress in the bag on her shoulder she went out and caught a bus downtown to Tamarind Way.
Alf’s boxy little van was parked in the carport beside the bungalow, but no one came when she rang and knocked at the door. The shades were all drawn, though that wasn’t unusual. Yet somehow the house seemed uncannily still. She walked around the back, looking. The settling brick of the small patio was littered with squashed cigarette butts, but it looked like they had all been rained on and it had been two days since it had rained. The back door wasn’t pushed all the way into the jamb and when she tapped above the knob it swung open into the interior dim.
She glanced down the basement steps: darkness. Alfie’s bedroom door was open and he lay with his head hanging off the foot of the bed, looking at her upside down.
“Trixie,” he said, happy but slack. “It’s been so long.”
“Looks like nobody’s humming in the hive,” she said. “Where’s Buffy?” It was Trix’s vocabulary and Trix’s sardonic smile, but she didn’t feel like Trix had the usual hundred-percent occupancy of her head.
“Trombone holiday,” Alfie said. It was what he called it, she had no idea why. She knew the bag and works would be there on the bedside table before she saw them. The sight reminded her of how sore she was inside from the bout of unaccustomed fucking the night before.
“God I’m glad to see you,” Alfie said. “You’d have been here yesterday if I knew where to call. Can I get a little assist? I got backwards somehow—can’t see the TV.”
“Just a minute,” she said. “You left the back door open, Alf.”
“See?” Alfie said. “I need you. Baby. What would I do without you?”
She could hear him still singing those words from the bedroom as she turned the deadbolt on the back door and then made a quick patrol of the other points of entry. When she returned, Alf had wormed his way up so that his head lay on the mattress. She helped him turn around and settle on a mound of pillows. His arm unrolled limply into her lap, and she counted off the fresh needle stings along the vein.
“I need a bump, too,” he said. “As long as you’re here.”
“Alfie, for real. How much have you had?”
“Too much ain’t enough, Trixie.” Alfie cackled, but without real glee. “Help yourself to a snort. There’s plenty.”
Trix cradled the slack arm, stroking it gently from the inside of the elbow to the heel of the palm, looking at the dance of colored shadow on the muted TV beyond the foot of the bed. Alfie sighed.
“Come on, baby. Let’s us spend some quality time.”
She turned her head toward the night-stand. Alfie had luxurious works—Bunsen burner with a proper tripod and a small glass beaker, red rubber tubing, like what a doctor might use to tie off. New disposable syringes in their properly sealed packaging A little jar of distilled water stood beside it all, and a gag lighter in the form of a Pez dispenser that spat fire. The heroin, though, lay in an ordinary Ziploc bag.
Alfie liked her to prepare with a ritual solemnity, like a geisha making tea or serving sake. In time she had come to enjoy that herself. There was something in the decorum of the motions and the sense of the purpose served that seemed to carry her back to some other life before. She measured, mixed, cooked up and drew the shot up through the needle. Alfie held his breath when his blood surged in the syringe, releasing it in a long sigh when she pushed the plunger. He was soon dreaming.
She disengaged from his slumped body for long enough to cut herself a small line on the glass top of the nightstand. Not so much as to leave her in black despair on the morning after, but enough to let her stand outside and above her pain.
Afterward she held him, drifting pleasantly. She had been careful not to form a habit. His habit was the island that they shared. She had first met Alfie a few months after Eduardo began to send Solange on calls. There had been three girls the first time on Tamarind Way; Trinka was one, another Russian or Pole with a made-up name. She didn’t really remember the third. A VIP party with a dozen men—a couple of women too but the women mostly watched. Alfie had taken no piece of that action, except to take pictures which he gave to his guests when it was all over. A pair of Eduardo’s runners dropped the girls off in the evening and picked them up six hours later.
The next time Alfie called Eduardo he wanted Solange only, and it was their first Trombone Holiday. Their friendship had first grown out of the fact that Alfie didn’t really want to fuck. But Alfie was willing and able to purchase extraordinary amounts of her time, and Eduardo was willing, at first, to take the money. The house on Tamarind Way became a regular date for Solange. If it was a Trombone Holiday, the date might go on for three days. Eduardo’s runners would do no more than pass by every twenty-four hours or so to make certain that she was still in the house.
Other times there was no Trombone Holiday; instead Alfie would be tweaking with the kids, as he called them, and running manically up and down stairs from the basement. At the end of those days he might take them all clubbing—he’d had a larger van before his current boxy vehicle, into which a rough dozen tweakers could be stuffed—or they would go to house parties or raves. The first elements of the Trix wardrobe had been put together for the first of those excursions, Buffy and the kids all helping to makeover Solange, as a joke, sort of. She could tell from Alfie’s appraising eye that he had some purpose beyond the gag but she couldn’t make out what it was until the day Eduardo came over and looked straight at Trix and then beyond her, altogether failing to recognize Solange…
If it wasn’t a Trombone Holiday, she spent time with the kids in the basement, which was where Trixie’s remarkable talent for pretexting, hacking the person as Alfie would say, had first emerged. Seeing her gift, Alfie had taught her the essentials of navigating the internet—and if it was a Trombone Holiday, when he’d chased everyone else away for a couple of days, she had loads of time with the computers, when Alfie went out on the nod, for almost always she declined to take the drug herself.
Happy days, in their weird way. It began to end when Eduardo first saw Trix, and thought nothing of her. It wasn’t the first time he had come. His drop-ins were casual, and didn’t last long. He appeared to pay no attention to Solange, or hardly any. Sometimes he came down Tamarind Way for crystal—he didn’t take the drug himself but occasionally offered it at parties, and if he didn’t want to go to one of the labs on the street, Alfie would toss him a bag for cost. Solange had had misgivings, from the moment Eduardo missed seeing her in Trix.
He was waiting for her in the house when his runners brought her back, and as soon as she came in he sent the other girls out of the tawdry little parlor where they paraded for the johns that came to them.
Solange, Solange, mi corazon, he murmured, turning up her chin with one hand while he ran the other down the back of her tight shorts, tracing the outline of the tattoo he’d inscribed there, a few months after the trip to Disney World. He made a show of sniffing her all over as he held her close to him. I doan know… he iss paying to fock you, Alfie, but I doan know iss he really focking you? The thick finger probed lower, exploring between her buttocks, testing, as he peered closely into her eyes. He gives me to his friends she said, though it hadn’t happened since the first time. She wanted to twist away from him but she didn’t try. I go by the house today he said, but I doan see you.
With that it came to her that Alfie hadn’t wanted her to be recognizable the nights that they went out and that in fact she wasn’t. I was in the bedroom she said, and he grinned at her unpleasantly: where your little ass belong… He took hold of her hair at the nape of her neck and pulled her head back. I giff your ass to my frens, he said. But Alfie giff your ass to his? I doan know… He shook his head. He’s paying for it, isn’t he? she told him then.
Eduardo sniffed her one more time and let her go, his focus slackening, but he was still suspicious. She went on two or three more calls to Tamarind Way before he put a stop to it, but that gave her time to smuggle a couple of changes of Trix’s clothes back to the house where he was keeping her, and by then she had already learned how to sweep up the footprints of someone else’s passage through the world and gather them into her own store. She had what she needed to go on. She waited several weeks from the last time she saw Alfie, and when she skipped she was on a call on the other side of town from Tamarind Way.
Alfie had taught her how to know a good one when she saw one. The dead ones are the best, he always said.
He stirred and murmured now, and she pulled him closer. Sometimes, snuggling Alf this way, she felt a warm glad feeling all through her body, a sensation she’d otherwise long ago lost. Fucking would have scattered it, she knew. The colored lights of the silent TV played over his face like firelight. His eyes opened and stayed that way, calm, just barely processing the images. She was coming out of her own drift as well, but painlessly. She hadn’t taken too much after all, but she was a little alarmed when she noticed the time.
“Gotta go,” she said, disentangling her arm. The windows had been dark, she realized, for a couple of hours or so.
“Ah come on,” he said, stroking her vaguely with his rubbery limbs. “Stay a little.”
“I can’t stay over, Alfie,” she said. “Work. I gotta go.”
Alf pushed himself up on the pillows, and came a little further into focus. “Okay,” he said. “Don’t tell me where you’re going.”
A cool shadow glided over her heart. “What are you saying?”
Alf was looking at the TV, where a cartoon program played in silence. “Eduardo’s been slinking around,” he said. “You know? Flashing a picture of Solange.”
“Who’s that?” she said.
Alfie laughed, but none too easily. “I dunno what got him excited about it again. I didn’t know anything to tell him before. That was a good thing. And Hell. You asked about Hell? She’s been around, the last few days. Got some bug up her nose about Trix.”
“Hijo de la puta!” she blurted. “Are they talking to each other?”
Alfie hooked his thumb under the pacifier on its pink string around his neck and lifted it as though presenting a cross to a vampire. “Kinda sorta maybe yeah, but what’re the odds they’d put it together they’re actually talking about the same person?”
She let that hang.
Alfie was looking at her now. “See,” he said. “Eduardo is not totally a nice guy, we know. But if he was to ask me straight up where you were I wouldn’t know what to tell him. And that’s a good thing. You follow?”
“I do.” She nodded, and gave him a last quick squeeze before she slipped away.
“It’s all good,” Alfie murmured, sinking lower into the pillows as she went out at the door.
Javier had spent a happy day between the beach and the playground with Kristina, but when supper and bath time passed with no sign of Eva, the girl became a little fretful. He had to struggle, washing her hair—Kristina thought that Eva did it better.
“How do you know she’s coming back?”
“Just do,” Javier said.
“But how do you know? How do you know?”
She was about to lock onto the phrase and start chanting it. The bathroom could be stressful for her, he recalled. He wrapped her in a towel and carried her to her room.
“Put on your jimjams,” he said. “I’ll comb your hair.”
Kristina didn’t ask about Eva again until the hair was done. Javier, however, caught himself straining his ears for the sound of the door. It didn’t come. He tucked Kristina into bed and read her a story and turned out the light.
“But how do you know?” she said, as he got up to go to his own bedroom. Javier turned to look back at her, her eyes dark in the moonlight where she lay on the white pillow. It was a question, not a semi-autistic mantra. She had only asked it once and she was waiting for an answer.
“She loves you,” he said, but how did he know that? He came back and sat down on the floor, leaning his back against her mattress. “She wouldn’t go off and leave you any more than I would.”
Kristina rolled toward him and dropped an arm over his shoulder. Her small hand dipped into the hollow of his collarbone. There was a thoughtfulness in the touch that moved him, as if she meant to reassure him. He remembered the morning, when he’d sent Eva away—she felt nothing at leaving him, that was clear, but when she parted from Kristina he had felt a thousand threads of attachment pulling tight, and when Eva looked at Kristina (just once on her way to the door) her eyes had been completely alive.
Kristina’s sleeping breath warmed the back of his neck. He folded her arm back under the sheet, softly rose and made his way out. He circled the front room, looking at the piano, but somehow he didn’t want any sound. When he stepped onto the terrace he heard nothing but insects ticking, wind in the leaves, the slow purling of the fountain into the pool.
He went to the bedroom, swept the screensaver from the face of the computer, and checked his email—there was nothing much. Still listening, he browsed the webcam recordings. And really, why should he have been so startled by what fumed out of webcam seven?
The single fixed angle made it look like the cheapest of cheap porn. Black-hooded dog-fox hunching into the white-faced vixen from behind… the costumery and the echoing of the jerky movements from the mirror behind the bed made it all seem sleazier still, but God he was grateful he didn’t have to see his own face. His stomach turned, and still the picture held him. How long could the goddamn thing possibly go on? It was still happening when he heard a sound at the gateway behind him. Webcam one popped up in a window and he saw Eva in her long demure skirt, turning dutifully to lock the gate behind her before she opened the inner door to the courtyard. Shuddering, he shut the computer off.
With the screen extinguished the whole room was dark. The glass doors onto the terrace were open, so he should have been able to hear the light tap of Eva entering her room, but instead the slow swish of her skirt was coming toward him. Or no. She was going to check on Kristina, he realized. Silence marked her pause in the child’s room. As a rule Eva moved very quietly, but her heels did click a bit on the tiles of the bathroom floor.
When she came into the bedroom Javier turned on the bedside lamp. Both of them flinched from the light, then recovered.
“Uh,” he said. “I’m home now.” With one hand he made half a gesture toward the courtyard and her room on the other side of it.
Was that the trace of a smile on her heavy lips? No. The mouth had the weight and shape of a leaf-blade spear. She was coming toward him with her chin high and her back straight as a lance, but supple; the extraordinary undulant movement. Glissando.
“Stop,” he said. “We can’t keep doing this.”
She did stop. He looked over his shoulder, noticing for the first time that she must have covered the mirror again before leaving the house that morning. It was a relief not to see the two of them together on that screen.
“But you want it,” she said. “You want my ti minou. Epi…” There ought to have been a smile here but there wasn’t. “El mio culo.”
Javier focused on a memory of lying in ambush in the low ground south of Mogadishu, holding himself stone-still while a three-foot-long viper crawled over his thigh. It seemed to help a little. “Well maybe I do,” he said. “But none of that is mine to take.” A queer insight struck him. “And it’s not yours to give either, is it?”
Eva turned from him then, and sat down on the foot of the bed. Her long hands were folded in her lap. “I have to be near her,” she said.
This statement somehow seemed irrefutable. It was just what he always felt himself. He squatted down, dialed the combination on the long drawer beneath the mattress, and stood up cradling the M-16.
“It’s all right,” he said to her widening eyes. “Nobody’s planning to shoot you. It won’t go off if you follow the rules.”
He pulled down the bedclothes and positioned the rifle straight up and down in the middle of the bottom sheet.
“Here’s the rules,” he told her, pointing to the spot nearest the wall. “You sleep on that side, I sleep on this one. Understand?”
“Yes.” Her eyes contracted and she lowered her head.
“All right then.” Javier switched out the light and stretched out, pulling the top sheet over him. He closed his eyes. But then she could approach him unaware. But when he opened them he could see her undressing in the moonlight.
Jesus. He closed his eyes and concentrated on ambush mode and the slow scaly pull of snake across his leg. Presently he felt her small weight settling cautiously on the other side of the M-16. When the movement stopped, he opened his eyes to the shadows on the ceiling and got ready to lie rigidly awake until morning. Thirty seconds later the room was full of sunlight and he was alone in bed with the rifle, though he could hear Eva and Kristina singing some silly song together in the kitchen.
Excerpted from Part of Your World, a novel by Gabrielle Chavela, published by Dymaxicon and available on Amazon. Read Chavela’s essay I Don’t Exist on why, for political reasons, she chose to publish under a pseudonym (in the collection Writers Who Lie: Frauds, Tricksters and Anonymous Heroes).