LETTER TO A STRANGER:
TO THE HANDS I COULD TAKE ANYWHERE
BY AMY BELK
Once, say five years ago, I stood next to Gael García Bernal in an elevator at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. I was barefoot, holding my shoes. He wore boots and I was still taller than he was. I loved him hard quietly, over there by my shoulder. I want to say we were both wearing sunglasses, except then how could I have seen his eyes?
Much longer ago—a very long time ago now—I was married for almost seven years. I was twenty when it started. But save for our honeymoon, my husband and I never took a trip together, just the two of us. Not even once. That’s a little piece of trivia about my marriage that I think says a lot. I did all my traveling with girlfriends, which seemed like a way to not need to leave my husband.
It was Annie I was with that time in the D.F.—just Mexico City, now. She was married, too. Our husbands were back home in New York in the brownstone the four of us shared. They were nice, teddy-bear kinds of guys. The sort everyone would totally hate you for hurting.
Annie and I were staying in a hotel where D. H. Lawrence had once lived, a converted monastery that smelled very intensely of cleaning products. I think it cost $12 a night. We smoked cigarettes in the lobby and ate cake on the roof. We slept spine to spine and woke from nightmares to defecate and cry quietly in the tile bathroom. Our room was on a floor with a balcony that looked down into the center of the hotel. All the floors were like that, after the first.
But this is a letter to you, Gil. Hi.
You were, Gil, one night of your life, eating dinner with friends at a restaurant on the rooftop of a different hotel in Mexico City, this one overlooking the Zócalo. It was the end of October, fourteen years ago, I think. I’m not exactly sure because a few years back I tore up all my journals from that time, tired of the worn groove of coded, penitent narrative. I wanted to remember things differently, if that were possible, if it wasn’t too late. I wanted to make room for what else there might have been.
I remember that you looked a little restless. Your friends were all beautiful and had a lot to say, but you leaned back in your chair and glanced away when they laughed. I loved you for that. Who knows what Annie and I were talking about, quietly at our table, trying not to seem American. I believe we were both eating enchiladas suizas, but I can’t remember what we drank. Something—we were interested in cultivating addictions. We were sad and also happy, trying to think of people to bring back here with us, not coming up with anyone who would love it enough.
I still have two souvenirs from that night. One is a photograph Annie took of me putting out a cigarette in a fancy ashtray back in the lobby of the D.H. Lawrence hotel before we left for dinner and the ballet. It’s one of the few photographs I keep from those years—the married years, the friends-with-Annie years. The other is the napkin you sent over with the waiter when your party stood to leave.
Every day for the rest of the trip, I thought of calling you and didn’t. I called home instead, from a truculent pay phone, and I wrote in my journal how much I missed him. Annie and I went to the bullfights, to the movies. At the time, Gael García Bernal was a priest in a small village, tortured with forbidden longing for a young married woman full of tears. Devotion could not save them from the swerving of desire, nor its wreck. Annie and I rented a car and drove high into the mountains. We were there for the Day of the Dead.
People tell you it will haunt you forever, that you’ll never forgive yourself for breaking the vows, his heart, that you’ll carry that weight through hell to hell, and should.
Instead it goes like this: the one in Mexico you’ll never know, but back in Harlem, another young man with eyes like melting chocolates walks by your office pretending he’s the mailman and hands you an envelope with the definition for supernova inside. You tape it in your journal and staple the pages around it shut.
It doesn’t stay secret for long. You Sharpie a red “A” on your bare chest during a bad fight one night, and in the morning, your nightgown blooms like you’ve been shot. Your husband goes to work weeping. Annie, whose bedroom is beneath yours, meets you in the stairwell, her finger in your face, everything about her shaking: You did this, you ruined everything. But after awhile you look back and even that’s beautiful.
The proof that it could be was in tiny things. Handwriting on a napkin, learning the stranger’s name: the world I was drawn to was drawn to me back. Cookies shaped like skulls in graveyards full of mums and candles: the world would help with grief. Everything helps if you let it. I remember customs holding me for questioning when we got back to the States. They couldn’t believe I’d gone so far for so long with such a little bag.
What I can tell you about tearing up those journals, Gil, is: it worked. I kept the scraps I liked in a folder with a picture of my legs taped to the front. And with the scraps, your number—just in case, I guess.
Annie and I went to the ballet after dinner. It lasted a very long time. All through it, I imagined you sitting next to me with your hand on my neck.
My Lord, Gil, sitting through that ballet, imagining your hand on my neck. I can take that anywhere, now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy Belk is the co-writer of the feature film I Used to be Darker. Her short fiction has appeared in journals including Epoch, Eyeshot, and Fiction. She received her M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was awarded the Richard Yates Prize for Fiction. Her favorite place on nobody else's list is the boxing ring.