“What does your name mean to you?”
My simple question tumbled out of my mouth and fell on the awkward silence like ten tons of TNT. Her smile disturbed the glassy water of her face. Contentment glowed from the inner workings of her soul and broke through my question. I could tell her answer was not going to be what I was expecting, but not far from what I already knew. All the same, I braced myself for impact.
“My name is the irony that has made me who I am,” she replied. “I spent years fleeing from it, and then years desperately throwing significance at it. As hard as I try, there is nothing that I can do or change to influence its ambiguity.” Her face glazed, “Through my adolescence and early adult life I refused to allow my name to be used and was known as Meri. People who knew me and later re-met me, were in awe that that was not my real name. I hope to think that they could understand my name more clearly in me than they could in its pronunciation.”
To hear her words float from her tongue was a gift that I had searched for. Studying her from the outside only brought contradictions and uncertain conclusions. Her story was so familiar to me that even if she were to change it, I would not believe her own words. My fathers had indoctrinated me with her story. Although they may have left out minor details that were unclear, her story must be the same. Her face was truly beautiful.
“How did you first begin to use your real name again after so many years as Meri?” My words startled me, but she was ready to strike at whatever I could offer.
“I was 33,” she began, “working as Senior Vice President of Finances at the First National Bank. The day was rather dreary, not one for changes. On the surface, everything was normal. Success and a meaningful life were mine. Even if I lost my job, I was set. A week prior, however, had brought strange, awful feelings. I began to question the identity I had created for myself. The desire to have a quest had sunk deep into my yearnings for the first time in my life. I had no idea what my quest was but I knew that I must have one, why else would I be where I was. Lunch had arrived. I waited until all my colleagues had left and then I went downstairs. But instead of going to a restaurant I simply started walking.”
Her face clouded, maybe it was the lighting, but wrinkles distorted her into a bent old woman, completely foreign to the woman I saw five minutes before.
“I laugh to myself every time I think about that walk, how ridiculous I must have looked to passing cars. In high heels, hitchhiking my way out of town, most had to have thought I had just lost my job or was addicted to drugs. Five hours, I had walked, the sun blared down on me. My brain was scrambled eggs. I abruptly realized that my sweat had moistened my blouse. I broke out laughing, one of those laughs that weighs so much that you feel as if it were to crush you. I laughed because it dawned on me that I had no reason to be dressed the way I was. I took my blouse off, freeing my breasts from their cages. My designer heels fled in horror as my revolution turned its fury towards them. I felt ready now to begin my quest.”
She continued, as did the wrinkles in her face. Meri was pruning up right in front of me.
“With my new found freedom, I kept right on strolling. Cars passed, men honked, women scowled, but nobody cared to give me a ride. I felt that they should, they owed it to me, if they only knew who I was. Then reality flowed in and I realized how many times I hadn’t picked up people in need of a ride. So I just kept walking. My thoughts wandered, everything I knew to be real I forced myself to question and review in the light of being half naked on the side of a road. I desperately tried to figure out what the hell I was doing. I realized my education was of little importance on the open road, no one who was passing cared that I had studied at Harvard, or that I had managed a Fortune 500 company. They just saw me.”
An odd irritation came over me, I felt that I couldn’t interrupt her but that I should. Her story was becoming boring and I wanted to get to the meat of her life. Somehow, I had to get to my next question, but her words just kept rolling off her tongue, I felt uselessly engaged in something utterly nonsensical. The only reason I was there was to get the story. What story? She was a hippy, no one could be sad after smoking that much weed. Funny she didn’t smell of marijuana. Anyways, I had to get to the next question.
I came to the conclusion, that it was my duty to interrupt her, regardless of how rude it seemed. My question jolted out of me, “Could you tell me the bit about you defending yourself against the biker bitch?” Ooops! Maybe not the question I was looking for, but there was no way of getting it back.
She looked at me, surprisingly with little surprise. She immediately began the story as if nothing had happened. I was relieved. The wrinkles in her face had retreated under the attack of olive oil flowing into its wake.
Struggling, she commenced the tale, “It was probably a week or two into my journey that I was finally picked up by a female biker. She offered to take me as far as Barstow, where she needed to be by nightfall. Samantha Nepon explained that her two young children were waiting with a babysitter and she had to get there. I thought it seemed like an opportunity to make some time and climbed on without much thought. We conversed about everything, arriving just on time.”
“We entered her house, she had offered to let me stay as long as I wanted. She introduced me to her two children. Shima was the oldest, having been born on August 6th, and Saki, born the 9th of the same month. Samantha explained that her ex-husband was Japanese, hence the rare names. She payed the babysitter and put the children down for the night.”
Her face was black as night, she was expelling the story from the deepest confines of her soul. Meri had locked it in the strongest vault she could find, and I in a moment of idiotic despair had obliged her to regurgitate it.
Softness filtered out of her mouth, a softness I could barely feel. “It was almost midnight, we had a couple of beers together, and she got up to check on the children. When Samantha returned her face burned with the flames of adrenaline, anger was broiling deep in her mind. The thud that her fist made against my skull rattled through my body and was left un-interpreted by my brain. Blades coming towards me rendered me useless to my body, every time I tried to defend it she was already attacking from another side. She accosted me for hours. Then I was left to accompany silence as she vaulted me into a bedroom and left me to plan my offensive. The next thud that registered that night was her falling exhausted into bed. I liberated silence from my presence, creeping out into her doorway. Samantha’s breathing paralyzed my limbs, I stood as death at her doorway, but my lead extremities fused themselves to the floor. Turning I left her for dead as she slept. The two children flickered into the darkness of my mind becoming the target of my aggression.”
She broke, water splashed out of her sullen eyes, flash flooded down the crevices of her face and exploded against the ground. Nothing. There was nothing for me to say. Her words had pierced me. The story was hers, but not the same one filed in the voids of my mind. Then it switched on, she was adding dramatic elements to the story, it couldn’t have been like that.
Jumping from behind her waterfall, Meri lurched into speech. “My stealth bomber swung in low, bringing the children into perspective. I lunged. The sound was nothing, it wasn’t like smashing a watermelon, nor like hitting a baseball. I thought at one time that it sounded as complicated as the screech of metal bending and breaking in a train crash, but it wasn’t that either. It was nothing. I found myself on the floor hours later, the children were dead. Samantha had fled, too violated by my genocide to stay. Her retreat was eternal.”
The cave in my face gaped open waiting for something to come fleeing out. Her anticipation of my next question rose into my awareness like the sun on a spring morning. I fumbled around in my mind, digging for something to throw at her. I finally tripped onto a headline I had once read about the story. I half thought the question at her. “How did you escape the police?” Finally, something to relieve the burn I was getting from her waiting.
“I told the truth, then ran as far from it as I could.”
Simple, I thought. She attacked me with her own question. “Why are you here?”
I puzzled over the question for a moment, looking deep into her face to find what it was she had catapulted in my direction. She had missed her mark. That I knew for sure.
“I’m here, because they sent me. I don’t want to be here, nor truly care what you have to say. My story about you is already written and ready to go, there isn’t anything you can tell me to change what I know.”
She stared. Her mouth moved to begin a sentence but nothing came out. I had left an impression. Then her face softened, taking on the texture of granite. She smiled, but nothing else shifted. Her gaze pierced my thoughts, she was reading my mind, or so it seemed.
Finally she spoke.
“What does your story say?”
“It talks about your life. It covers everything you’ve told me so far, and a lot more.”
Questions covered her face like swarming bees, but no honey could be found.
“Tell me,” she said, “Have you covered my friendship with Fulgencio?”
Once again, she was trying to dramatize her life into something I had never heard before. He was obviously some communist she had spent time with and had little importance to my readers.
I answered her by raising my eyebrows.
“He was a friend of mine, a CEO of a Latin sugar cane business, bringing in millions. Mostly he simply exploited the local labor on his land, allowing his wealthy friends to import sugar to the States. He built an empire out of it. The local labor didn’t do very well, but he made a lot of money.”
“No, I guess I haven’t covered him. What happened?” I asked mostly because I knew she expected me to. I lacked real interest.
“Horrible end. On the 26th of July, an insignificant force of rebels attacked his guards. All but 12 of the attackers were killed. However, they were joined by other local laborers until the mighty Fulgencio Batista was forced to give up his land. The locals took it over. Stealing his profits and those of his investors, all of which were partners of mine.”
I hadn’t heard that story. I found it irrelevant. Why should I include her friend’s tragedy, in a place no one cares about? The question sounded in my head, thundering from one side to the other and created another. Why was she telling me this?
The contentment I had seen when I arrived, was once again illuminating her face. An ease of excitement of what she had uttered permeated her complexion. Her eyes beamed insecurity into my mind. I struggled to breathe, her simple comments drove me into a blank place that I had never imagined existed. She had provided me with a meaningless detail that was heavy with significance. I could not find my breath.
She laughed, then smiled, then sighed, and then continued. “I have another friend that had a contrasting story. Augustus had been commissioned by me to buy up large portions of land that I could use to sell fruit to the neighboring cities. The hook came when we learned that the land was being homesteaded, and that the homesteaders had organized, nominated a voice, and were dividing the land to begin their own production. They called their leader Salvador. The homesteaders forced my man into a bloody battle. Luckily, he was able to get rid of Mr. Salvador and clear the land. I nor my fellow investors ever asked how many had been killed, but we trusted Augustus to do what was right. Those eliminated were fighting against freedom and democracy.”
After being shipwrecked at sea for years my mind finally made landfall. How could Meri be confessing these things to me? The hippy culture icon of the decade, with her “I left everything to find peace” story, is telling me, with pride, how she made her money in the most unethical ways.
“Meri,” I asked, “how did you become you, after killing, plundering, and stealing? I mean,” trying to clarify my question to myself, “where does it end and you become you?”
It was a flicker, maybe something that I really never saw, but her face flashed every conceivable shade. In an instant I saw everything she had been plaster itself onto her face and then retreat under the glow of her repentance.
Her eyes grew into an intense blue. The white around them swirled like a snowflake in a winter breeze. She blushed a red hue into her face. Then she simply laughed.
“You arrived on time. Asked me the questions you already knew, expecting me to tell you everything you had no need of hearing. Your first question was the only one that had any substance to it. You know who I am, but you do not know what I’ve done. I sit in front of you as an old woman, burdened with the message of peace from a past spent attempting to sell it. My life speaks for itself. I only hope you can truly understand what my name means. I often ask people to repeat it for me, I can tell what they’ve learned from my story when they pronounce it for me. Would you mind doing that for me? Please just say it once before you go.”