Going Native

He pushed off the bedframe and walked across the room, standing on the opposite side of the tiny hallway, but still, he didn’t touch her. Her confidence, thin at best, faltered; maybe she wasn’t enough. Maybe she didn’t know the body language that meant I want you for tonight, then become a memory.

“Why don’t you want to know my name?”

“I know your name. You’re Geronimo.”

“My real name. Why don’t you want to know my real name?”

“Because it’s better this way.” She inhaled, her chest rising as anxiety took hold, and she exhaled hard to push it out again.

“What if my name is ridiculous?”

“Then I’ll be surprised.”

“Do you want to hear it?”

“No.”

“What would you do if I told you my name?”

“I’d leave.”

He took a step forward, got as close as he could possibly get without touching her, and she breathed in. Exhaling would mean they’d have to touch. She wasn’t sure anymore. This had felt easy in her head, but the body that was so close to her felt threatening in ways her imagination had never been, and she didn’t want to bridge the gap; she wanted to deflect, run down the hall, and exhale without another body so close. She really should have been working on her thesis. She thought about the end of The Last of the Mohicans. She hated the movie, its thousand digressions from the original. But the way Magua held out his hand. The silence. Alice jumping off the cliff. That wasn’t the way the book ended.

“Would you leave now?”

The inches fell apart, her face moved toward his, and he was gentle. He kissed too softly, with more wetness than she usually liked, but it wasn’t unpleasant. She pressed her hips toward him; he didn’t press back. He pulled her hand to wrap around his waist and made her meet him. Geronimo kissed her again, and she touched the braid, a thrill rushing through her spine, finally.

He was tender, and as she pushed him and moved to make him move, she realized that she was fighting a losing battle. He wasn’t The Man Who Makes Love Like The House Is On Fire or The Man Who Thrusted Until He Was Done or The Man Who Ravished White Women. He was The Boy Who Met A Girl In A Bar, The Boy Who Worried About Women’s Feelings, The Boy Who Brushed Women’s Hair Off Their Faces And Kissed Their Eyelids. She worried that she had judged him too quickly, that this was a mistake. But as mistakes went, it was a pretty good one.

*

Tammy pulled the elastic band from the end of his braid, wiggled her fingers in between the strands, and slowly pulled the twists apart. His hair was crimped by the plait and the rain that had dried shiny in his hair.

Geronimo sat up, and his legs danged off the side of the bed. He slid on his boxers, and as he leaned forward, the waterfall of hair reached halfway down his back. She ran her finger down his spine and counted vertebrae. She felt like sex itself, lying on top of Geronimo’s yellow sheets, and she pointed the tips of her toes out to touch the wooden footboard.

He stretched his neck, rolling his head from side to side, and stopped to look back at her. “So, do you have a last name?”

“Chen.”

“Really? You don’t look like a Chen.”

“My dad’s a Chen. My mom’s an O’Brien.”

“That makes more sense.”

“What are you?”

He crossed the room and filled a glass of water at the sink. “Animal, vegetable, mineral?”

“You know what I mean. Like, ethnic, tribal.”

He leaned back against the sink as he drank. “Does it matter?”

“No, not really. I’m just wondering.” She laid back into the bed, pressing into the thin mattress.

“I’m American. But my parents are from Mexico.” She opened her eyes. “Thirsty?”

“No,” she said too quickly. She reached for the sheet and wrapped herself tight. She groped for her dress on the floor, and he handed it to her, then turned to face the opposite wall. It was sweet, the privacy he gave her as she dressed, but it was something else as well. She pulled the dress up, but the zipper was caught on the fabric.

He turned and watched her fight with the metal teeth. “Need a hand?”

“I’ve got it.” She didn’t.

She felt his hands on her skin, cold from the glass of water still, and he leaned down to look at the zipper more closely, his nose grazing her waist. He teased out the fabric that obstructed the teeth.

She stared straight ahead. “What’s your name, Geronimo?”

“Carlos.”

“Are your parents Aztec, Carlos?”

“I don’t think they call themselves that anymore.”

She looked down at him on his knees. “But are they?”

“Maybe my parents’ parents’ parents’ were.”

“That’s a native right? And Mexico is part of North America, right?” She swallowed and let her eyes grow wide. “Does that make you a Native American?”

Carlos put his hands on his knees, pressed up to his feet. Tammy hadn’t realized how tall he was in the bar when they were sitting down, but now, she appreciated the tall reed of him, the slimness and the lean muscles that moved with his twisting. “Did you think I was an Indian?”

She looked away.

He laughed. “When’s that thesis due?”

“I should go.”

He looked at the clock on his nightstand. “It’s three in the morning. You’re welcome to spend the night, if you want.”

“No, I should go.” Tammy slipped her feet back into the too-tall heels she had worn earlier in the night. The wind had died outside, and the room was unearthly in its quiet.

“Do you want me to walk you home?” He began braiding his hair again.

She grabbed her purse from the foot of the bed. “No, I’m fine. I don’t live too far from here.”

“If you’re sure.”

She stood in the tiny hallway again. She was uncomfortable with being uncomfortable; how do you say goodbye to someone you only briefly met after they’ve been inside you?

“Well.”

“Well.”

Tammy pressed forward on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. She left alone.

As she walked the ten blocks back to her apartment, Tammy listened to the sounds of parties on the Ave and looked away when she passed the Burke Museum. No more Salish salmon. The semester was coming to a close, and in five hours, she would be dropping off her thesis with her major adviser; three months, and she’d be starting grad school. Ethnic literature. She rubbed her forehead with her hand. She wished she could tear her thesis apart and start again.

When she got home, she opened her laptop and hit print. She didn’t want to read what she’d written, and she didn’t care about what she had thought. As the printer cartridge ran back and forth, echoing in the hollow darkness, she stripped for the second time that night and climbed under the covers on the left side of her bed. She still hadn’t learned to sleep in the middle.

Tammy didn’t know what to think of before she fell asleep anymore. Patsy Cline didn’t comfort her, nor did James Fenimore Cooper, definitely not sex. She wasn’t The Woman Who Strung Together Twenty-Thirty-Forty-Fifty Pages Of Bright Thoughts. She wasn’t The Woman Who Brought The Text Into Her Flesh. She wasn’t The Woman Who Seduced An Indian In A Bar.

Native American In A Bar, she corrected herself. Native American.

Caitlin McGuire is a James Dickey fellow at the University of South Carolina, Yemassee Journal’s fiction editor, and co-managing editor of Cartagena. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Paper Nautilus and Whiskeypaper. Born in California, she’s still not clear on where the west starts, but remains open to suggestion.