The Body Museum
By Spencer Dew
Our room was quiet, still, and silent, with two slim beds—parallel pallets on wooden planks—and a tiny balcony that we could manage to share only if our bodies were, to some degree, in a state of overlap. The bus trip up from Mexico City had taken too long, sapping most of our ability to communicate with each other in any way untouched by malice. So we didn’t spend much time on the balcony, just glanced down into the plant-draped, triangular courtyard, four stories of floors shifting width and angle, fern fronds and some sort of red flower, the strung laundry of a gang of Belgian backpackers.
Inez had her reasons for picking this town. She felt that any place with sun-drenched plazas and winding, terraced streets held a necessary American romance, more American for its removal from Americans, expat for a holiday. It was a university town, an old silver-mining camp given over to pastel street scenes, crammed with art galleries and décor-laden churches, popular with German and Japanese tourists. Inez wore light khaki and had brought a wide fedora, citing the fashion sense of colonialism, but the hat she left at the hotel room, wearing it only in private, where it quickly became a symbol of assault.
She chose the town, too, as a pilgrimage site, of sorts. For mineral reasons owing to certain salts in the soil, general aridity, the altitude, corpses sunk into the earth around this town did not decompose. They mummified, skin turning to a basic leather, going black in patches, but staying skin, whole save for a few worm-bored tunnels.
This phenomenon had been discovered decades back, during a mass exhumation to make way for a road, when part of the cemetery had been dug up and moved. A committee was formed, judging the dead on quality. The exemplars were then put on display. Most were just stacked on racks, but the best were strapped in a standing position, behind plates of glass. Some corpses even posed next to reproductions of faded funeral photographs. This was the museum, a collection of cured bodies, and it charged a small admittance fee and people came from around to world.
***We took breakfast the first morning at one of the interchangeable outdoor cafes lining the Jardin, picking at random from lists of dishes comprised of varying degrees of beans and eggs. Ashtrays were replaced at a rate of three to every one of Inez’s cigarettes, and there were little wire baskets of fresh rolls, about which Inez had read in the travel guide that you paid by how many you ate, something she pointed out each time I reached for one. This theory was disproved when the bill came, and after that she ate only bread for breakfast.
I handled all the money. Inez had given me a payment from her trust before we left, which I translated into fat bricks of dusty-colored pesos. She said, at the time, “I want you to be the man on this trip.”
The night she gave me the check and the gender role we’d watched a movie on television at her apartment, something about money and Africa and white people who possessed large amounts of both. In a love scene, the ruggedly well-dressed white hunter threw the ruggedly well-dressed white lady down onto her ruggedly well-dressed bed, held her there among the furs and pillows, said, “Don’t move,” and the woman said, “I want to move,” and the man said, “Don’t move,” again. Inez just breathed, tracing the outline of her lower lip with her thumb. She said, “This is the most powerful love scene ever put on film,” and later asked me to leave before the movie had finished.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, Inez and I sat together in the sunlight and bird song and tried to think of things to say. People stopped by to sell us paper flowers or tunes on their violins, polished stones, plastic jewelry. Tourists took photographs in the plaza, measuring time and themselves against the buildings and the variable light.
Inez insisted we head to the mummy museum immediately after breakfast, and even then we had to wait for half an hour in a line outside the entrance to be led by a backward-walking docent down the claustrophobic vaults, snaking along halls of the well-lit dead, only the most fragile of them behind glass. The tour paused in front of those corpses of which postcards were offered for sale: the world’s smallest mummy, not even yet a child, a premature fetus, plucked, buried, and desiccated; the world’s largest mummy, an obese woman ruptured above the waist in an automobile accident, suspended by steel in a vertical case, her legs’ leather sheathed in a second skin of mummified boots.
Inez hated crowds, especially crowds of men. It was not like her to come to such a place, to put herself in the middle of dozens of people all pressing against each other in order to get closer to the mute scream cast on a face that looked like it was covered in old, split, banana peel. I’m not sure what she was looking for in those shriveled faced, those contorted, grotesque forms, nor could I judge the degree to which she might have been trying to joke when she said that she took great comfort in how we all get skinnier once we’re dead.
Each time we passed it, she pointed to one corpse that looked to her, except for the black hair and the empty eye sockets, like Gwyneth Paltrow. Inez was obsessed with Gwyneth Paltrow. In one of the kiosks of the Mexico City airport, when we’d first flown in, Inez found a magazine on celebrity life with a cover story about Gwyneth Paltrow, and though she could not read Spanish, she had me buy it for her and spent the whole bus ride studying the pictures, occasionally adjusting her neck and chin in a simulation of a Paltrow-esque pose.
The trees of the plaza had once been pruned into boxy shapes, but had grown shaggy with time, losing their right angles and breeding flocks of invisible, screaming birds. Inez pointed this out every morning but the last. She liked the word “pruning,” regretted that “prune” is also, unrelatedly, a fruit. “We need more segregation of verbs and nouns,” she told me. “I like the metaphor of pruning, though. Sheers and hooks. Slowly editing the thing into the perfect shape.” All I could say was, “It helps the elderly move their bowels.” We were over, without a doubt, and I was tired of her routine.
“Translation into topiary,” she said, doing that thing she did where, after saying a phrase, she’d test it again, silently, counting out the syllables with her tongue on her upper teeth. I found this her most pretension act, perhaps because it was the most logical, the most pragmatic, the most like something I would do.
She had by now become an expert at ignoring me, but she still spoke in my direction. She very much liked hearing herself speak, and she liked the idea of speaking English, “crisply and with a careful cadence,” here in a place where everyone else spoke something else, with different sounds and in different rhythm. She made speeches, pausing between sentences to arrange the next one right, in her head. We were abroad, she said, and thus had a responsibility to come to certain conclusions about our homeland. She talked about “the America that sleeps in maps.” I won’t bother with her attempt at pretty phrasing. She just said she liked how green in seemed, and the sweet names of places where she was once, briefly, in love. She said Ann Arbor always sounded to her “like a girl in a bonnet watching the inland sea.” I stared into the whitewash of her eyes as she studied the shaggy, undisciplined trees, and I tried to remember anything that had made her so attractive to me those months ago. I did not succeed.
This became our pattern, a public breakfast followed fast by a guided tour of the dead, then an afternoon where we waited for darkness in our hotel room. We took dinner at the dairy bar off Sopeña or at one of the big hotels, drinks at one of the expat bars. Four rounds of Cuba Libres without ice, taken quickly, were usually enough to get us drunk enough to sleep, though even then, that there were two beds became crucial.
There was still sex, sure, even once our attempts at conversation dried up entirely, withered and winterized like those buried bodied. But the sex took a turn. All the requisite role-playing seeming so much more like pantomime outside America. She would hold me in her hand the way one holds the handle on a door of a refrigerator.
And every day, we returned to the museum, to those faces, those pelvic bones. There was a cab driver who would wait outside the front gate of our hotel. He called us “the mummy lovers,” which I found appropriate if appropriately creepy and to which Inez, of course, as he was male, Mexican, and a cab driver, did not respond.
Nor did Inez have use for the souvenir candles or the candy skulls sold by children along the line waiting for admittance, but she would stand with both palms flat against the glass in front of Gwyneth Paltrow’s corpse, some young girl, but tall, a rail of withered skin, bone, bone.
Our hotel was built up along the rise of the mountain just past the cobbled corner where Avenue Juarez ended in a clump of shoeless children arranged as tools for begging, where two old women sat sewing things to sell, and where Santa Domingo disappeared, to the north, down into one of the innumerable maze-like tunnels that comprised the thoroughfares of the town. It was a town of slopes and catacombs. “They should do something about these people,” Inez said, as a toddler with patches of rash on his bald head tried to touch her hem. She said “shoo” to him, and told his mother, who kept lifting up a rug, that she wouldn’t give her anything and that she was filthy and a bad parent. “They should all be removed,” Inez said to me, and I suggested “edited,” which made her smile a smile from months back, though that was as far as the reunion progressed.
She bought a cookbook, in French, and circled certain words. The wind came in, sucked free of oxygen, as dry and cold as catacombs. We slept at night under blankets the design of which no doubt had a name, a motivation, a spiritual and temporal rationale—maps of constellations, sea charts, calendars to eschatons.
We passed time in a gallery bar owned by a gay couple from Taos. Inez felt comfortable here, confiding to me in a whisper that “gay men and rapists are the most honest.” We sat behind a giant Raku beehive, next to steles inscribed with invented script. No one spoke to us, and after the first night even our drinks were served in silence, an improvement from any of the other expat watering holes, full of English talk of work permits and visa extensions, jostling with gangs of inexplicable Brits. I studied the art, uniformly vacant, and Inez discoursed on “homosexuality.” She had theories, experiments she wanted to perform. She spoke knowledgably about Hemingway, about scenes from books that never made it into films. I dreamt, predictably, of lions, of a lioness, a spiraling silver foil moon. I woke in pain and Inez would call me by her name, which was the final bad sign in a row of final signs, bad signs, and after that I stopped dreaming, and once slapped her in earnest, knocked her off me and off the bed, and she said “Do it again” and I could see her eyes in the dark of the hotel room, and after that I didn’t sleep, but counted her breath in the night, thought back on the passing of time, felt like crying but found myself dry.
In parody of the tourist manuals, Inez claimed that the light in the town was “a little too clear.” She insisted that the curtains to our room stay closed, blue at the folds, silver between, the rose topiary of the carpet swirls gone from red to clay. All afternoon she squinted and strained to make out the details of the pictures in her celebrity magazine. She pretended not to notice the fading light. I would hear the sound of magazine pages flipping long after I had ceased to be able to see. Only much later would she let us go out again, and we’d head to the vanilla-lit interior of the little dairy bar, order mint chocolate milkshakes and quesadillas in polystyrene boxes. There were waxy paper napkins, plastic forks, foil packets of salsa. “Sterile” was the word Inez used to describe why she loved it there. She never stopped feeling nostalgia for her adolescence and the mental hospital.
For my part, I found myself engaged in pointless, doodling tasks, passing the afternoon stealing lyrics from my phrase book’s “At the Hospital” chapter or making notes on my dreams, that they involved animals, stalking. I toyed with grammatical exercises, diagramming sentences, trying to find the smallest combination of words necessary to inspire a single, strong emotion. I opted for horror: “The tooth in your hand. A thickness to the pudding. Music boxes,” in general. “Scrape, scrape, scrape.” It wasn’t much, but it helped.
There were church full of statues. We didn’t see them. We were bound up together, Inez and I, every hour of the day, in that blue tomb, our immaculate room, a museum of the dead. We were not people meant to spend so much time in anyone’s company, let alone each other’s. The stress of it stole our sleep, leaving us awake before sunrise—and she was right, of course, in a way, the light here was “cheap.” The sky looked like a doctored photography of a sky, a brochure cover. Dawn crept in fringed and tacky as a package tour, draping itself off the balconies of all the big hotels overlooking the Jardin. Mexico seemed frozen, routine without result. The town kept getting cleaner, seemed to shrink. Soldiers escorted invalids away, and old women came by with buckets of water, sloshing them out over the cobbles, scrubbing the streets on their knees, with rags. The breakfast portions became smaller each day. The rolls hardened and were then replaced with slices of cold toast. Afternoons dragged past, sounds lingering at their own siesta pace, languorous bird calls, the drip of the plumbing, dogs echoing off hills and church walls. The Belgian backpackers’ pot smoke wafted up into our room. Someone somewhere beat a rug over their balcony and someone else struggled with a stuck screen door.
She continued to cry because she had started crying. She began to cry because she knew she wouldn't be able to stop.
At night I’d wake, alone, and listen to her body in sleep, fearing for that rustle of return. She was an ocean without ornament, layers of toothless threat.
Then a day came that was a Sunday, and the museum was closed. We found we’d reached the point where we could no longer speak, except during sex, when she told me things to say, and that just can’t count. The sound of swallowing echoed in my skull. Pulse, pulse. That morning we took only coffee. We didn’t even ask for bread. Then we wound ourselves back up the stony streets, past the dark galleries and the shuttered cantinas and the churches, the churches.
As always, she dictated the action. I tried to comply. But she’d lost more weight, or looked it, and was so sickly pale, at least compared to the color of the place. I couldn’t come close to touching her without thinking of all of “them,” her body laid out as still, as naked, hollow belly, bony limbs. I looked at her eyes and saw only the outline of her sockets. Her teeth, against mine, clicked like bone. I said some of the things she wanted, but her flesh, under my hands, felt contracted and cold, her pelvis arching out at her hips, her joints swollen, her hair false flaxen, brittle, spiny. And I thought, at the time, unable to comply, that this was the only fantasy she and I ever shared: touching the dead.
Spencer Dew lives in Chicago where he is working on a novel. Recently his work has appeared in Mad Hatter's Review, The 2nd Hand, and Word Riot. Spencer's last contribution to VerbSap was In Kathy Acker's Florida.
Photo "Suicide Blonde 2" (cropped), courtesy of Taylor Ross, Cambridge, MA.
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