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Banana Rose, Page 2

Natalie Goldberg

  Gauguin smiled and ran his hand through his long red hair. It was the color of beets or maples in the fall.

  “Do you want to go rose hipping?” I asked. We were eating yogurt with bananas and granola. He rubbed his bare foot along my calf. I looked at him and then tossed my eyes down to the yogurt.

  “Sure,” he said. “I’ll do anything with you.”

  I took two plastic bags out of the cupboard, and we headed for the higher Talpa Road. We stopped in at Barela’s candy store. Gauguin bought me a stick of red licorice before I could say, “You don’t buy anything here. You just stop in.” The licorice alone could have given me dentures for the rest of my life, all the candy was so old. But I decided to shut up, and when Gauguin wasn’t looking, I chucked the red candy into a ditch.

  A week before, there had been an unusually cold night and the temperature had dropped to freezing for a few hours in the early morning. That was good. Rose hips have the highest vitamin C after first frost. They grew along one side of the dirt path where we walked. Above them hung small wild green plums. Beyond was a field spotted with cows. Nearby two white horses bent their long necks. I showed Gauguin how to select the darker rose hips. He began a little song about Rose’s hips. I smiled and tried to ignore the fact that he was singing about me.

  I wore a pair of white pants stained with paint, and as I stood in front of the thornbushes, I felt the sun’s heat through the cotton on the back of my thighs. I also felt the season turning, and I knew when I looked over at Gauguin that he felt it too.

  Gauguin told me he came from Minnesota. One night, he’d dreamed that he stood on his head at the top of Machu Picchu. That was the whole dream, and it had lasted for hours: way on the top of the Andes, his feet hanging in the sky and his head full of blood, his crown touching the soil where the Incas lived. It was an obvious sign, he said. He had to go there. He was hitchhiking his way to Peru and had taken a three-week job at the corral where I first saw him to get some extra cash. He planned to stay in Taos another week and then continue south.

  He’s headed for Peru—I’ll never see him again! I told myself to calm down, not to panic.

  I’ll paint a picture of all this after he leaves. Maybe an abstract picture. I began to see it in my mind. There’d be a moon—a yellow one—in the upper-right corner of the paper and I’d layer paint like an explosion in the middle. I’d keep working the colors until I got the acrylics just right. I saw myself standing in my little studio bedroom at the Elephant House. I couldn’t paint it realistically; no one would believe the sky and the light at this moment—it was too beautiful. Stay in the present, I reminded myself. Forget about painting right now. Forget about where this thing with Gauguin is going. I turned my head.

  Gauguin was squatting near a dead skunk. He motioned for me to come over. I stood and looked down. The skunk’s hair was matted and it looked like it had been dead for a long time. My eyes wandered to Gauguin’s hair. It was even redder in the sun.

  Gauguin was twenty-five years old and he’d already lived with two women. One had filled the house each week with white roses and said to him, “Count how many there are. I want to make love that many times this week.” Gauguin had counted twenty-nine roses out loud, and then they got to work. It meant making love at least three times a day. He said he’d been eighteen and so hungry for sex, he could have eaten through a refrigerator door. The other woman he lived with had sewn silk banners and ran off with the man who delivered pizzas for his band. It broke his heart.

  He had told me a lot about himself in just that one night. He hadn’t gone to college, so he’d had to worry about the draft. Before his physical, he fasted for twelve days and weighed in at 120 pounds. His height was five feet eleven inches. To his amazement, they were still going to take him. He became frantic and demanded to see the army psychiatrist. They kept him waiting on a red plastic chair for three hours. When he was finally led into a tiny gray office down the hall, he was shaking.

  “Well, what seems to be the problem?” The psychiatrist coughed twice behind his hand.

  Gauguin stood up and came around to the other side of the desk. He put his hand on the doctor’s knee, then bent down and whispered in his ear, “I’m queer. I fuck men in the ass.”

  The doctor jerked up, pointed to the seat across the desk, and said, “Get over there, or I’ll have you arrested.” After that, everything became very businesslike as forms were filled out deeming him ineligible for the army.

  Lying in bed next to Gauguin, I asked, “But weren’t you afraid it would be on your record?” I had boyfriends in college who were afraid they wouldn’t be able to go to law school if they tried to get out of the draft for dealing drugs.

  “Hell, no.” Gauguin laughed. “I’d be a lot more upset if I killed people in Vietnam and that was on my record. The only thing I felt bad about was portraying gay people like that, but I knew the army was freaked out about that stuff, so I used it. I was desperate.” He seemed in a rush to share with me, and at the same time it felt as though we owned time. He ran his hand slowly along my face.

  I picked another rose hip and looked up at the clouds. It was fall. Anything I did—turn my head, bend to lift a pebble, tie my shoe, glance at the pale yellow dirt of Talpa—felt as if I had already done it before in another life. The sky was so blue that only imagining the deepest red could give you a sense of that color blue. Smoke rose from a distant chimney, and the two white tipis way down by the Elephant Mountains were still out. Some hippies declared they would live there all winter, but in late November after a snow I hoped they would give in for warmth.

  Last night, I told Gauguin that I’d majored in education in college because my family thought it was a good idea. I didn’t know what else to do and my father was paying, so I did what he said. Way down deep, I used to dream of being a painter, but I didn’t know anyone who painted. Everyone in my family owned small businesses: a vacuum store, a grocery, a cleaners. My father had a luncheonette. After I graduated from college, I taught full time for a few years in Ann Arbor, but something was missing. Then I moved to Taos and broke free. I decided to give myself a chance at painting.

  “Taos is special to you, isn’t it?” he asked.

  “Yes.” I nodded. “When I got here, I felt I could do anything. I teach school part time and try to paint the rest of the day, but it’s not so easy. I get tired after teaching, and then there’s always something happening here at the commune.”

  “Show me something you’ve painted,” he said.

  I got up from the bed and switched on a light. Naked, I grabbed a white towel and wrapped it around me. I opened the closet door and brought out two paintings.

  He sat up in bed and reached out his arms. “Hey, let’s see.” He looked quietly for a while. I was uncomfortable and shifted around, sitting at the edge of the mattress. I bent over and picked at my big toe.

  “I like them,” he said, and then he hesitated. “Are they finished?”

  “Well, no. That’s sort of my problem. I want to finish them, and then I don’t. I get scared. What if I finish them, and I really didn’t say anything or I don’t like them?”

  “What’s there to say?” he asked. “Just do it.” He shrugged. “My father went to art school for two years before he became an architect. I think my father said you just do it.”

  I nodded. I dropped my towel and got back in bed. I wanted to ask him more about that, but I also wanted to kiss him.

  He laid the paintings down gently and put his arms around me. We brought our lips together—his were thick—and we kissed for a long time, not moving, just feeling our bodies naked against each other. Then I put my leg over his. He moved and was suddenly on top of me and inside me. I opened out like spring rain. I bit his lower lip and we went wild. He cried above me, “Oh, Rose!” He tensed and then relaxed. We were quiet for a time. Then he began moving again, slow and soft. And with the wetness of his sperm inside me, I came, my body shuddering, ripples running down my entire le

  Gauguin and I were finished picking rose hips. We walked home with our bags full of those hard fall nuggets that used to be pink wild roses. It was late afternoon. When we got back, we decided to take a nap. We covered ourselves with a yellow wool blanket on my single mattress on the floor. The narrow bed seemed plenty large.

  With the heaviness of sleep on our eyelids, I said, as though confessing, “Gauguin, my real name is Nell Schwartz.”

  “Yeah,” he murmured, his head on the pillow.

  “You see, I was with a group of friends, toasting marshmallows around a campfire near the Rio Grande. I forgot what we were talking about, but for some reason I said, ‘Y’know, I like to look normal. I don’t want people to think I’m a freak.’

  “This guy named Neon looked up from the fire. ‘You never fooled anyone, Nell. We all know you’re bananas. I know! Let’s call you Banana—no, Banana Rose, because right now is that time of rose sunset.’

  “The name stuck.” I smiled at Gauguin.

  We fell asleep right after that.

  We woke in the early evening. Gauguin said he’d been up for several minutes, looking around my room. “Why don’t you show me some more of your paintings?” he asked. “And what’s that fat black pillow over in the corner?”

  “That’s a sitting cushion. For meditating. Sometimes we all sit together. Neon, the man who named me, taught Happiness, and she taught all of us.” I yawned and then answered his first question, “I’ll show you more paintings later.”

  He moved a bit away from me so he could see me better. “Will you teach me how? I tried to meditate when I was living in the woods in northern Washington, but I wasn’t sure what to do.”

  “Sure, I’ll show you. What were you doing in Washington?”

  “It was four years ago. I wanted to learn the trumpet and kept trying to talk myself out of it. Finally I saw one for two hundred dollars in a hock shop, and I bought it. I said to myself, ‘You spent the money for this, you’re going to go off and learn it.’ I had about fifty dollars left. I bought a bunch of supplies, lots of oatmeal, and headed for an abandoned shack I’d heard about. I practiced all day and ate simple.”

  “Did you ever have any lessons?” I asked. “How did you know what to do?”

  “I just figured it out. Me and the horn. We became friends. I brought a book along. It didn’t help much, though, because I couldn’t read notes.” Gauguin kissed my cheek. “How do you sit? Tell me.”

  “I can’t tell you. Let’s get up and do it.” We threw on some clothes. I gave Gauguin the zafu, and I used pillows for myself. “Here. You cross your legs like this.” I crossed my legs. “You put your hands on your knees. Back straight.” I leaned over and adjusted his chin and shoulders. “Relax. Now you just sit this way. Watch your breath go in and out. Thoughts will come. Keep coming back to the breath. Do you want to try fifteen minutes?”

  “How long did you do it the first time?” he asked.

  “For thirty.”

  “Well, then let’s do it for thirty,” he said eagerly.

  “Okay, if you’re sure. Oh, and don’t worry if you have trouble staying with the breath. Our minds always wander.”

  “Got it. Let’s go.”

  I smiled. He entered it like a race. Yeah, I thought, a race that goes noplace. There, I made a rhyme. I would tell him when the thirty minutes were up. Of course, when they were finally up, I’d forgotten. I was busy thinking about how much I liked him, about a really good pizza I had a week ago at the House of Taos, about how my foot had fallen asleep. I glanced at the clock. Only fifteen minutes had passed. I wanted to touch Gauguin, but I had to wait fifteen more minutes. I remembered Aunt Ruth had once sued a five-and-ten-cent store because she found a piece of glass in her Coke. I think she collected $5,000. My nose itched. Should I scratch it? Naa, I wanted to show Gauguin how still I could sit.


  “YOU KNOW, SOMETIMES I think I ought to change Banana Rose. Sometimes the kids at school call me Banana Split, and when my father heard the name, he said, ‘You mean Banana Nose. You always had a big nose.’ ” I made a face and turned to Blue. “I don’t have a big nose, do I?”

  “No, sugar.” She reached her hand out and touched my arm. “I can’t believe your father said something like that. I think you’re beautiful, honey. Those black curls all over your head—we ought to count them. There must be eight hundred.” Blue moved some hair out of my eye.

  I looked at her. “You’re pretty beautiful yourself. I like your back best. When you dove into the reservoir once, I remember you reminded me of a leopard, lean and strong. And I like your cheekbones.” I brushed my finger along her face.

  We sat on two wood stumps outside her house, throwing scraps from last night’s dinner to the chickens who pecked near our feet. Sylvester, the rooster, flew into Blue’s lap.

  I leaned over and petted him. He had those dinosaur kind of feet that could do you in if he wanted to, but he didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was so confident of his own beauty, he didn’t need to challenge anyone. I loved his iridescent blue and green feathers.

  Blue smiled and said, “Banana Rose is the perfect name for you, but change it if you want. I change my name whenever I think it’s right. I’m an ever-changing identity. Once I looked up at the aspens in fall and said ‘Golden Fruit’–that became my name that autumn. When winter came, I was Barbiturate. That’s because that winter I was determined to see my own face. Every day after I dropped Lightning off at school, I took acid and crawled into the fireplace and sat there, touching the bricks, running my fingers along them.”

  “How can you find your own face? What did you expect to see?” I scrunched up my face. I didn’t get it.

  “That bricks are put together with cement.” She laughed and shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t find anything. And then you can imagine, I’d have to pick Lightning up from school at three-thirty, and he’d want his friend Shannon to come home with him—you know Shannon, the kid who always had his finger in his nose?—and then they’d want to go to Frosty Freeze. I’d sit in the car while they slurped up chocolate milk shakes. This was after I spent the whole day in the fireplace.”

  We had moved to our garden and were bent over picking rocks from the soil. “Blue, do you think I’ll ever see Gauguin again?” He had left two weeks earlier for Machu Picchu.

  She stood up. “Sure, sugar, have faith.”

  I bent down again. That summer we had planted spinach, zucchini, garlic, onions, and tomatoes in the little plot on Talpa hill near Blue’s house, next to the long crumbling adobe coop where old Hernandez used to keep chickens. The soil was fertile from the chicken shit.

  Some mornings, I went up and meditated in that garden and once in a while Blue joined me. One day we sat so still in the climbing sunlight of dawn that two magpies landed on us, one on my shoulder, one on her right knee. We didn’t move; we just let ourselves become one with them. It was in that silent sitting that I suddenly understood that Blue suffered. The pain wasn’t about her living alone with her son in a poor dirt adobe. The truth was she was a New Orleans debutante and could have had a trust fund, but when she told her rich daddy that she was going to give it to the Black Panthers, they stopped payment as quick as the light caught on a horseshoe. She didn’t care. Her suffering wasn’t about money. She just had a storm inside her that kept her from fitting into her genteel Southern upbringing.

  “Blue—” I stood up, my hands full of rocks. “Oh, never mind. It was about Gauguin again.”

  Before Blue moved to Taos, she’d lived with her husband in a big white colonial house. She told me once she was so unhappy, she’d tried to commit suicide. She bought a box of bonbons and went into the garage and turned on her car. As she sat there waiting to die, she carefully ate all the raspberry-filled chocolates first, because they were her favorites. Just as she was about to bite into a maple cream, the carbon monoxide started to choke her. Before that, she had been congratulating herself on what
a lovely way she’d chosen to die. She’d even put on a red velvet dress with silver buttons, so she’d look good when she was found. She’d thought she might even float out over Louisiana and wave good-bye. But the carbon monoxide hurt. This was not for her. She turned off the car, got out, and went back in the house. In the living room she finished off the nut creams.

  Two months later, Blue was thrown while riding her horse Guinevere. She broke her back and lay for eight weeks not able to move. During those weeks, lying so still, she realized she had to get out of the South or die. As soon as she was better, she picked up her son from school one Friday morning in her big Ford station wagon and headed west for California, where she thought everything was happening. In Look magazine she’d read about the hippies in Big Sur, Haight Ashbury, and Berkeley. She drove through hours of flat land, through the sagebrush of West Texas, and finally one evening stopped in Taos. She asked the long-haired attendant at the gas station, “Where’s the communes?” and never left town.

  We took a break in the shade of the abandoned chicken shack. “You know, B.R., love hurts. I don’t know why it should be like that. Even if it’s good, it hurts.”

  I nodded. I was twenty-six. Blue was thirty-one. I believed her. I missed Gauguin.

  “Hey, what are you reading now?” I asked her. “I just finished a book by Willa Cather. Ever read her?”

  “Didn’t she write about Nebraska?” Blue flung two stones across the ditch. “Never been there.”

  “Me, either,” I said.

  Blue read a lot: Herbert Marcuse, Simone de Beauvoir, Henri Berg-son, Aristotle, Mark Twain, Émile Zola. In winter, she spent whole afternoons at the Harwood library. Her little adobe had poor insulation, and the Harwood was warm. She’d close her eyes and run her finger along the book spines. Wherever her finger stopped was what she’d read for the week. She liked to sit me down and read me a paragraph. I could tell with each book she was realigning her thought system. But it was the novels that really caught her. She read a fictionalized account of the great Spanish matador Juan Belmonte, and sure enough, one day I found her near our garden with a red blanket, coaxing the pigweed to charge her.