In Chile my mother was married to a famous opera singer. She herself was a ballerina. Long legs, flat chests, and small heads run in the family.
The opera singer was big and fat. He was not my father. He did not bother us three daughters of my mother. Mostly he was away singing. He kept my mother and us in money. We continued to live in the big house my mother had inherited from her father. My mother now had money, which she had not had when she was married to our father, intellectual José with spectacles. At that time, Mother had been banned from the house by my grandparents because of her association with our father, who was a communist, thin and pale. But when Father died — we never found out exactly how — our grandfather brought her back to the big house. Grandmother was already dead.
When Grandfather died, Mother inherited this big estate, and the opera singer, whom she had known a very long time, came courting. In their marriage, old money married new money. The opera singer provided the operating expenses for Mother’s big estate.
He brought with him his big clothes, his Master’s Voice record player, his records and his money in old suitcases, which were all stacked under the big double bed in the main bedroom. My mother gave all my father’s clothes to charity. I managed to save one brown tweed jacket that Father used to wear on his trips to France. I stole it into my own room and kept it hidden under my schoolbooks in my wooden desk with its flip lid that opened upwards.
My mother stopped complaining how my father had gone off and died and left her all alone. Now she complained instead of her opera singer husband who was always away. But I could see that she loved being the doyenne of high society with a magnificent home where all the society ladies wanted to come to drink tea out of fine china. And pretend to understand opera. I saw them putting in ear plugs before the record started and nodding off to sleep, even during “O Mio Babbino Caro,” which always moved me to tears. My mother never played more than one record at her soirées. She wanted to impress her friends, not drive them away.
Now with money coming in we had good food and new clothes again. We kept horses and went riding. We went to ballet classes but only I heard the music when it wasn’t there. My sisters stopped going because the pliés and splits were so difficult and painful to have to do daily. They were less muscular than I was. The male dancers did not like lifting them, especially when they giggled and wiggled about. But I always jumped with each lift and went soaring through the air, my chin tilted and my head set at forty-five degrees, smiling if the story required a smile. At sixteen I danced both Odette and Odile in Swan Lake. I liked the white swan well enough but the black one better. She had fire. When we finished the parents applauded, especially a man who had been so quiet while we were dancing. I began to understand how you can play up to an audience and get hooked on the sound of cheers and clapping. Especially if someone shouts like this man shouted, “Ah!”
I felt like a star after that. My mother started to say, “Don’t think you are so special. Your father always spoiled you.” But I knew she was just jealous.
My sisters barely made it into the row of little ducklings all linked together and flexing their legs into diamond shapes with that cutesy music.
When my stepfather was away on his tours, I snuck into his and my mother’s room, took the Master’s Voice record player and a stack of black records into the closet, and played them there. Besides the rest of me, my right arm also grew strong from cranking up the machine every time the soprano or the tenor began to go off in slow motion, their voices and the words all stretched out. “Ooo-moo.” Then I’d crank like crazy and the music would be at normal speed again.
I listened to “Avé Maria” sung by Elizabeth Schumann many times because it reminded me most of my father. At that time I did not know there were other Avé Marias. I thought this one, Schumann’s, was — the — Avé Maria.
I was only allowed to go to one of my stepfather’s performances, once. It was in the city hall. I had to sit with my school friend and our chaperone in one of the back seats. Since I did not like my stepfather, I tuned my mind out when he sang. I thought he was affected and put on airs and sang to the women, not the men. No wonder my mother never went to listen to him. Maybe she heard too much of his voice in bed.
When the women sang though, I understood everything without understanding any of the words. As soon as the soprano ended “O Mio Babbino,” a man in the front row shouted “Ahh!!” Very loud and very sudden. Louder than my ballet audience.
The soprano showed her weakness when she overstretched her voice in the beginning and it wobbled a bit, but it was worth it, to hear this man so taken with her. She was strong and passionate, as well as vulnerable. I became jealous but knew I could not sing, only listen. My voice was small and shrill and off key. It sounded all right only in the shower.
My elder sister and my younger one married rich businessmen. My mother began to get at me to find someone. To be cussed towards her I spent more and more time in the artists’ and writers’ café near the university.
There I met Jorgé.
Jorgé talked about the injustice of the world and how exploitative landowners such as my grandparents had been. I gave up dancing lessons and decided to design and dance ballets of my own devising, with revolutionary themes. One night I gathered up my clothes and my pink ballet toe shoes with the satin worn at the toes and ran away with Jorgé. The way he spoke, tugging at his ragged beard, and his bitter cigarette smell reminded me of my father.
My mother tried to get my stepfather to talk to Jorgé and bribe him to give me up. Jorgé got angry and shouted back at him, “Who do you think she is? A piece of meat to be bargained over? Can’t you see she’s a living, breathing human being with a mind of her own, the right to make up her own mind?”
I heard them from the back room where I had been trying to do my daily exercises. I was huffing and puffing in the heat. Marriage and having no money had made me put on weight. These days I could not do splits as easily; the muscles on the insides of my thighs hurt when stretched. I soon gave up trying. Mostly I cooked for Jorgé and his revolutionary friends who talked late into the night. I developed a cough from breathing in all their cigarette smoke.
That evening the opera singer left in a hurry when Jorgé’s friends came in, and for effect, Jorgé poked his finger at his chest and backed him into a corner.
I wasn’t with Jorgé long. One day the goon squads came with dark blue ski masks on their faces and took him away. I tried to find him but could not. Unlike my grandparents who had taken my mother back when she was widowed, my mother and stepfather wanted nothing to do with me. They did, however, when their conscience was bitten, send me some money now and then.
Afraid to live alone at the old address near the university, I moved in with an older woman whose son was one of those who disappeared. She lived in the slums near a big garbage dump. I always shared what I had with this woman, whom I cannot name, and she in her turn looked after me as a real mother would. In the daytime we took our signs on poles with our loved ones’ names on them and paraded in front of government buildings. In the evenings we cooked and cleaned and looked after ourselves. I became a walking zombie and Jorgé became a name on a piece of cardboard. Sometimes someone said they had seen him here or there, but these people were mostly strangers. At first I gave them money for information but then my adoptive mother said I was just encouraging their imaginations and so I stopped. Besides, the money from my stepfather and mother was not regular at all and we needed it all for food.
I could have gone on like this for months and maybe years, who knows, but one day returning from one of the demonstrations downtown, I ran into one of the men, a gay man, who had been one of my primary lifters in ballet class. One of the other men and most of the women, who didn’t know he was gay (actually he was bisexual), had liked him a lot. He was tall and handsome with curly reddish hair and when in tights, he had a big bundle in front. He looked at me in surprise. “Is it really you? What happened to you? You’re so thin. You used to be beautiful.” He bent down and kissed my right cheek. His cheeks and chin were gray-green colored, newly shaved. The bristles felt scratchy against my skin. I thought how long it had been since a man kissed me. I started to cry and told him all about Jorgé and his disappearance. I must have drunk a hundred cups of coffee telling him my story.
In the end he was crying too. He leaned over so suddenly to hold my hand, the cobalt blue glass flower vase full of orange zinnias in the middle fell over and broke. My friend picked up the pieces of glass while all the time I kept fussing, “Be careful. Be careful. Don’t cut your fingers.” He wrapped the pieces of glass in a paper napkin and got up and threw them in the wastebasket. He came around the table and hugged me, then he said “You know what? If I don’t see you again I want to give you this piece of advice. From someone who always loved you. Leave now. I can’t understand how you are still here walking around. You have stayed too long. You must leave.”
“But how?” I asked.
“You find a way,” he said, scratching his nose, with its glittery stone set just above where his nostril flared. “It’s for you to find your way out.”
After that I started hanging around the U.S. Embassy with the other people whom I thought of as embassy hangers-on and whom I detested. I found a cultural attaché who told me the woman in the visa section took bribes. I bribed her with the emerald ring my mother had given me as a communion gift. I arranged a marriage with a man who was migrating, with the understanding that once in Miami he would divorce me. It was a bit troublesome because he wanted to sleep with me and did not want to divorce me when the time came, but I held my ground.
Finally I made my way to Philadelphia where I had a cousin. There I found out that the passport I had bought in Chile was a fake. I needed to go into hiding.
In West Philadelphia there is a stone church every few blocks. I walked around for two full days trying to find a church that would give me sanctuary in order for me to apply for political asylum and not be deported. Finally, through the Quakers who had helped my cousin, I found a church on a street corner on Chestnut Street, but I don’t remember the name of the cross street that ran south to north. This was a Catholic church and had given asylum to several people from El Salvador. I met Guillermo while I was at that church.
The slim man with curly black hair and I both had red and white patterned handkerchiefs around the bottom halves of our faces when we gave the interview. Our sponsors gave us the handkerchiefs ten minutes before the session started. So all I saw were Guillermo’s eyes, which were pitch black, and his thick black eyebrows, which met in the middle over his nose. The skin on his forehead and around his eyes was pale with brown freckles. He frowned a lot when concentrating. Three deep horizontal frown lines had already formed on his forehead. He told me later he liked my flyaway brown hair and green eyes and what did I think of him then.
I don’t remember what I thought of him. I was so anxious about the interview with the reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer. The black church lady said it would be good for publicity and our asylum case if we gave an interview, because few people knew about human rights abuses in that part of the world, but I was not so sure. I tried to say as little as possible.
I did not want to give out names in case the authorities back home started to give trouble to my mother and stepfather, my sisters and their husbands, or Jorgé’s folks. I was especially worried about my adoptive mother and the other mothers of those who disappeared, so I said very little. I mumbled behind my scarf. The reporter tried talking to me in Spanish. I was just as reticent. Guillermo, I noticed, spoke beautifully in Spanish or English. What he said moved the audience without giving away any of the names of people back home who might get into trouble. And all that from behind a scarf that hid half his face.
At every important interview after that, I noticed Guillermo always sat on my left. While I spoke so little the reporters concluded I was either severely traumatized or mentally challenged, Guillermo continued on eloquently. Once when I was provoked into talking, he touched my wrist and said, “You don’t have to answer that question.” And once when I got emotional and started to say too much he warned, “That’s enough, Maria.” Though I didn’t actually lean on him physically in those days, I began to think of him as someone that I could lean on, if I wanted to or needed to. I tried to test him by sitting in the same chair at the far end of the table and by going early to be in the interview room. He always showed up after me, on time but never late. Then he sat in the chair closest to me on my left, even though there were plenty of empty chairs. I took to passing him little notes or funny sketches during the interviews. Once he was so pleased he raised his head and laughed loudly and made false despairing crying sounds. Everyone looked at us as if there was something going on between us and I looked down modestly.
Because the church hid us downstairs in the basement together, or in the homes of parishioners or with churches of other denominations in the greater Philadelphia area, Guillermo and I saw a lot of each other and found we got along very well with each other. We were after all the same age and in the same plight. I had lost a lover, he had lost his brother. It was only luck that he had escaped through a window. He told me he was sure his elder brother was dead. I was envious of his certainty and the peace of mind that I thought that brought him. I myself was unsure whether Jorgé was dead or alive until a candomblé woman from Brazil whom I consulted in Elkins Park told me that for sure he was dead. This woman was also a psychiatrist in her professional life and refused to take money from me. She gave me a gift of a handful of sugar snap peas from her garden when I left — I munched on the sweet and juicy crisp emerald green peas raw on the bus back to West Philadelphia, snapping each sharply in half before I put it in my mouth. After that I felt much calmer.
Amazingly, after six months of hiding, Guillermo’s and my asylum were approved. We each got a one-page letter in a precious white envelope. We did not need to move from place to place anymore, nor fear deportation. We could work legally. No need now to talk with handkerchiefs over our mouths.
Guillermo at once said that he would study political science at an Ivy League university. Then when he was well qualified he’d go home and make a difference. He’d set up a reconciliation commission for answers and for closure for the families of the disappeared ones. True to his word, he soon got a scholarship to go to the University of Pennsylvania. I went to community college and studied accounting, which I did not like at all, because I thought that would be more practical for finding a job. By now Guillermo and I were living together. We took a small apartment in West Philadelphia.
Now when I saw the visiting Russian ballerinas perform on TV at Wolf Trap Farm Park, I first turned the TV off. Then I couldn’t stand it again and turned it on and watched mesmerized. Then I remembered my dream of being a ballerina and turned the TV off again. Guillermo was changing too. He read less books. He started to do body-building exercises and his muscles got pumped up. I asked if he was taking steroids but he told me no, he wasn’t. He spoke disparagingly of the political groups overseas, how much they fought with each other, how the academics were no better. They were in it for the publicity and to develop their careers. No one really cared about the disappeared ones except perhaps the mothers.
The good part though was that as he became more conscious about his appearance, so also I became more conscious of mine. I exercised and paid attention to my clothes, wearing the fashions with deep décolletage and short skirts that Guillermo liked. One was a tight black dress that had a keyhole-shaped opening low between my breasts, with a sort of flap covering for the keyhole. When Guillermo and I dressed up for a special occasion, our third anniversary, people turned around to look at us on the street. He and I were in an ad — the photo shoot was at 30th Street Station. I played the woman having her shoes shined, showing my legs, my feet in strappy black patent leather high heels, a thin, fake gold chain around my right ankle, and he played the shoeshine man, naked from the waist up. Besides the photographer commissioned to take the shots, some tourists even stopped and stole some pictures. The photographer shooed them away. But one fat middle-aged woman, dressed in a flowered housecoat and looking as fagged out as the collapsing bronze traveler lifted from under his armpits by the big bronze angel that decorated the Market Street corner of the station, stared at us a long time and then exclaimed loudly, “I knew they’re too good to be true!” Guillermo said almost as loudly, “What does she mean, we’re not real people? These aren’t real muscles?” I kicked him with the toe of my high heel. The photographer said, “C’mon now kiddos, act nice.” Guillermo and I grinned at each other for the camera.
When we went out for dinner and dancing with Guillermo’s classmate and his girl friend, the girlfriend looked sideways at the strategic keyhole in my black dress and Guillermo reached out his hand and pulled the flap shut when he saw his friend looking down my cleavage. Still Guillermo was quite pleased when I got myself breast implants as part of an experimental program from a well-known clinic. He didn’t like that my breasts felt hard and I did start to have a lot of headaches and achy joints, and it wasn’t that his lovemaking was not passionate and good before, but now he made more effort to please me and to sustain his erection longer. We grew more into the physical side of our relationship.
Some days, quite often, he did not go to classes. He was supposed to be preparing for what he called his comp exams; there were no more classes, he said. On those days we lay on old sheets on the dusty carpet that I did not like to vacuum often and made love a lot. But often his eyes looked far away and that bothered me. Sometimes too I just got tired, or tired of it all. It seemed sometimes that there was very little love in making love.
I dropped out of community college and worked as a waitress in a French restaurant. I got a lot of tips but the men tried to pick me up and when I told one I already had someone, he complained to the manager that I was rude to him, and so I lost my job.
Then the blow fell. Guillermo failed his comps and lost his scholarship.
“We’ll manage,” he said. “I didn’t want to say it, but these Ivy League places are very elitist. So snooty. No one talks to me in class but the other foreign students and this one Black guy. We’ll do OK, you’ll see. A Ph.D. on a subject like Chile is not much use anyway.”
But we didn’t do OK. I had nightmares of being forced to return to Chile and having no dollars in my purse. Our joint savings hovered around $5,000 for the two of us and when it fell to about $2,000, I cabled my mother and stepfather and they sent some money and we continued on.
This happened several times but then my sisters and my mother started writing me about how things were not so easy for them in Chile either. Then one day Guillermo said he’d found us a job that involved dancing and we could work together. Moreover it was close to where we now lived, a cheaper apartment full of roaches.
“Where?” I asked.
“A bar called the Wicca, near here.”
At first I thought we’d be dancing the merenge or the tango together, to get the other dancers started, sort of, but Guillermo said it had no dance floor. We’d be dancing on stage. “We’ll also be flimsily dressed,” he added.
“What’s flimsily dressed? I’m a trained ballerina, ballerinas don’t wear much.”
Guillermo then asked if I remembered the floorshow that we had been to once, in Atlantic City, when I was on my trial run as a black jack croupier. I didn’t make it then, but also I had to hold the drunks and gamblers at bay. My mother when she heard of it wrote me, “Are jobs so scarce in the United States? Isn’t there something else you can do? Must you do this?” I remembered my days in the convent-run school my mother sent us to.
“Oh, the floorshow. You mean topless dancing? I suppose it won’t be so bad if I am with a lot of other dancers, am wearing a mask and a lot of feathers, and am in the first part of the show.”
“They sort of jack up the exposure to nudity, don’t they? First two pairs of breasts at the beginning, then more and then some more till everyone is stark naked. I don’t know if I can do that.” I had noticed then that the dancers wore a lot of makeup, almost caked on their faces, and their expressions were completely impassive. They were also all made up to look like dolls, all the same, all out of the same long leg factory.
“Do you know what couch dancing is?”
How did Guillermo know for that matter? Maybe before we started going out together he frequented those kinds of places. I started to worry. Was he sleeping around now? When we started dating we had both gotten AIDS tests at the university’s test center and we were both clear, HIV negative. But now, Guillermo’s obsession with his body and mine started to seem ominous. Should we get ourselves tested again; should we break up and go our different ways?
After a long silence, Guillermo said, “Well, we’ll go across the river to Camden and take a look, then you can decide,” but I shook my head. No, it was bad enough having to avert my eyes when we drove past the exotic dancing places, I didn’t want to go into those sleazy places. What could they teach me, a classically trained ballet dancer?
“I’d rather die than do that kind of work. Frolic in the nude!” I went into our bedroom and slammed the door. Sleep might make me forget our problems, at least for some time.
The problem of course in cases like this is that you have to eat, you have to pay your rent, the cash inflow is uncertain but the outflow is all too regular. It hurt me physically each time I had to write a rent check or a telephone check. My stomach hurt and I had to go to the lavatory. Eventually we had only one cell phone and Guillermo kept it with him.
The morning he found me on the stairs crying. Guillermo said, “Maybe we should go and see Ned.”
“Who’s Ned?” I asked between sobs. Guillermo said it was the man at Wicca.
So that was how Guillermo and I ended up doing a live sex act on stage for money. I did not like it and I don’t think Guillermo liked it either. To disguise myself I wore a ton of makeup. I put it on in our dressing room. Guillermo grew a beard and dyed his beard as well as his hair blond. It was very strange, as if we were play-acting and we did not know each other anyway.
Then there were the floodlights. In a way they were good because behind them, though there might be a million men, or my mother’s and sisters’ eyes, I and Guillermo did not see them. The audience was quiet as if awed and the music was loud; that was merciful. You had to visualize how it would look to the people beyond the floodlights, even if you cursed them in your mind in time with the pounding music. And then it had to be tasteful. We only did one performance every Saturday night. Wicca made a lot of money off of us.
From the very first night, because we did it at work, we no longer did it at home. I ate so much after that first night, I threw up and then kept vomiting until only yellow bile came out, my throat sore, my breath sour, green rings round my eyes. Guillermo drank and drank from that day onwards. But in the end our natural ways of getting ourselves fired from this job were too slow a process. Fate worked faster.
Close to Christmas of the year 1994, it ended abruptly. I was always most worried about the walk home after the performance. I always took off all my makeup however late it was and insisted Guillermo wear a thick scarf almost up to his eyes and a woolen cap to cover the dyed blond hair. We took different routes home and hid our home address and sometimes even split from each other in leaving by the back door, in case some weirdo were to stalk us, memorizing us by our heights and builds and the fact that we were together. Even before the Wicca act, Guillermo had already been robbed twice by men with AK47s. He gave them his wallet, without looking at their faces, he said. Our friends told us automatic weapons were being sold off the sidewalk in Chester, south of Philadelphia in the housing projects off of I-95, for forty-five dollars a piece.
That night I scraped off my makeup fast and left quickly. As soon as I got home I put the spaghetti sauce on the stove to warm it. The Hmong refugee woman next door had harvested the big, fat beefsteak tomatoes from her flowerbed vegetable plot beside the front steps and given them to me. I had put in the green chillies they gave me also, because now Guillermo drank so much, his taste buds had dulled.
I knew he was dead as soon as I heard the gunshot, even before I looked out the window and saw him lying there in the snow under the streetlight with a red stain on his chest that kept growing larger as I watched. I turned the gas off before I called 911. I went out and the old Hmong woman tried to pull me back into the hallway, but I went out anyway. It took an eternity for the ambulance to arrive. After examining him, they took him away shaking their heads. I went along and gave them all the particulars they needed. A police car brought me back home. The Hmong woman was waiting up for me.
She insisted I sleep in her apartment that night and fed me pig’s head soup and noodles in the morning.
After the funeral I tried to kill myself, not from losing Guillermo — he was lost already — but from hopelessness. I took a kitchen knife and a bottle of bleach and went to the bridge over the Schuykill River, just near the 30th Street Railway Station where he and I had pretended to be the ideal couple. I drank the bleach, or at least as much of it as I could stand, slashed at my forearms and jumped into the cold river. But even then my life force was too strong and I swam to the shore.
I was in psychiatric evaluation for a while, in a padded room, where the nurse checked behind the curtains to see if I had a man hidden there. When I was released I went to a nunnery in upstate New York for a while, where I helped bake bread in their bakery.
I started to dance again as a form of prayer.
As soon as I was well again, found a job, and had health insurance, I had the implants taken out. They left scars but I was not too damaged. I sued the clinic that had put them in and won.
Kyi May Kaung, born in Burma, has a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in Political Economy. She came to America on a Fulbright in 1982 and applied for asylum after the junta’s clampdown on the pro-democracy movement started in 1988. Kyi won the William Carlos Williams Award of the Academy of American Poets in 1993 and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Award for her play “Shaman” in 1996. She has been a Pew finalist twice. Her poem “Eskimo Paradise” will be in the upcoming Norton Anthology of S.E. Asian Poetry. She has two poetry chapbooks — Pelted with Petals: The Burmese Poems and Tibetan Tanka. Other poems have appeared in Meridian Bound, Rattapallax, CrossConnect, Poets’ Attic, Mosaic, and Passport Magazine. After working in international radio and with the Burmese democratic government in exile, Kyi is now working on a novel. Kyi is also a visual artist and has had two one-woman art shows since 2001.
Works by Kyi May Kaung
Free to be Wild: Artist Elsa Gebreysus from Eritrea
Shrimp Shelling & Tuna Canning in Mahachai, Thailand
Fiction: The Lovers