catherine brady catherine brady

elizabeth blackburn

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Curled in the Bed of Love
The End of the Class War

- from The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories

The Dazzling World

Dismal, Cam was telling Judith. You show up for the casting call and sit on folding chairs in the hallway, and you look around and see that everyone’s the same. All the men look like you, because the director put out a call for middle-aged, bookish men. And all the actresses look alike too, the housewife type, all these slightly overweight women with stunned expressions.
Dismal might have described their present circumstances, sitting on a crowded bus that lurched at every hairpin turn of the road as it ascended through the dense mesh of tropical jungle. When the bus jerked over a rut, the people jammed in the aisle rocked and swayed in a motion that seemed as smooth as the parabolic arc of a whip but was felt in jolting increments, flesh and all its vulnerable softnesses smacked against other flesh, against the metal frames of the seats and the shifting contents of packages compressed between one body and another. The heat-fused blend of exhaust fumes and acrid human odors demanded resignation.
What if you didn’t know what box you were in? Judith said. What if you showed up for a casting call thinking you were a coquette and had to take your seat with all the housewives?
Cam nodded. And nothing you can do about it. You can’t disown the body that carts you around.
Cam had never complained to Judith before of this aspect of his journeyman trade as a stage actor, and she wondered, why now, when those casting-call hallways must have been air-conditioned. Did it come to mind because on this bus they were so distinct among all the dark-skinned, black-haired, stocky people?
She should have expected to feel super-sized and overfed, encumbered with excess. When they arrived in Guatemala City, they had taken a taxi to the bus station, Judith reading the address to the taxi driver from the letter her sister had sent. She and Cam had hauled their luggage onto a local bus that would take them to the highland village near Dana’s archaeological site. Pluming black smoke, the bus made arduous progress through the crowded streets of the city, and Judith counted one shop sign after another announcing reparación, every imaginable kind of salvage and repair, from cars to refrigerators and watches, asserting the essential condition of a poor country against any turista illusions. Before they had left the city limits, Cam said he didn’t think he could take the heat even for the week they planned to spend with Dana.
The bus bounced over another rut, and the woman standing beside Cam lost her grip on her heavy bag, smacking it against his skull. Cam clapped a hand to his head, cursing; she’d been banging that bag against him the whole trip, and he’d refused Judith’s offer to trade places. Cam reached for the bag, and the woman gripped it more tightly. An anxious flow of Spanish came from her mouth as they played tug of war. Cam smiled at the woman, gesturing his intent, the expansiveness of his physical language almost aggressive in their cramped circumstances, until finally he succeeded in getting her to relinquish the bag. Settling it in his lap, he said, Es mas facile.
After that, Cam and the woman were fast friends, though wariness never quite left her face as she tried to converse with him in the limited vocabulary they had in common. Making a fuss was Cam’s way of encountering the world.  It would be his loud voice that boomed out a protest when someone cut in line at the grocery store, prompting laughter, or his contentious remark about their neighbor’s loud music late one night that would result in an invitation to the next party. It was something you got used to, his vague discontent. Judith had seen him through dozens of dark nights of the soul when he thought he should move to LA and really give this a shot or quit acting rather than subsist forever on scraps. She’d weathered countless agonized discussions over whether they worked hard enough at their relationship or were truly compatible.
Last summer, after four years, they’d begun talking about marriage. They were in their late thirties; their friends had paired off with an air of finality. At least they might live together. A long search to find an apartment neither objected to, within reach on their small salaries. But the day Judith was supposed to drop off the security deposit, she had to meet a tight deadline for a biology text. Unable to scan into the computer her diagrams of cell processes and amino-acid structures, she raced to the publisher’s office to deliver them in person. She forgot about the deposit and they lost the apartment, and Cam knew what this meant. When she could not tease him out of his conviction, she tried tit-for-tat: which one of them really wasn’t sure? They were still living in separate apartments.
Judith was tired from their flight, and her eyes kept closing as she listened to Cam gamely fight on with the woman, struggling to be understood. When the bus slammed to a halt and a man boarded with a rifle slanted across his hip, she was roused from sleep to the strangest of strange worlds, unmoored, bewildered, submissive. She thought, this is what you hallucinate out of the most shameful reaches of your privilege, and she felt as if she had called down this threat on all the other passengers. The man with the rifle issued orders she had no hope of understanding. She reached reflexively for her purse, and Cam had to stop her. She followed him as he followed the lead of the other passengers, setting down packages and filing off the bus in silence.
Three men with rifles: one posted at the folding door of the bus and two who stood just beyond, lining up passengers by the side of the road. Cam held Judith’s hand when they stepped off the bus, and she could not see the man who motioned them to join the others, could not lift her eyes from the coal surface of the rifle’s barrel to his face. One of the armed men climbed back on the bus to go through their packages, and another began moving down the line of passengers, a hand out, palm up, to receive what little these people could cough up. Cam held Judith tight against him, and her clothing wicked up the sweat that soaked his shirt. Judith could only keep looking at the rifles. She had the strange need to be accurate in recording what she saw: barrel, scope, rifle stock. Cylinder, disk, cone.
She stared at the man’s palm when it was finally thrust at her, mentally tracing the lines that crosshatched his skin, as if her eye were charting in advance the route her hand must follow with a pen. Cam clutched her tightly, but with his free hand he undid the clasp of her watch and surrendered it. One handed, he managed to remove his own watch and tug his wallet from his back pocket.
They waited for the man to reach the end of the line. In the tense, expectant quiet, Cam could not help himself. He said in his loud voice, If these morons had any brains, they’d have waited for a tourist bus. The silence snapped in the air around them—crack of a whip, like the bodies jostling with the jerky motion of the bus—and Judith tugged at his sleeve and whispered, shut up, shut up. She squeezed her eyes closed until whatever volley of sound might have followed on his booming voice did not come. For sure would not come.

… Story continues …