barcelona review #11   february - march 1999

Home | Michael Knight | David Alexander | Juan Abreu | Marcia Morgado | Tim Turnbull | Essay | Book Reviews | Back issues | Links

author bio | spanish translation

Bruce Lee and MeBruce Lee pic
Mary Warren

BRUCIE IS TRYING to save me from yet another rotten American boyfriend. He is in his shower and I am in his bed eating frosted Blueberry PopTarts, and drinking strong coffee. Brucie (or Bruce Lee as I call him behind his back) is a Chinese chef at Hong Kong House where I occasionally wait tables. I like Brucie. He is a nice guy. But I will never fall in love with him. I wish that I could, but he is too easy for me. And too old.
      Brucie has a slim, soft, practically hairless body. In winter his skin is the color of bleached yellow mums. He will brown up like dark toast in the summer. His eyes are sharp, knowing slits, carved into a round, still face. Brucie is exotic, the maraschino cherry at the bottom of a fruit cup. I have never met anyone like this man. He has lived in America for over ten years, not once going home to China to see his parents, brothers or sisters. I used to visit my Mom every single day, dropping in to eat a meal or wash a load of laundry. I can't believe Brucie doesn't even send Christmas or birthday cards. I guess he doesn't know if his family is alive or rotting in some musty, Communist jail. I am his first, real American girlfriend--one he doesn't have to pay in cash. He is a sad man. I feel sorry for Brucie. He has a truly good heart and most people are lacking that way.
      Brucie is quite different from my latest ex-boyfriend. Jackson has layers to him just like a garden compost. The surface is fresh and clean, a thin layer of leafy, sweet-smelling mulch. The core is steamy, fermented, and spoiled. These are all things a girl cannot tell from just scratching the surface. By the time she has reached the bottom, it is much too late to turn back. Jackson is a big boy, well over six-foot, with a pink, healthy glow to his cheeks, and he is about the hairiest boy I have ever seen. That thick curly hair is everywhere. His forearms, covered with a blanket of hair unruly as alfalfa sprouts, were the first thing that turned me on.
      Poor Brucie. He has two long, feeble hairs on his arms. I find them revolting. I told him he should go ahead and shave them right off. He stared at me like I was asking him to eat glue. He doesn't speak English too well and I thought maybe, possibly, I was talking too fast. As it turns out, he was simply ignoring me. I am finding out that Chinese boys are good at that. There are some things about boys that are the same all over the world.
      "What you doing?" Brucie asked, slipping into his starched, white chef coat. He was preparing to leave for work, wearing purple flip flops and the Mickey Mouse boxer shorts that I bought him at Disney World.
      "Having breakfast," I said.
      "You call this breakfast?"
      "PopTarts and coffee! Breakfast of Champions! Fortified with 11 vitamins and minerals." I flipped my hair out of my eyes.
      "Bah. American food no good for your body. I hate stupid cheeseburger."
      "Brucie, I am not eating a cheeseburger. Besides, you had one yesterday. And large fries. And you're still kicking."
      "I don't care."
      He has a hangover this morning. If you don't count jiggly, fat-bottomed girls, Budweiser, and the almighty dollar, Brucie claims to detest all things American. Especially my ex-boyfriends. They are a constant source of irritation.
      "You go to work?" he asked.
      "Nope. Not today, dear. I need my beauty rest."
      "Don't be lazy, spoiled American girl."
      "The name is Sean. Miss Daly, to you."
      "Why don't you work?"
      "It's image, baby. How would it look if your girl had to work?"
      "Where you going?"
      "It's really none of your business, Brucie. That's the way I see it."
      "You go to see him?"
      "Him. American guy. What's his name? Johnson?"
      "I don't know what you're talking about," I said, looking away from him.
      "Don't lie!"
      "I'm not lying. You don't own me."
      "Sean!" His yellow face clouded over.
      "That's my name. Don't wear it out."
      "I don't have to take shit! Don't be fucking lazy!"
      "I said, `I am not going.'"
      "Okay, fine. Clean house then. You have to work."
      "I don't think so."
      Brucie rattles off something in Chinese. I detect a coarse vulgarity as he stomps off as noisily as his worn flip flops will allow. He slams the cheap, plywood apartment door with a hollow bang. I munch another PopTart. I like the frosted ones best.
      With Jackson, there is always an element of surprise. He is no pushover. And unlike Brucie, he is never tender. Brucie will rub my stomach when it's time for my monthly, when my girl parts are beating out a message louder than talking drums. That's the kind of boy Brucie is. I don't know why I can't like him any better than I do.
      I hooked up with Jackson late one afternoon outside the Circle K. I didn't have a telephone yet. In my neighborhood, where they have metal bars over every plate glass window, a telephone is a necessity. I was plugging one ear against the noise and shouting into the pay phone receiver when I saw him.
      Jackson winked at me on his way into the store where he joined a growing queue of tired, muddy construction workers waiting impatiently to buy three-for-a-dollar chili dogs, Miller tall boys, Goody's powders and Tums. He popped in and picked me up just like he was stopping in for a six-pack. That's the nature of the Circle K.
      I watched him as I pretended to dial another number. When I caught him looking at me, I immediately glanced away. I acted all interested in a small girl, barefoot, with a dirty face and stringy, tangled black hair. She picked her way deliberately across the parking lot, careful to avoid the juicy blobs of chewing tobacco spit hastily on the pavement. Her inexperienced foot landed on the butt of an unfinished cigarette. She leapt howling in a painful hopscotch to the curb.
      "It helps if you drop a dime," the voice said from behind my left shoulder.
      "Excuse me," I said, abruptly.
      "How can I make it clearer?" he said. "If you don't put a coin in the slot, you can't make your call."
      I slammed the receiver to its cradle.
      Jackson stood there rubbing his hand across the top of his
      short, red spiky hair. Cut military-style, it looked like velcro. His eyes were a weak blue, punctuated by hard, startlingly black pupils. His blue chino uniform was ill-fitting, the way most uniforms tend to be, too tight in the thighs and across the biceps. He probably wore it that way for effect. It bore the customary iron-on name tag.
      "Listen, I don't know who you are. Obviously, you think you are somebody, interrupting me in this particularly rude manner," I said.
      "Well, then you can't read any better than you can operate a pay phone."
      "Very clever, Einstein." I began walking away briskly, head thrown back, in the direction of my apartment.
      "I could give you a lift," he said. I paused. He came up behind me so closely I could feel his flat waist rub against my back. I could smell the scent of gasoline and body odor on him. His breath was hot, but not unpleasant.
      My first time with Jackson was scary. Like I said, he's a giant, a great big boy. He bit my
      lip that night. I really don't know if it was an accident or not. My lip got fat and I could taste my own blood, salty and tangy, on his tongue. Then it happened. Right behind my bellybutton. That's where I felt it. Like a pearly soap bubble rising in my stomach, it was a queer sensation. Jackson didn't even ask me if he hurt me. He did, but it felt good too.
      I am painting my toenails the only color any self-respecting glamour girl would ever use -- red. Naturally, it is my signature color. I only use Estee Lauder Classic Red on my perfectly pedicured feet. If I didn't bite my fingernails to the very quick, I would do my hands the same luscious shade. Even sculptured nails are no match for my anxiety attacks. I pluck the fake suckers off just like they are those dime store press-ons. My Mom always said I was flighty, high strung.
      Brucie got on my delicate nerves this morning. I do hope he doesn't really think I am going to stoop to clean this miserable wreck of an apartment. I have never seen such a place. It is a living, breathing mass of boy funk. Dirty pots and pans have been stashed out of sight in the linen closet. At least twenty take-out pizza boxes are stacked in a futile attempt at order next to the lumpy, plaid sofa. Ashtrays spill cigarette butts onto the top of the coffee table that is cluttered with empty Budweiser cans, used napkins and spent plastic forks. You get the picture. I never should have washed his clothes that one time. Boys.
      I pick up the telephone and punch in the familiar seven digits.
      "Public Service. How may I help you?"
      It sounds like the new receptionist who thinks she is the next best thing since Velveeta started making boxed macaroni and cheese. I think she looks like a man.
      "May I speak with Mr. Black, please?"
      I can hear my breath, shallow, waiting.
      "This is Jackson Black."
      "Hey, baby. It's me.
      "Hi, Sean. Do you miss Daddy?"
      "If I did, I wouldn't be calling this number would I?"
      "Smart ass. Want to get together?"
      "No, I just couldn't get anybody else to spank my spoiled butt. Lunch good?"
      "You're not working?"
      "Not that my employment status is any of your business, but no."
      "Well, I do have to work for a living. And I don't have time to listen to you mouth off."
      "Jackson, baby, don't be that way. Circle K? Noon?"
      "I can get away a little earlier."
      "It's eleven now. Say half an hour."
      "See you."
      "Don't be late. You know how I hate waiting."
      I say Jackson is my ex-boyfriend and he is. We still fool around though. It is a sickness. I swear it is. Such an unappealing character flaw. But, I know I will tumble. I will call him or bump into him outside the Circle K while I'm pumping high test into Brucie's shiny black Camaro.
      I am Brucie's naughty girl. He is always trying to make me happy. Of course, it is never enough. I don't know why he bothers with me. Actually, we are a lot alike. We are both weak. There is that appalling lack of discipline that we share. I keep hoping that someday I will wake up changed.
      Jackson is driving the company truck when he pulls up in front of the Circle K. He is early. I am sitting on the curb outside the convenience store drinking an A&W root beer and eating a plain hot dog. It is muggy and a little lip of flesh is hanging over the waist of my jeans, unbuttoned one snap. Skinny as I am, I seem to be gaining. Not in the right places, unfortunately. I am barely filling this halter top. Sweat clings to my flat chest.
      "Mama, you sure look tasty," a gangly construction worker calls out to me from behind the safety of his mirrored aviator sunglasses. He trudges slowly by, leering, and disappears into the artificially perky light of the store.
      "Oh, darling. You are going to make me blush," I reply smoothly, smiling coyly. Jackson pulls up in time to witness this sordid exchange. His pale face flushes.
      "Get in the truck," he said. "You look like some kind of slut, sitting there half naked."
      "You get what you pay for," I said.
      "Good God. Fasten your britches."
      "It's hot."
      Tossing out the rest of my lunch, I climb into the truck.
      "Where are we going?" Jackson asked.
      "A friend's place. Not far."
      "Give me a kiss," he ordered.

"No. Not till we get there."

      Jackson reaches his beefy hand over and pinches me. He twists a good chunk of me between his thumb and index finger.
      "Ow. Shit." Now there is a red welt below my ribcage. I slap at his hand and feel the familiar bubble burst.
      "C'mon. Give me a kiss."
      "I said, `No,' didn't I?"
      He grabs a clump of my hair, never taking his eyes off the road, and demands directions. He gives my hair a smart snatch and I tell him quickly how to get to Brucie's. We will be finished long
      before Brucie has closed the kitchen at Hong Kong House.
      Jackson pushes me up the stairs and into Brucie's apartment. No visible bruises. That's the rule. Any body part that can be covered by clothing is fair game. We have been playing this game since year before last when I came home from college. Jackson isn't the first boy to hurt me. There have been plenty, but Jackson taught me to enjoy it.
      "This is some guy's place, isn't it? I don't know what I see in a whore like you." He punches me in my stomach. I can see the stiffness rising in his blue work pants. Gasping, I don't dare whimper. Jackson likes to see if he can make me cry.
      I am not ready when his large, flat hand snakes out and cracks me across the face. I feel blood, warm as snot, in my mouth.
      "God damn it, Jackson," I sputtered. "The rules! The fucking rules!"
      "You play my way," he said, smacking me hard again. "You've been a very bad girl." He sinks into me over and over, rough and mean. I sob and taste sweet blood on my lips.
      Jackson is gone, about an hour ago. I am wearing Brucie's cotton kimono, the one I bought for him, and I am cleaning Brucie's filthy apartment. "Silly American girl," he'd said the day I presented it to him. "I'm not Japanese."
      I drag the Hokey over the same tired patch of orange carpet in the living room, cleaning up the same dirt that keeps getting regurgitated by the overflowing carpet sweeper. I do the Hokey-Pokey.
      (Put your left foot out, put your left foot in, do the Hokey-Pokey and you turn yourself about. That's what it's all about!)
      Finally, I dump the carpet sweeper. I cross the hall into the bathroom and plunder under the sink for the Bon Ami.
      (The little yellow chick never scratches).
      I don't recognize that girl in the mirror although I feel like I should. Her hair is thick and straight, a mess. Her complexion, fine and pink, is splotched from crying. I marvel that her one good eye is such a lovely seagreen shade. A very unusual color. A grotesque plum flower blossoms across the right side of her puffy face. In tiny, circular motions, I scrub the face bowl over and over until it is perfectly spotless. Not a stray hair, not a single soap spot, not a fleck of dried toothpaste mars the surface. Brucie will be so happy. "I'm so hoppy," he will say, in his singsong voice. "I can't believe! Are you American?"
      Exhausted, I sit down and light up a cigarette, a Marlboro. Brucie's brand. Cowboy killers. Half-smoked, I crush it out in the gleaming ashtray I cleaned only minutes ago. I sip on my bourbon and Sundrop, mostly bourbon. The liquor burns going down. I like the smoky, woody taste. I am sitting here in this same spot when Brucie, smelling like fried rice, comes home from the Hong Kong House.
      "What's wrong? What happened?" Brucie hovers over me, gently touching my battered face with his long, slender fingers. I love his light, smooth hands, the nails cut short and buffed to a high gloss. His boy hands are more beautiful than my girl hands. I try to take his elegant fingers into my cut lips.
      "What you doing, crazy American girl?" He snatched his hands away from my bruised mouth.
      "Nothing," I said.
      "Don't lie, bad American girl."
      "I fell, Brucie. I'm sorry."
      "Sorry! You always sorry!" he yelled.
      "Don't shout at me," I mumbled.
      A lonely tear slides from the corner of my bad eye, swollen shut.
      "I'm sorry, every time, you say. No good, your heart."
      "I know. I can't help it."
      "You have to."
      Brucie raises my empty glass to his nose, his extraordinarily European nose. He is so proud of this nose. He is certain it makes him look like a Chinese Paul Newman. Extremely sexy in a rugged way. Brucie sniffs the glass with this long, thin nose.
      "Are you drunk?" he asked.
      "I think so." I burped.
      "How am I going to do? I can't believe." He sighed deeply. "Go
      to bed. Go now. I take care."
      Brucie cleans my face with a warm, wet cloth and mild soap. I am sorry that I can never love him the way he loves me. I stretch my arms up to him like a child. He smooths my untidy hair back from my face. His lips, small like a wondrous gift, press against my forehead. Hydrogen peroxide bubbles in the cracks of my cuts. It stings, but feels cool, soothing.

1999 Mary Warren                                             spanish translation

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio:Mary Warren
      Mary W. Warren is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn, NY. She worked as a journalist in a small Southern community for a number of years before moving to New York to pursue an MFA in creative writing at Brooklyn College. Her poetry has been published in regional publications in North Carolina and Texas.

Home | Michael Knight | David Alexander | Juan Abreu | Marcia Morgado |  | Tim Turnbull | Essay | Book Reviews | Back issues | Links