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In the light of coming darkness, on a beach just south of Ensenada, Michael commanded Ginny to bow her head while he crowned her with a broken starfish and christened her Queen of the World.
The starfish was flat and prickly and had only three rays. Ginny held it to her head, laughing. Michael extracted his pale feet with a sucking sound from the quicksand of the undertow and swooped his hands into the water. Stepping forward, he draped strands of seaweed over the bare bones of her shoulders, swirling the greenish-black threads in a spiral around each of her tightened nipples.
With the red sun sizzling into the sea behind him, Michael looked to Ginny like an electrified man, other-worldly and glowing, each red-gold hair on his legs alive with light, the fibers of his beard curling out beyond the edges of his face like a net enticing her toward him. She could hardly pull her eyes away from the pendulum of his long dark cock, which swung slightly, tugged by some heavy force toward the center of the earth. Whisper, her Doberman puppy, skidded from side to side in the sand, cutting the air with his powerful yips, shimmying the dome of his black rump in bursts of happiness.
Michael, I adore you!
Yesterday she had been working the graveyard shift at her new job as ward clerk in Mt. Olympus hospital in LA and today she was standing on a warm, wide beach in Mexico, naked in the sunset, nearly beside herself with a wild, scary joy. Michael had saved her again from her dullness, from her hopeless, small mind, from her frightened, useless way of thinking.
Michael, you always know what I need!
How unreal and hideous—that cold metal desk spread with blood test requisitions and glass slides thick with secretions. A near-fatal mistake she'd made, taking that job! What a monumental mistake—to have moved back home to live with her mother, who, since her father's death, had become a shrieking harpy.
Even her sister Paula had warned her, "Once Mom gets you in her clutches, you'll never get away. I'm not trying to be heartless, but I don't think you'll be able to stand living with her. No one in her right mind could, not now. And besides, be realistic, Ginny—what can you really do for her, anyway?" This was her legitimate way out: impeccable advice from Paula, her older, reliable sister, the one who had had the good sense to marry a psychologist, the model mother who was raising her two little girls to be amiable, well-adjusted kids—an accomplishment, in Ginny's view, on par with teaching them to fly.
But what about doing the "right thing"? Shouldn't she stay and help her mother, a grizzled widow at fifty-eight, left without much money and a garageful of old junk to get rid of? It wasn't easy to go through a dead man's personal effects: torn socks and out-of-style baggy pants and tie clips from her father's dresser drawers which would have to be packed up for the Salvation Army to take away. Surely she owed it, at least to her father, to stay and help out. This was what she had told Michael on the phone just after the funeral, when he called her from San Francisco, begging her to come back to him. She didn't tell him how bad it really was at home—how her mother kicked at furniture and screamed at her in the tone she had used when Ginny was a teenager and hadn't hung up her dresses or put her shoes in the shoe rack. Her mother cursed her for being a fool and moving to San Francisco to take useless art classes and for getting tied up with a bunch of spaced-out hippies. She was careful to keep from Michael her mother's monotone warning: "If you don't marry Jewish you'll be sorry all your life. I can't tell you a reason except that it's just not the same, you'll see. It's not the same and what else can I say?"
Jewish boys. They'd made her want to vomit in high school. Big noses, little hoses, Michael had said for a joke. But Michael was free of the worst flaws of Jewish boys—their bad skin, their eyeglasses, their fanatic interests in boring things, their scorn for hiking in the woods and climbing mountains. No Jewish boy would ever teach her the joys of fishing, as Michael promised to do for her. No Jewish boy, looking at her with his mother's mean, ticking Jewish eyes, would ever gaze lovingly, as Michael did, on her deformed figure.
So there she'd been just last night, at her metal desk, on the very floor of the hospital where her father had died two weeks ago. She'd been sitting listlessly on a hard chair, wearing her new thick-soled white shoes and white nylon smock, listening to a "Code Blue" come over the loudspeaker in the blue hours just before dawn, when the elevator doors sprang back miraculously like a curtain parting on a stage, and Michael leaped forth, looking like the risen sun in yellow cotton pants and an embroidered red-flowered shirt.
At that very instant she had been holding in her mind the image of her father's dying eyes as they'd stared into her face the night she arrived in LA. With her mother close behind her, she had tiptoed fearfully into his hospital room. "Oh Daddy," she cried out, seeing his ravaged body. She felt he was sucking her into the hollow of his skull as he gave her one long hopeless look and then deliberately turned his back. Just like that. One scornful, baffled, giving-up look, and then he gave her his skeleton back, the ridges of his vertebrae, curving out of his fallen-open hospital gown, coming toward her like a deadly snake, his hip bones looking like ones on men in concentration camps. She had never been shown his back in all the years of her childhood; astonishing that she had never seen it. At once she saw that his spine, like hers, was crooked. So he had given her her bad gene! That was why he had hidden himself all those years and now was ashamed to speak a word to her, could offer her only his wasted haunches and hollow loins. Two days later he called for water and died.
The night the "Code Blue" rang down the empty hall, Michael was supposed to have been fast asleep in the headquarters of the Sexual Freedom League where they had lived together, four hundred miles to the north in San Francisco. Ginny shivered to imagine what he was doing there without her—in that house with so many pretty, perfectly formed girls who slept with anyone. She knew Michael's appetites—sex and drugs—the appetites of their generation. But he had made a great concession to her, she realized, leaving that easy cradle of satisfaction and speeding like a rocket to LA, to fetch her, to save her. He burst out of the elevator like a miracle and smothered her gasping mouth in the tangle of his beard and swept her off to Mexico in his pickup truck, with Whisper, her puppy, curled in a warm black swirl in her lap.
"I can't be doing this," she begged him as they were passing a cemetery on the outskirts of Tijuana. "I have to stay in LA and keep my new job and take care of my mother." Michael's inspired reply was to lean over and pull off one of Ginny's heavy white nurse's shoes and fling it out the window. She watched it arc like a flaring meteor before it came to rest among the crooked tombstones.
She wanted to worship him because look at her now—a girl who had never worn a bathing suit in public—here she was naked in the sun, her twisted back bare under the pink sky, and no whirlwind voice was swooping down to sweep her away, crying, Ugly! Ugly! Out of sight with you!
All that first afternoon on the empty beach she had lain on Michael's woven Indian rug, fully exposed in the sun's light, letting him drip crystals of sand down the length of her crooked spine, listening to him tell her that it sparkled like a winding mountain road at night while long lines of cars traversed it, their headlights gleaming like diamonds.
Michael—my poet angel!
She was dull as a gray puddle of water. He had in him all the imagination and bravery she wished she could find in herself. He chased her into the water, he splashed her, making her shriek and laugh. The seaweed tickled her back, releasing cold drops that ran into the crease between her buttocks. She had never lived a happier day than this one and could hardly believe her good fortune: that he wanted her this much.
That he had christened her Queen of the World!
Late the next morning, as they lay dozing on the inflated rubber mattress in the bed of his pickup, Michael said, "Be fair. I blew up the mattress—now it's your turn."
"What are you talking about, what do you want me to blow up?" Then she reddened because he was laughing, smiling with the knowing power he had over her, immense with the power he had. She had never known a man who could talk dirty and be wholesome at the same time. Even as he leered, then lunged his beard into the hollow of her neck while her vagina clutched in a spasm of involuntary desire, he laughed also. With obvious relish, he took in her shock and thrill, approving her response, applauding the sudden flaring excitement he had caused in her. It was impossible to feel shame in Michael's presence; he knew her human needs and encouraged them. There was no shame, no forgiveness involved. Michael believed that if something sexy and dirty and juicy-wild came to Ginny's mind, it belonged there and was right. Whatever was human was right. His mind was different from everyone else's—sometimes his wild blue eyes rolled in his head, vibrating with an intensity that alarmed her. But her vague tingle of doubt was nothing to the excitement she felt in his presence. He understood far more than she did. Men were supposed to know more—at least some women thought they did. But he really did. Michael was beyond her.
Far down the beach near a cluster of rental trailers, a skinny donkey, even bonier than Ginny, with a child on its back, dragged itself slowly over the sand, its head hanging. The donkey was led by a Mexican in a sombrero. "Rides for the gringos," Michael said. "Donkey shit on the sand, so be careful."
Lying beside her in the bed of the pickup truck, he kissed her quickly in the curve of both of her armpits and whispered "Thank you." His penis hung soft and sweetly satisfied by her attentions. He yawned, stretched his arms to the sky, pulled on his jeans and jumped down from the truck bed.
"Big doings today, I have big plans for us. But first let's eat—not the stuff I brought down in the truck, but real stuff." He pointed down the beach to a figure of a man with a basket on his arm, not far from the donkey. The night before they had bought their dinner from a vendor carrying burritos and hot chiles. "Let's see if we can find one with fresh shrimp and limes this morning," Michael said. He smacked his lips.
"We should be careful about dysentery," Ginny said. "In the hospital ..."
"Hey," Michael warned her. "Don't rain on my parade," and he was right of course, so she shut up at once.
She knew her father had turned away from her in the hospital because she'd been living in sin with Michael up in San Francisco and her father was disappointed in her. She was ashamed of herself, seeing it her father's way, but seeing it her way she knew there was no other choice for her. A girl didn't talk to a father like hers about the secrets of sex; even if he were not dying she couldn't have laid it all out for him. The best defense she could have mustered was that she was lonely. But you don't tell a father about the empty sucking place in your body, the pulsing, throbbing, waiting place. Nor do you confess to him your fears about your ugliness, which he has always pretended not to notice.
Could a man, a father, understand the miracle? This miracle? That when she was twenty years old, after a lifetime of no luck at all with men, none, Michael appeared like a balm from heaven and filled her. Michael appeared to her in her art class at San Francisco State and hovered there beside her easel where she was painting a picture she'd titled "Sad Girl"—a portrait of a girl sitting on a bench at the end of a pier, staring out to sea. She had no talent in art. Michael had stood close behind her, where he could clearly see her crooked back, even hidden and layered over as it was with a turtleneck and a blouse and a sweater. He watched her paint for fifteen solid minutes and then he leaned over and kissed her. He kissed her on the curve of her jawbone, just under her ear, and she knew right then that the longing was over, it was over for good, and that to have even a taste of the sensations he would offer her would be worth all that it would cost her.
They ate breakfast sitting crosslegged on the beach in the shade of someone's old Airstream trailer, rolling their warm tortillas into tight cylinders, dripping butter in little yellow tears on the sand. A group of kids—all American—were beginning to line up for the donkey ride; a few surfers were carrying their boards down to the water's edge. Ginny looked up at the sound of a loud explosion to see a circle of men lighting firecrackers and tossing them forward toward the sea. One of them turned his head and caught her eye. Weighing at least two hundred pounds, looking like a shaggy black bear, he suddenly swiveled on his thick legs and came lumbering toward them over the sand. Ginny touched Michael's knee, where the blue denim was, worn smooth as baby flannel, and Michael raised his eyes into the glare of the sun coming off the man's white undershirt.
"Good looking girl you have here," the man said, coming right up to them, touching Ginny's bare toes with the tip of his heavy sandal. She was wearing a T-shirt of Michael's; she realized the man couldn't see her back. She withdrew her foot. The man was dark-skinned, black bearded. Black wiry hairs curled from his wrestler's chest along the edges of his undershirt.
"Thank you," Michael said after a second's silence. He bent over his tortilla, opening his legs further so the grease would have a clear fall to the sand.
"To be," Michael answered. Ginny glanced at Michael, recognizing that this was a marriage proposal. Her heart began to pound.
"I'd like to fuck her," the man said. He motioned to a pickup with a camper shell about twenty feet up the beach. "We can do it there. I would say no more than a half hour. I could give you thirty bucks."
"Thirty bucks," Michael repeated.
"I'm a sailor," the man said. "From Barbados. I have a nice house there; if you and your wife ever come over, I would put you up free, as long as you want."
"Barbados," Michael said. "Nice weather there."
"A free vacation, anytime," the man said.
He waited. Ginny stared at his huge feet.
Michael nudged her with his shoulder. "Well?"
"Do you want to?"
She flung her head toward him so fast that her hair whipped her face.
"I'll give you a few minutes to talk it over," the sailor said, backing off. He walked toward the surf, stopping to shake his foot and curse because he had stepped in donkey shit.
Ginny stared at Michael's eyes, which were cold, alien, frozen blue.
"We might get to Barbados some day," he reminded her.
"Fifteen, twenty minutes," Michael said. "At the most."
"Are you serious?"
"It's up to you," Michael said. "It's no big deal one way or the other."
"I thought you want to marry me."
"I do. But I don't own you, you know. We live in a fucking new world—men don't own women anymore."
"Thanks, Michael." She stood up and threw the rest of her breakfast, paper plate and all, down at his feet. The sailor had turned around and was watching them. She felt her lower lip drop in disgust. Then she began to run toward Michael's pickup truck, a long red box far down the beach. She glanced over her shoulder to see if Michael was following her; she saw him talking to the sailor, the two of them blurred together, heads almost touching.
She wasn't going to make a thing of it—she had to forget it as fast as possible or it would ruin everything. It was probably something she didn't understand, wasn't used to, something between men, something ordinary, unmomentous. Maybe it had to do with Michael's theory about sex being as natural as eating and drinking. Besides, Michael had given her a choice, had respected her feelings, had let her be the final judge in the matter. This was probably nothing to get excited about, nothing to ruin their vacation for. So why was she crying?
Excerpted from King of the World by MERRILL JOAN GERBER. Copyright © 1989 Merrill Joan Gerber. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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