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Wendy C. Ortiz

Flesh Knowing

Sudsing the black panties in the bathroom sink. Using the melon-scented scrub up and down the skin. Putting the curls up in a rubber band and counting the condoms in the sticky drawer. Shoving the naked lady playing cards to the back of the drawer. Using the scissors for bangs for pubic hairs instead. New sheets on the bed. A candle of spices and lime. The mouth sore from last night’s kisses but wanting to be redder, plumper, for tonight’s. The careful positioning of countless other candles, matches at standby. Vodka cold in the freezer. Lotion on the legs, the soft inner thighs. A careful glance, reminiscent of the moon in the skies we share. Music not chosen. It’s too much of a test. Flesh knowing that on this night, there will be no rest. Peppermint on the tongue, ingested. The wooing is never done. A quick beer, maybe too quick, but a fix is needed. You lead, I lead, until I am dizzy with steps, and all the steps never coalesce, it’s so messy, yet still I put on the shoes to dance. I hold your hands, grip the fingers that never quite close around mine, and call it good. The incense used to hide the cigarette, smoked in haste. The feeling. Of no choice. But to succumb. Yes, I say. Again. And again.

I Feel Love

Tumbling around the backseat of the car unseatbelted. My parents are focused on the road ahead, which seems winding, like it’s going up and up and up and at the end somewhere will somehow be this place they call “Reno” which is as mysterious as “Tulare,” because as far as I know, I’ve never met the Larry we keep driving toward.

On the radio: a woman singing “to be real” against a beat that is reverberating through the car. What is “to be real”? What’s not real? My brain tries to sort this out. My mother turns to look at me in the backseat trying to get comfortable. Her shoulders roll with the music. The small golden horn she wears around her neck throws off sparks. What is that horn about? I wonder. I always want to touch it.

Solid Gold Dancers fly across the screen of my grandmother’s black and white television. Dance Fever contestants strut and push out asses and jut chests. At kindergarten, once we’re all stationed on our cots and the room is darkened, my friend Cho jumps off her cot, takes her t-shirt by her thumb and pointer finger at her chest and sings, “Shake your booty! Shake your booty!” as her tiny sharp hips pendulum. We laugh before we’re shushed and Cho jumps back onto her cot.

Disco grabs me by the lapels of my little girl dresses and the floor becomes lit up square by square and with every step to the beat I am lighting up the earth.

When my half-siblings visit, they leave our house at night together. I’ve seen benches at bus stops with ads for the disco club. They are going out to dance and I feel a loss, the divide of our ages blatant. I must go to bed. They must stay out all night dancing.

Casey, a boy I don’t know very well who is in the same grade but never in the same class as me, wears a shirt to school that reads, “Disco Sucks.” Somewhere I see an image of people bending and breaking records, disco records. Piles of records set on fire.

My mother’s work friends send her home with brown paper grocery bags. In my room I upend them and out spill hundreds of necklaces, various baubles and beads, purples, lavenders, indigos, blues, greens, ruby reds. I understand her friends go to a carnival where these are thrown from parade floats, somewhere far away. I understand her friends are lovers of this music that connects her and me, and that her friends have lives unlike ours, where they go to discothéques and carnivals and parties I can only try to imagine.

Later, I start to paint long black lines on my eyelids. I lose my body in layers of black clothes. New Order does it for me. It’s mine. It’s the music I “discover” on my radio, on the station playing music for me, my set, my generation. It is surprisingly, generously, enticingly related to my early love, disco.

Seventeen, I’m standing at the bottom of a dark stairwell about to climb up into something called Club 1970s. I walk up in time to the synthesized chords and drum beats of the music and yes, there is a disco ball, and yes, I will learn to dance The Hustle and yes, I will let go enough to walk the catwalk. Once in a while. Even drunk I still have some inhibitions. I will come back to this club as many Sunday nights as I have money for, as school on Monday will allow, as my mother will allow. I’m reaching back and touching something in the darkness of the club spattered with the glint of light from the disco ball. I’m touching a life I never knew, one where scenes of other people were sweating under other disco balls, in clubs where girls my age were quietly ushered in without a word, where men in tight pants and shirts unbuttoned to here danced up close with other men in tight pants and shirts unbuttoned to here.

I’d watched scenes of nightclubs and discos. Club 1970s was nothing like these places but it was still a place where the music I knew and danced alone to as a child could wash over me and when I looked up there might be someone else dancing in front of me, strobe-lit, wet with sweat and wanting, waiting to put their mouth on mine and let their tongue dance in my hot mouth.

Later, much later, watching all the various films and television shows that depicted scenes of discos and clubs, I knew I was feeling nostalgia for something I hadn’t even experienced. I became aware of my romanticizing. I read the think pieces about how I should not romanticize this era, these scenes. Still I enjoyed the filmstrips playing in my head, often of men, the men my mother worked with whom I didn’t meet or don’t remember, dancing on parquet floors with one another, falling into leatherette booths and making out, finding the dark stairwells with one hand slipping down the front of the other’s tight polyester pants, rooftops where the music could still be heard, unencumbered by clothes, sex to the four-on-the-floor beat.

The beats linger on in my car as the radio oracle slips a song into my consciousness and encourages me to turn it up loud. If the music plays in the presence of my mother who is nearing eighty years old, she will bop and groove in her seat, shoulder shimmy, and I will see the forty-something woman I knew back when I was a child, the syncopated rhythm she is enthralled by, still—and I, now, am the forty-something woman with a small child, also still enthralled by the pulse and vibration, like maybe it will match the rhythms of my heart until I too am eighty, the unconscious boogieing in my seat, the strobe lights I conjure when I close my eyes, the beat never letting up, never fading, the pulse that will outlive my mother, the pulse that will outlive me.

Wendy C. Ortiz
is the author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books, 2014), Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press, 2015) and Bruja (CCM, 2016). Her work has been profiled or featured in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Rumpus, and the National Book Critics Circle Small Press Spotlight blog. Her writing has appeared in such places as The New York Times, Hazlitt, Vol. 1 BrooklynThe Nervous Breakdown, and a year-long series appeared at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Wendy lives in Los Angeles.