Going Native

Fiction by Caitlin McGuire

Tammy was tired of theory and wanted to sleep with an Indian. A card-carrying, reservation-born Native American with a drinking problem and a ninth-grade education. Since Michael had decided that long distance wouldn’t work out, the thought had become the focus of nightly episodes in which she swayed in the center of Ponderosa’s pine-paneled bar to the ghost of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. She imagined being interrupted by a warrior, like Uncas from Last of the Mohicans or Abel from House Made of Dawn. They’d drink too much, the way they drank in the movies. He’d take her home; she’d let him think it was his idea. She wanted to be conquered and needed a warrior, which is why she found herself in Strychnine.

The bar was less full of lonesome cowboys than she had hoped, and pulsed instead to dub-stepped beat; the floor was gummy and clung to the prick-points of her heels; nothing was at all like the bar of her imagination, where she had two-stepped barefoot. She’d read that Strychnine was an Indian bar, but her one-sixteenth-Cherokee, diluted by Chinese and Irish blood, seemed to carry the red man demographic. Granted, she was only six miles from home, but she’d expected Strychnine to feel like another dimension. She felt cheated by The Toughest Indian in the World and Seattle, a city covered with Salish salmon designs but no Indian as far as the eye could see. She sidled up to the bar.

“I’ll have a whiskey, neat.” Tammy had never had a whiskey, neat or otherwise, but she wanted the courage of the old west.

The bartender set the glass on a coaster in front of her. Tammy adjusted her short, brown dress and slid onto a stool at the edge of the bar and cradled the drink between her hands. She wanted to make a ceremony out of the first taste. Her tongue—the whiskey—molasses, smoke, and Christmas. Whiskey tasted like hard Southern living.

The man on the barstool next to her swayed standing up, his arm with its Rainier clutched haphazardly, jostling onto her legs without apology. The stories they told during freshman orientation about girls who drank alone never ended well. But that was the point, wasn’t it? She took a drink, and her stomach lit up, warm with the 90 proof. Didn’t she want to do something risky? She had written pages upon pages about Indians for her senior thesis; didn’t she deserve to touch one? To escape the pages of her books and make her writing real? The more she drank the easier it was to drink more. She stared through the whiskey at the coaster underneath: Kokopelli, magnified by glass. She tipped the rest into her mouth, closing her eyes, and when she finished she looked across the bar. An Indian looked back at her.

He waved two fingers, not to call her over, but in recognition, a salute that said you exist and I have seen you. His hair was just as black as hers, though longer and braided. He seemed authentic. She bit her lip and glanced at the wall, flushed, and suddenly very aware that she had only slept with one man in her life. She rolled the empty glass back and forth.

Tammy didn’t know anything about seduction, but she did know that she was tired of reading about beautiful red people doing beautiful purple things in beautiful green places, and she wanted something beautiful for herself, so she smiled at him. He patted the man next to him on the back and whispered in his ear, then held up two fingers to the bartender and pointed at Tammy. The bartender set down two glasses of whiskey in front of her, each uncomfortably full. They left a wet path behind when she pulled them closer.

The Indian stood next to her. “I’ll trade you.”

“Trade me?”

“A glass for a name.”

“Tammy.”

He held his hand out, offering her a drink. On closer inspection, he was handsome in a way her boyfriends had never been, without the fragility of Sean’s Anglo-Saxon cheekbones and the freckles that dotted his shoulders, without the smoothness of Jun’s skin, without Michael’s bristly, black stubble from the beard she begged him to shave. He was strange angles, of rough noses, and full lips, the bold outline of his high, haughty features. He took a drink and grimaced. “Fuck, you drink firewater.” She laughed. He looked young, recently off the rez. He had a green shirt on, frayed at the seams, the black outline of a tree on the front and Sequoia National Park written underneath. “Don’t you want to ask my name?”

Tammy looked him over. Odds were, his name would only disappoint her. She didn’t want him to have an average name. She wanted him to be The Man With The Turquoise Stone Heart. She wanted him to be The Man With Scars On His Back. She wanted him to be The Man Who Would Paint Rivers Over The Hollows Of Her Hips With His Braid. She wanted him to be The Man Most Likely To Take Her Home. “I don’t want to know yet.”

He drank from the glass, and Tammy watched the corners of his mouth twitch. “So what are you going to call me?”

She squinted. “Geronimo.”

“Geronimo.” He rolled the name over in his mouth, considering it. “I like it.” He smiled a dogtooth smile.

“So, Geronimo, how do you afford your firewater?”

He pushed back into the bar stool next to hers. “I’m a third year at UW. You?”

“Fourth year. What are you studying?”

“Statistics.”

Tammy shook her head. She wanted him to be passing through: a priest, a poet, a heart full of something more than numbers.

“Don’t like statistics?”

“Not much,” she said. Tammy believed in right arguments, not right answers. “I wasn’t really any good at math.”

“Statistics isn’t just math. I mean, there’s math, but there’s more, too. We get to interpret the math. Numbers are just numbers without a context.”

Tammy didn’t know how to flirt over math, or the context of math, so she gripped the glass in front of her, and when she lifted it, the alcohol dripped down the sides. She leaned forward to keep her dress dry. “Give me an example?” The whiskey burned.

“I don’t have the numbers to back me up, but I’d say that you sitting alone at a bar is statistically unlikely.”

She laughed. “Who said I’m here alone?” She thought he blushed, but it was hard to tell.

“I saw you come in. What are you studying?”

“Ethnic studies. I’m turning in my thesis on Native Americans tomorrow.”

“Native Americans—cool. I grew up next to the Barona rez in San Diego.” Not on the rez, then, but near it. “Native Americans in general, or something more specific?”

“Depictions of sexuality, actually.”

He raised his eyebrows. “I don’t know if I’m allowed to say anything now.”

“Are you a Puritan, Geronimo?” Her eyelashes felt heavy.

“Far from it.” He pinched the collar of his t-shirt. “But you know, the things you don’t talk about with new people—sex, politics, religion.”

“I think those rules only apply if you plan on having long-lasting friendships with the new people.”

His eyebrows twitched. Tammy looked at him, the boy with the darkest skin in the crowd, so brown-red-russet it revved her courage and made her think of beautiful things she wanted to do to him. Wispy hair at the nape of his neck had come out of his braid, and he seemed momentarily breakable. She wanted to feel the braid on her neck as he pulled his face close to hers. She had spent years studying things she didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, couldn’t touch. She wanted context. She wanted to touch him. She wanted him to be The Man Who Made Things Make Sense For A Night.

She picked the glass up and finished it, ignored the burn, swallowed hard. She put it upside down on Kokopelli. “You’re here alone, too?”

He motioned across the bar. “Well, I’m here with friends, but not with anybody.”

“How do you feel about being plus one?”

He downed his whiskey. “I think I feel alright about that.”

*

Geronimo lived in a dorm with posters of Che and Crazy Horse on the wall behind his desk and books full of math on his shelves. The room was spartan, clean for a boy, or at least cleaner than the rooms of most boys she’d known. Michael’s had been a mess. No bedframe, an aura of books around his mattress; they had spent a year on the floor. No possibility of that, not in the room with a twin bed against the wall.

She leaned back against the short hallway where the door swung into the dark room and looked at him, her hands pressed hard behind the small of her back, pushing on her hipbones. Geronimo leaned against the bedframe like they’d known each other for more than an hour in a bar and a bus, like he’d already touched her the way she’d been wishing, touch my shoulder, touch my cheek, kiss me, because I am lost and afraid.

She bit the inside of her mouth and pulled one hand out from behind her, smoothing her hair behind one ear. It had gotten a little wet during the walk to campus. He was so dark. She wanted him to touch her first. It was windy outside and the building groaned, burying itself into its foundation. The mist had left a spider web on his hair. Why wouldn’t he touch her?

“Do you,” he cleared his throat, “want to watch a movie or something?”

“Not particularly.”

She blinked. Why did her parents ever warn her about men and sex? They never seemed to want sex, or at least they never seemed to want her, they never seemed like they understood anything at all. She always led the breadcrumb trail to her body. In her romantic history, she’d never fended off advances; never been thrown up against a wall in brutal passion; never been wanted so much they couldn’t make it home. Maybe modern men were lazy. She didn’t want modern men. She wanted the warrior. She put her hand back behind her, and he scanned the room for another distraction. She rolled her eyes and wondered if she’d picked the wrong Indian. Maybe this one was too young. Maybe he didn’t know what to do with a woman. He was a year younger than she. Just one year. Was it possible that he didn’t know what it meant when a woman asked to be brought home? When she pressed her hips out, did he not know that he was to pull them close to his, to take the breath out of her throat? She had never struggled to have her body language understood before, but maybe Michael had a translation guide Geronimo couldn’t touch.

“So what do you want to do?”

She looked up at him, but didn’t answer him; didn’t want to have to be in charge; wanted the warrior. Maybe this was a mistake. She licked her lips, and he made eye contact with her, and she hoped that her hazy eyes looked beautiful and sober and promising. The wind blew harder and the floor moved under her feet. Whiskey was stronger than she had expected. She felt brave but didn’t want to make the first move. He leaned back into the wooden bedpost, and she thought about statistics, and science, and the way the words the body used had nothing to do with the words their mouths did. Why wouldn’t he touch her?