I’ve changed, but not necessarily for the better, I repeated in my head, as I hiked up the mountain. I liked how the words sounded; I could picture myself saying them fresh off a boat, wiping salt water from my forehead. Whoever was listening would think I had some profound experience, like I had just come back from scouting spices in India. Maybe they’d think I learned to use one of those ground toilets, and gotten chased by a cow on the street. Maybe the heat had driven me mad. Not that any of that is true, and not that anyone will ask me anyway. I can’t say how I’ve changed, but the words are there in my brain, like a cat just outside a door, meowing for milk.
I blame the kleenex. Every day I have to see them, the kleenex pickers. Partly because I want to see Marguerite among them, to figure out why she left me, to look at the way her long black ringlets get caught on her elbows. But I also hike up the mountain because of some kind of cheap, physical desire. The groves of kleenex trees, strewn with beautiful women, give me the feeling that fresh rain must give fat worms. The trees with the kleenex leaves are all bent over, like frail holy men. The women avoid the thorns as they pick, bleeding anyway from their long fingers, wrapping the soft, white material around their wrists like casts. In the evenings they eat the kleenex out of wooden bowls, laughing together in the hot springs and drinking from thin flutes of champagne.
I’m not sure how eating the kleenex turns their eyes white; I guess it’s some consequence of the proteins inside. I first saw one of the girls in a bar, a tacky tropical-themed one like all the bars on this island. She was singing softly, and turned to me as I sat with a chip halfway to my mouth, stunning me with her eyes, as blank as a picture that a little kid forgot to color.
As for me, she change has not been physical; I’m still skinny and kind of bird-like, too tan. It’s more a subtle change in the flavor of my reality, as crazy as that sounds. I didn’t know it had a flavor until now, but there it is, a frightening exotic note, like a musky tea room. I can’t tell that to anybody. All I can say, should anyone ask me, which they won’t, is that things have stopped making sense.
The first change, like the first groan of one continent separating from another, started with a few dreams about Marguerite. In each one her hair would be against a new pillow, a new man on top of her. It wasn’t their faces I remember, but the fabrics: fur covers, silk sheets, lace. In every dream I’d be doing something mundane, like arranging silverware or cutting two-by-fours. I’d wake up, my head feeling like bread soaked in beer, needing to hear her voice.
She hated when I called her like that, and finally asked, “You really think I’m cheating, don’t you?”
“No baby,” I answered.
“Then why do you need to call me right after these dreams?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can’t you just tell me what you’re feeling, instead of doing this to yourself?”
I didn’t know what she meant.
“Listen,” she explained, “with a dream you can tell other people how you’re really feeling, because you don’t take responsibility for it. It just came to you.”
I was confused. She always talked like this. “So you are cheating?” I tried.
“No. That’s not the point,” she sighed.
I tried to figure out what was going on at work. I worked at a three-foot lobster shack in a beach full of tourists. There were at least forty fish and fry shacks in the water, each with a constant line. The tourists would wade out, wearing sunglasses that gave them bug eyes, hungry from a day of sweating and beer drinking. We sold lobster buckets, and my job was to squirt condiments in separate containers: ketchup, butter, and mayonnaise. After a week there I was as dark as a Kahlua bottle.
It was the best place to worry about things, because I was surrounded by people and daylight, which prevented me from getting too pessimistic. I tried to decide if I really thought she was cheating or not, but I kept thinking about her sigh at the end, how soft and sensual it had been.
Maybe I didn’t want to think about other things. Her life depressed me. She spent all her time with her chain-smoker mom, who sat around watching game shows and ordering diet products over the phone. Whenever I came over, Marguerite wouldn’t want to go to the beach or a bar, but instead she’d suggest we go in her room, where we’d lay in her bed and stare at the ceiling. Her mom never cared; by then she’d have a guy over too. Sometimes I got the feeling that Marguerite looked down on me. I don’t know how to explain it, just a silence that followed every question I asked her.
I suspect that something bothered her about the time that I found a kleenex-picker girl passed out in a fountain. I couldn’t help but go to her though. She looked a Renaissance painting, the kind where women have swan-colored skin and a flock of mythical creatures chasing them. In her case, she was surrounded by shimmering pennies, and a few birds who were hopping on the edge, oblivious to her existence. I ran to the closest t-shirt shop and called and ambulance. A medic came, waking her up with a potent scent, asking a few questions, and then driving away. I hung around, not sure what I was waiting for. Maybe I wanted it to be like a movie, where she’d suggest we get coffee and Marguerite would pull comedic hijinx to regain my attention, like walking five dogs at once past our table.
When she did notice me, I met once again with a pair of white irises. There was an emptiness to them that seemed inhuman—just two white circles where most people’s consciousness is believed to be.
I wondered if she had passed out because of some sleeping disorder. Marguerite thought her mom had one. She found her asleep everywhere: in the kitchen, waiting for the microwave to finish, in the laundry room, on top of a pile of towels. She had told me about it right in front of her sleeping mother once, while we were sitting at her table eating sesame crackers.
“When I was a kid, I used to think she fell asleep because she was having all these exciting adventures in her dreams,” she laughed softly, “and they were better than any boat rides or amusement parks that this island could provide. Now, when I look at her like this, I know better. You only dream with the material you put in there. Her dreams are probably full of tv static and empty beer cases.”
Her mom had twitched, like she had jumped into her own muscles, but didn’t wake up. I still remember the soft buttery way that she smelled after too much drinking. I wondered if she could hear us, if she was just pretending to be asleep.
The kleenex girl brought me back to reality, waving a thin hand in my face and saying, “Hello…”
Her voice was flat and had a foreign feel to it, like her o was more rounded than ours. I looked at her closely. I had never seen a girl like her before. Her skin was as thin as rice paper, and she had slightly crooked teeth, like a relic from some past life where she had been some one else.
“You look as tired as I am,” she said.
We introduced ourselves and agreed to get some juice. Marguerite worked at a juice shop nearby, so we headed in that direction. She hated the juice shop. She said that all the fruit came from sealed bags in freezing trucks from “God knows where.” She had only started working there because her school had called one day, and, thinking she was her mother, told her that she was $200 in debt for lunch money.
“Hey baby,” I said, when we reached the front of the line, “I found this girl passed out. Let’s get her a juice. How about strawberry kiwi?”
Marguerite looked warily at the girl, who was examining a small cut on her elbow that had bled a few drops onto her skin. She looked away, unconsciously feeling her own elbows.
“You’re the best,” I told her. I decided to wink, just for good measure.
She typed in the order quickly, adding a free raspberry drink for me. When I grabbed the drinks and looked for the kleenex girl, she was gone.
I decided to hang out and wait for Marguerite to get off work. I found a rubbery bench from an artsier period and sat on that, watching some little kids play with a balloon. Marguerite joined me after about 45 minutes.
“You know, most girls like her die by the time they’re 27?” she asked me.
I thought I had heard something like that, that the kleenex-picking lifestyle was mysteriously hazardous, but it hadn’t crossed my mind for some reason.
“Then why does anybody join up?” I asked her.
She shrugged. “But that’s probably why she was passed out. It wears your body down, being up that high in the mountain, or eating those weird proteins, something like that. They tested the atmosphere up there, and the chemicals in the kleenex, but they can’t figure out why these girls keep dying so young, or what it is that makes their eyes turn white. I think they look kind of like ghosts, as if they’re turning into spirits while they are still alive.”
“That’s stupid,” I said, “Why would anybody do something so dangerous?”
“Not everybody wants to live a long life,” she told me, looking away, “some people would rather just live differently.”
I suddenly remembered a program we had watched once with her mom. It was about a funeral for a bunch of those girls that had died all in succession. A big mass gathered to protest the kleenex business. The news reporter came on and talked about a line of hankies that were offered to people who wanted to boycott kleenex. I guess there had been scented ones—patchouli, rainy day—and ones that came in plaid or cloud print.
I had forgotten about it quickly though, and so had everybody else. Nobody used hankies. Girls traveled up to the kleenex groves every year. Men rode up there on mopeds and watched them, scribbling in their notebooks, writing poems about them.
“I think they’re beautiful,” Marguerite said, suddenly, “there’s something nice about the idea of living so simply, living off what you pick with your own hand. Something spiritual.”
“I don’t know,” I concluded, “I just don’t get it.”
That night I had dreamt the final dream about Marguerite. She was lying on a bed of kleenex, with new lovers constantly emerging from the folds. A soggy wind began, soaking them all, until the kleenex shrank and glued her to the ground. I was watching it all from behind a tree, trying to find acorns for some birds that were singing like fire alarms. When I woke up, my alarm was going off, oddly set to 3:00 a.m. My window was open, and I could feel a fine mist curling through. I decided to walk outside, and eventually walked all the way to Marguerite’s house.
When I walked in, the house smelled like hot vaccuum cleaner bags. I walked by her mother, asleep on a piano bench, a picture frame resting on her head. I must have been loud, because she woke up with a soft snort, and looked eerily peppy.
“Ben…” she began, “Would you like some tea? I’m just waking up.”
She seemed to have no idea that it was 3:30 a.m. and walked into the kitchen, starting up the kettle. She took out a box of teas that had lemon flavoring already in the leaves. They smelled like dishwasher detergent.
“She left me.” Her voice was sandpaper, coarse and crumbling. She dipped a teabag in some water, and I watched a brown shadow fill the cup. “It was only a matter of time, I guess. She was different from me, always looking at me like I was small. Even as a little kid, she gave me that look. You know what I mean, don’t you?”
I did know: her eyes, like they were absorbing everything in the room, even the light.
“Mothers know something, sometimes,” she continued.
I felt dizzy, confused. A small part of me told me that I was no longer in the same place I had been, that I had some how become a character in her mother’s dream. I got the suspicion that her mother had never really woken up, but rather sucked me in with the gravity of her sleep. That’s when the reality tilted, the smoky flavor rolled in and stuck around, the smell of my new chamber.
I ran back to my house, ignoring her question. I didn’t want to think about Marguerite. I thought about the kleenex girls and their blank stares, taking no light, leaving it out there, unjudged.
“How do I know it’s not for the better?” Asked the drunk girl, watching as her skinny elbows almost slipped out from under her.
I hadn’t changed for the bettter. I didn’t know how to judge change, in any circumstance. She had picked up a nut and shelled it gently, fascinated by its insides. I thought of Marguerite on the mountain, disappearing behind long leaves of kleenex. She had looked at me, bored, said, “You’ll never change, Ben.” I had thought her eyes would fade to gray and then to white, but instead they were speckled, white and black and gray together, like tv static.
“Nevermind,” I told the girl, “How ‘bout another round?”
The drunk girl nodded and smiled, her eyes complacent, blank as ivory.