Red Lips by Gabriela Alemán

Red Lips

By Gabriela Alemán

Translated by Juanita Coleman


Everyone thinks they’re paparazzi in the long run. Something happens, anything, and they’re already there, phone in hand. It was because of one of them that I met Mark. He had been fired that morning—he was a kitchen helper in the Superdome cafeteria and a tray of truffles had fallen to the floor. Thinking that no one had seen, he picked them up and put them back on the plate, before their cost could be taken out of his salary. The floor was clean, the truffles intact, no harm done—or so he thought. But Gretchen, the cleaning lady, had seen him, and she had a phone and had never forgotten that Mark had once stolen her boyfriend—or so she thought. The guy she liked was gay and Mark was gay; she didn’t need anything else to draw her  conclusion. Mark never knew anything about it until that morning, when she told him just after the kitchen boss had fired him using the video as proof. Really, none of this had anything to do with me, but I ended up finding out about it when Mark rang my doorbell that night. He was holding a thick electrical cord in his hand and, after  introducing himself and telling me he was my neighbor and he had lived in house on the corner with his mother since he was born, he asked if he could plug his extension cord into an outlet in my house. He told me he had tried to fix a connection and had blown a fuse and that his mother was ninety years old and he had been fired that morning. Before he could continue, I offered him my plug; he dragged the extension cord across the street and, after a minute, a few lights went on. Not half an hour later, he came back with a bottle of bourbon. When I invited him to sit on the porch he told me the story of Gretchen and the truffles. I told him I was very sorry and brought out olives and cheese from the fridge. We only stopped talking when the bottle ran out. Mark didn’t have to get up early to go to work the next day but I did, besides having to go to the nursing home, eat dinner with Pete and meet up with Carlos. When I asked him to leave, I made a mental note to thank him the next time I saw him; for one night, I hadn’t thought about my mother, or about my boyfriend, or about my lover. I shouldn’t have made the mental note. After four such nights, I didn’t know how to get rid of him. At that time, Pete had already been waiting for a year to move in with him. We had been together for six years when he first asked me. He said that he liked me and I liked him and that way we could start saving money and we could get married more quickly. He said this at the end of a long conversation, like he was putting a cherry on top. But he forgot I hated sugar coatings. We had never talked about getting married and certainly not to save money. When he said it, I started to sweat and a slightly nauseating smell enveloped me. I asked him to leave. He said I looked pale; he didn’t say smelly. How could I respond? I said I was tired, it had been a long day and the visit to my mother had made me come up with a new move in the strange game she and I played. At least he knew enough to hear the word mother and run away. What did I do? Took a bath, got dressed up, and went out. I did it with the stupid intention of finding someone in the first bar I saw and pissing on the life Pete wanted to build with me. As if it weren’t enough that my mother had told me that day about her first time with my father—not their first date, but the first time they had slept together, with an incredible amount of detail. I’m not too sure what I did after that because after six large drinks, I was walking along the sidewalks of the city colliding with everything that crossed my path. I was more like a drunk St. Bernard than someone in search of a bit of action. I passed out somewhere on Frenchman Street and, when I opened my eyes, a wiener dog was licking my face with his tiny snake tongue. Someone put their arm around me and helped me stand up. The guy didn’t even come up to my shoulder. He smiled. I heard him say something about his house, how close it was and that I could sleep off my hangover there. I tried to speak, but my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth and I couldn’t even form a complete word. I stopped trying; honestly, I didn’t have anything to say. We arrived at his house and he undressed me while his dog licked my toes. He didn’t do it sexually (the man, not the dog). If you looked around his house, you could see that it was extremely organized.


His reasoning was simply that you don’t sleep in your, that you can’t rest that way. And he was right. But the tiny moist tongue of his dog had woken me up enough to kiss him. If the stupid dog hadn’t been there, I would have slept, guilt would have made me overthink everything, and the next day I would have told Pete yes. If only I’d been so lucky. I fucked Carlos, the neat freak, for the rest of the night, but before that I cleaned myself up while he looked for condoms. The next day, before I could grab my things and escape, Carlos cooked me breakfast and told me it was Saturday, so I didn’t have to leave. I didn’t tell him about my boyfriend, or about my mother with Alzheimer’s who was waiting for me in a nursing home on the outskirts of the city, orabout my second job as a packer in a sweet potato factory to pay for the nursing homeon the outskirts of the city. But I called work and told them I had come down with a virus. I sneezed a lot while I talked. To calm me down, I put my hand on Carlos’ package and we went back to fucking. We didn’t stop until noon. We fucked with such abandon that we were able to forget the world—or at least, I did. Maybe something called happiness does exist. And so I found a lover who made me promise that I wouldn’t talk to him about the other parts of my life. I started to talk nonsense in the little time that I saved for myself because I couldn’t keep myself on track; I had never been able to follow a straight line. I started to use mascara to outline my enormous almond-shaped eyes just to please my lover and, as I cried uncontrollably at the slightest provocation (because I wrote my orders wrong and they didn’t understand them in the kitchen, because Pete kept calling me, because I didn’t have enough money and maybe my boyfriend’s proposition wasn’t that ridiculous), there were days that I looked like a waitress in drag. New Orleans is a great place if you don’t want to attract too much attention but, at some point, I caught my supervisor’s eye. I stopped wearing mascara and started using eyeshadow instead, and with that I managed to get him to leave me alone. Pete, however, didn’t understand my new interest in makeup, but he wasn’t a detail-oriented person; nor did he ask why I never stayed the night at his house. Carlos, on the other hand, was obsessed with details, but I didn’t matter to him enough. Or, who knows? I never asked him. We didn’t speak, and when we looked at each other, it was only to figure out how much the other person was worth. I would pay top dollar for him in a secondhand store.


When Mark arrived at my door, this had all been going on for the better part of a year. I waited anxiously for something to happen and everything to come apart at the seams. And yet, at the same time, I thought nothing was all that bad. I managed to go out every morning, do what I needed to do, and sleep alone after fucking Pete and, sometimes the same night, Carlos as well. When for some reason I felt like a porcelain vase that wouldn’t survive the night, I took a pill, unplugged my phone and slept a restless sleep. This was the option that started to take over. Pete insisted on finalizing a date to start moving in together; my mother, obsessively, kept telling me about that first night with my father, while Carlos continued to demand nothing and fuck better every night. I started to be suspicious of Carlos. I said as much to Mark, who kept buying romance magazines and watching celebrity gossip channels; I thought he would be a good listener, that it would be a relief to tell him what was on my mind, but the only thing that interested him was how Carlos and I fucked. I tried to distract him, I asked him to give me some perspective, I told him I needed someone to tell me to check myself, that I should make plans. And then I looked at him. I really was going crazy. The person I was asking for advice had just spent four days telling me about his adventures in a chatroom with a man who he met the morning of the same day he got fired. Mark was talking about going to North Carolina to meet him. I asked him if this man had invited him and he responded that the man had expressly told him not to come. So I told him what I did with Carlos with all kinds of details. I told him and as I watched him sip his bourbon, I realized that what I was telling him was the exact same description, step by step, of what my mother had told me of her first night with my father. Instead of stopping and acknowledging that I was a sick person, I continued. It was a relief. The exorcism of replacing the ghost of my parents with my body and Carlos’ filled me with peace and I went out to look for my lover. I didn’t go looking for punishment, I went in search of release. We did exactly what I had described to Mark, but those slow, precise movements, which I controlled, did not excite him. For the first time since we met, Carlos looked at me appraisingly but with no intention to make me his. What did he know about me? In his sex-hazed eyes, I was just another smudge. He had no idea who I was. I had to smile. I had no idea either but I didn’t tell him we were on equal footing. I hadn’t drunk that night and I didn’t feel very daring, and, perhaps because I hadn’t drunk that night, I noticed how our parody of perfection deflated. We stopped what we were doing, Carlos took out a bottle and we clinked glasses and made a toast. Something like, “to us.” And then he dressed me in the same way he had undressed me before. The dog was nowhere to be seen, the damned thing. When I finished putting on my shoes, he took my hand, pulled me off the mattress, and walked me to the door; he was barefoot and uncombed, like he had just rolled out of bed. I felt nothing, as if this were neither the beginning nor the end of anything. And when he closed the gate, still by my side, a man and a woman at three in the morning at the door of a house (how must that look?), Pete passed by in his car and saw me. He saw me and kept driving. The image of his upside-down-triangle face stayed floating in my head, that wide forehead that I had so often caressed. When Pete stopped the car half a block away, Carlos had already gone back inside. I, on the other hand, hadn’t moved. If I had had the energy, I would have jumped out of my skin, but I had no energy, I only felt anxiety and panic, an awful panic that took my breath away. I fell down, Pete ran to my side and called 911. I started to turn purple, like an a person with allergies who had smeared honey on her arms and had been crucified right in the public square while the bees just kept on coming. I opened my eyes in a hospital bed. Pete was sitting beside me holding my hand. I wanted to shout, to run away, to insult him. To ask him if he was an idiot. Everything stewing in my stomach flew out viciously when I woke up and opened my mouth. I didn’t know how it was going to come out but I didn’t plan on doing anything until it began to fester. Instead I said something ridiculous and worried Pete unnecessarily, who thought that maybe I had had a stroke. The only thing that kept me from continuing with the farce was my lack of medical insurance. When I heard they wanted to do tests, I asked for some forms and signed myself out under my own recognizance. The immediate result was that I left the hospital and he followed me, holding my hand when I got up from the wheelchair. When I saw that he was driving toward his house, I asked him to drop me off at my place instead. He wasn’t going to argue with me; the sun was coming up. He had to get to work. When he left me in front of my door, he kissed me on the mouth. I was as dry as a strip of Velcro. He left without looking back. I took a shower, left for work and in the afternoon, I went to visit my mother. I couldn’t explain why I needed to see her, but I did. She welcomed me without the usual memory games; she was worried about me, she acted like she was well and didn’t understand what she was doing in this room she shared with four other women, nor why I looked so awful. She took my hand and walked with me the gardens. I accepted this role reversal with gratitude and, walking with her, left my bad mood behind. After she brushed my hair, I went home and slept like I hadn’t slept in years. Mark rang but I didn’t open the door, no one called me on the phone. I decided to reorganize my life and started by cutting my hair. When I returned to my mother, without bitterness, I realized that we had gone back to square one. She didn’t know who I was but, even so, decided to entrust me with her memories. She repeated her story about her night with my father but this time she was reliving it, not just remembering it. She had never told it like that. If we were advancing on our game board, or at least we had set it up again, this new take had made me lose a turn. I couldn’t listen to her talk about it without thinking about Pete or Carlos. I kissed her on the forehead and left. When I got home, I mixed up a jar of pisco sour and made myself sick with it before Mark showed up. He wanted my opinion. He had asked for a loan from his mother and the next day he was leaving on a Greyhound bus to find George. I asked who George was. He took a crumpled piece of paper out of his back pocket and handed it to me: it was a picture of the most handsome man I had ever seen in my life. Mark was skinny, with a bald spot the size of a Frisbee on the crown of his head and liver spots on his hands. George was the lover Mark had discovered on the Internet, now that he had time to surf the web since he was out of work and hadn’t bothered looking for another job. Did he tell you to come? I asked him again, as if something had changed since the last time I asked. He shook his head. Did he give you his address? No, he responded. I pointed to the photo. Are you sure this is him? Mark shook his head again, but added that this was the photo that he had sent. I handed him a glass and served him a pisco sour. When he was on his fourth glass, I told Mark I thought it was good that he was going to look for George. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Right then the only thing I wanted to do was drag myself to bed. I don’t know who locked the front door.


Pete never called again, Carlos never called again. I didn’t call anyone. My mother still didn’t recognize me. I did nothing but work and go home and drink every night before falling exhausted into bed. The nights were long. I had stopped wearing eyeshadow and since I cut my hair I barely even had to run my hands through it to style it. My supervisor said nothing but every time we crossed paths I noticed him watching me, as if he wanted to say something, but the right moment hadn’t arrived. One night, Mark returned and knocked at the door. He looked awful, as if a cow had licked his head and its saliva had stayed there, fermenting. I sat him down and went to get a pitcher of water. He didn’t seem to need anything else. I said nothing and he said nothing. He seemed empty, and he drank and I drank with him. When I brought over a second pitcher, he told me his story while a puddle of tears formed under his puppydog eyes. He cried, he wailed, he despaired while I listened to his speech—slightly melodramatic, but above all, predictable. He wasn’t expecting me to say “I told you so,” because I had never told him this would end badly. I only thought it. The man who inspired Mark’s fantasies was married. He lived in a comfortable neighborhood in North Carolina, he had life insurance and a car the size of a swimming pool, and he was thirty years older than the photo, though Mark began by telling me he wasn’t the man in the photo at all. When he saw Mark arrive, when he saw Mark coming toward him to kiss him, he grabbed his phone and called the police. He accused Mark of intending to rob him, said he was delirious and trespassing on private property. Mark told me that what hurt the most was that when he saw George’s wife, she didn’t even look scandalized. She just had a resigned look on her face that went back and forth between again and when will this end. And then Mark told me he felt used and I stood up and kissed him. That was the kind of thing I needed to hear. If I had been Mark, the only thing I would have thought was that he would never be anything more than that guy, who spent his whole life wishing he had a different face, a better income, a luxurious mane of hair. Wishing he was twenty years younger.