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100% Pure
by Luba Burtyk

      I immediately recognize the kind of place this is. Every city has a few of them. Usually, they’re tucked away in some worn part of town, hidden in the shadow of a highway pylon, shrouded in the smoky discharge of a factory. They’re never very large -- a shadowy room with a bar at one end. No more than that. Unmarked. No one would expect an outsider like me to seek them out. But the local workmen know them. Pressed shoulder to shoulder, they fill every inch of space with the clamor of their appetite.


      I turn to walk away. Places like this are not a part of my life anymore. Not sinceMonica, anyway.


      But I hesitate. Stop. Rub my numb hands on my jeans.


      “Damn you, Douglas,” I say aloud, the words muffled by a sudden uproar of wind.


      It’s because of Douglas that I’ve ended up here.


      As always, he’s my roommate for the tour. Fifteen cities, six weeks. Not an unusual gig for us.


      “You have to room with him,” the other dancers tell me. “You’re the only one who can handle him.”


      Not so secretly, they believe that Douglas and I deserve each other -- two health fanatics.


      We aren’t. Not exactly. Douglas is a dancer with a dancer’s preoccupation with the body -- admittedly, carried to an extreme at times. Like when he is stressed, which he is on tour. We all are.


      But only Douglas feels and catches drafts in rooms where no air moves. He is never without earmuffs, scarves, and gloves, no matter what the season. All day he puts on and takes off layers of sweaters, sweats, leotards and socks to adjust for the vagaries of local weather, and the temperature of our rehearsal studios and dressing rooms.


      Despite these precautions and hefty doses of vitamins and antioxidants, Douglas always comes down with mysterious ailments that no one else catches. His symptoms are vague and unremitting. He describes them in lengthy soliloquies delivered to the whole company as we sit backstage applying makeup. A few of the dancers roll their eyes, but say nothing.


      Douglas blames his condition on the local water and the unsanitary handling of the hotel food, which we subsist on. He doesn’t feel safe until he’s found a sympathetic, local citizen – preferably, a woman -- to take him into her home and cook for him. Invariably, one turns up -- someone who is only too happy to feed the leading dancer of a world-famous dance company exactly what he is used to eating at home.


      My own dietary preferences -- strict ovo-lacto vegetarian -- have nothing in common with the germ phobia that drives Douglas’s eating habits. I fill my suitcase with staples from home only because there isn’t much opportunity to hunt out the local vegan restaurants in the brief intervals between rehearsals and performances.

      Douglas’s pursuit of home cooking usually leaves me with the hotel room all to myself, an arrangement I like quite a lot, except when Sheila, his live-in girlfriend of half a decade, calls me. Which she does -- two, three, four times a week, or even a dozen times a day, if she can’t reach him. I have spent many a four a.m. talking her out of hopping the next plane out to wherever in the world we are to check on him.


      He’s in rehearsal. . . a press conference. . . out taking a walk, I wind up telling her even though I don’t like lying. As Monica would say, it makes for bad karma. Repeatedly, I promise Sheila to take good care of Douglas, which consists mainly of reminding him of home, and telling him how lucky he is to have Sheila waiting for his return. I figure that’s what she really has in mind.


      Unlike the rest of the dancers, who pretty much consider her a joke, I feel for Sheila. A beetlish bit of woman, unfailingly decked out in black, she says she is an actress, always and forever just on the brink of the call-back of her life. Truth is, she lives to serve Douglas. When we are not on the road, she is forever scurrying into our rehearsals with a hot macrobiotic lunch in stacked Chinese pots, or a homemade sweet, a sweater, an umbrella. Douglas tolerates her attentions with the embarrassed resignation of a boy being urged into galoshes by his mother.


      Most of the time, I don’t mind dealing with Sheila, but tonight I wasn’t up for one of her crying jags. Douglas was already out. I was lying on the hotel bed missing Monica and wishing I were in her arms. So when Sheila called my cell, I let it go to voicemail, and when the hotel room phone rang, I covered it with a pillow and let it ring.


      It rang, and rang, and went on ringing – meaning that Douglas had turned off his cell, and Sheila was probably going to do an all-nighter of trying to reach him and driving me crazy while Douglas enjoyed a homemade meal.


      The image of Douglas at some adoring woman’s table savoring a local delicacy, made me suddenly ravenous. I pawed through my suitcase. Unsalted, unsweetened, preservative-free peanut butter, dried, un-sulphured fruit, seeds and nuts were just not going to do it for me. I wanted something fresh, something with some juice. But it was late -- too late to go looking for a decent place to eat.


      I sat on the edge of the bed and considered forcing myself to go to sleep. The phone hadn’t stop ringing, and didn’t seem like it ever would. I decided to go out.


      I walked for a long time -- randomly, at first. Or so I thought. But after a while, I noticed that I was following someone, a man barely visible in the darkness. A stranger. He was smoking a cigarette. The cold made the smoke congeal in long lines in the crisp air, and I found myself sucking them down like a teenager copping a cigarette in the school bathroom. I filled my lungs with the smoke as though I’ve never had a thought in my head about cancer, never heard the ugly facts that Monica read to me out of her nursing textbook -- like how smoking nukes the little brush cells in your airways which are supposed to sweep your lungs clean. Without them, the lungs become as baggy as an old leotard. I held on to that smoke, followed the long, slow trail of it like a trolled fish, until I ended up at this thick and studded door.

      Above my head, a gull makes its shill for water, earth, sky. Faint, unmistakable. The stink of a tidal mud flat brushes up against my face on the wind -- the reek of life forming and unforming. I conclude that the harbor I saw marked on a map of the city must be nearby. I could walk along the water’s edge with the suck and slap of the mud against my sneakers, follow the harbor back to the other side of the city, up into the hills. I’d be back in my hotel room in less than an hour.


      But there’s another smell -- the high close funk of flesh -- that seeps out from under the door and makes me want to sink by face in it. It’s been such a long time.


      I check the street again. Not a single familiar face. There’s nothing left to do but go in. I’ve thought about it often enough -- the temptation gets hold of me as soon as I leave home. A lapse, an unfortunate but understandable consequence of being out on the road.


      I take a deep breath and with my whole weight push open the door.


      The place is bigger than I expected. Probably it’s the emptiness that makes it seem so. The regulars -- muscular men with tightly rolled shirt sleeves, who come here to shout, drink, and feed a hearty hunger -- are gone. No doubt they were here earlier, right after their work shift ended.


      It’s a mistake to come so late in the day, I see that now. I should go, get the hell out of there, but the smell hits me again and holds me there like an unseen hand.


    “Can I help you?” A woman -- a girl, when I look more closely -- has materialized out of nowhere and stands before me. She seems too young to be working here. I expect someone with penciled in brows and skin like a mask. “What is your pleasure,” she asks.


      I try to answer her in the words I’ve memorized out of a phrase book.


      She doesn’t understand.


      “Please,” she says, pointing at a nearby table. “You sit?” she adds in English.


      I explain again. She smiles. Shakes her head. “You must to look. See what we offer.”


      She motions me to follow her to the front of the room where newly raked coals flare, and steam rises in a scrim to the ceiling.


      “What you like?” She smiles encouragement.


      I want it all -- the loins, seared and running with juices, the trussed flanks slowly spinning on the spit, everything that lies sizzling on the grill. I swallow hard to push down my hunger.


      She murmurs something that I take to be a recommendation. I nod.


      “Yes. Very good,” she tells me, writing quickly on her order pad. The look on her face needs no translation.

       I go to sit down. The pop and hiss of the drippings hitting the coals echo loudly in the empty room and fill me with regret. I look for the girl so that I can cancel my order. She seems to have vanished.


      If I stay, I will wake up feeling polluted. Leaden. My performance will suffer. It will take weeks to get all the toxins out -- the chemicals, hormones, the antibiotics.


      Monica can tell what I’ve eaten from the smell of me. I’m glad that I’ll have time to get clean before I’m with her again. Not that she’s some “meat-is-murder, total-vegan-or-die,” harridan. She never presses. But by her example, she invites emulation.


      I button my jacket to leave. It’s the right thing to do. Just then, the girl arrives with my order.


      The meat is steaming. It is burnished crisp on the outside. The flesh falls away from the bone -- pink as a tongue on the inside and wet with juices.


      Saliva collects in my mouth, and my stomach feels like an empty maw, but I can’t bring myself to take the meat into my mouth. The room is too brightly lit. I feel too conspicuous, too exposed to savor the dish. I call for the girl.


      “Something is wrong? You are not pleased,” she says.


      “No,” I murmur. “On the contrary.” I paste together a phrase that includes the words hurry and leave. I ask to have the dish wrapped. “To carry away,” I tell her.


      The girl gives me a peculiar look, then shrugs and clears the table.


      I wait for her to return. I fold my hands like a penitent. The surface of the table is sticky with the remains of other meals. The gluey glaze of old grease against my skin makes me feel faintly sick to my stomach. I notice that the table is not of wood as I first thought, and neither is the bench. All plastic. This observation fills me with an unnamable despair.


      I push away from the table only to discover that the bench is bolted to the floor. The table too. I lean against the back of the bench. The knobs of my spine press painfully into my skin. I lean forward again.


      The fluorescent lights buzz above me like flies. I have a headache. I should have eaten back at the hotel, stuck to the food I had in my suitcase.


      The girl returns. She hands me a bright yellow Styrofoam box, a box that will never, ever biodegrade. Not in my lifetime, anyway. I take it from her, chagrined at the way that one small error -- my misstep in coming here -- is now compounded. Not only do I pollute myself, but I pollute the earth. I promise myself that I will throw away the box and everything in it the moment I get out of this place. Quickly I push a mound of brightly colored bills and heavy coins toward the girl. I hope that they are sufficient thanks for her trouble. She gives me a wide smile.

      I hurry out with the box pressed against me. The Styrofoam makes squeaking sounds like a small animal. I grip it tighter in an effort to silence it. The box is warm against my bare hands. I am grateful for the heat because the wind has turned sharply colder, and the damp air sucks at my inadequate jacket.


      I am, in fact, more than grateful. Chilled and shaking, I crave the heat. I want to wolf down every morsel in the box, make the heat, my heat. Any qualms I might have had about eating the meat seem suddenly ridiculous.


      The wisdom of the body. Perhaps my desire for flesh, my succumbing to it, is not some failure of will, or a weakness of spirit. Perhaps a residual gene that once favored the survival of claw and fang is calling out in me, dictating to me that this flesh, this blood is necessary. In partaking of it, do I not incorporate it? Make it live in me. Do as my ancestors did -- eat of the deer to become fleet and fast of foot, eat of the bear to become mighty.


      I come to a dark strip of park. I head for a bench tucked in a stand of trees, away from the light. I look around. No one. Nothing. Just the raw smell of earth, and the cool damp rising from the frozen grass, and the sound of the trees rubbing one against the other in the wind. I pull at the box. My fingers are clumsy. The lid yields with a short screech, and then the box lies flat, splayed against the wood slats of the bench.


      I touch my finger to the juice pooled in a corner of the box. It clings to me like warm syrup, but tastes salty, smoky against my tongue. A momentary pungency of rosemary pricks at the roof of my mouth as the juice slides smoothly down my throat. My lips tingle. Bending over the box, I inhale deeply. Through the redolence of rosemary, I make out the faintly ammonia smell of blood. Racked by an unspeakable hunger, I tear with my hands, my teeth through the glazed skin encrusted with herbs and the thin layer of fat to the heart of the meat.


      After the first mouthful, I try to restrain myself. I want this to last.


      Suddenly, I sense rather than hear someone coming. I cannot bear to be found like this. Abandoning everything, I press myself deeper into the shadows. I wait. Listen.


      A man’s voice, a woman’s. They’re singing. Laughing. The man’s voice seems familiar.


      I press myself against the cold bark of a tree and wait for the couple to pass. Shame makes me shiver. My teeth chatter. Molar grinds against molar, dislodging the gristly remains of what I’ve eaten from between my teeth. Strings of sinew slide out onto my tongue.


      I spit out the fleshy globule. I am relieved and disgusted in a way I never imagined possible. The spit freezes the instant that it hits the ground. The singing couple is weaving nearer. I see the orange circle flare of a cigarette, the glint of a bottle the two of them are passing between them. They stop, take a guzzle. I don’t know the woman, but the man -- wearing a tall fur hat suitable for winters in Moscow -- is unmistakable. Douglas.

      I am surprised to see that his fear of contagion doesn’t extend to the slobber of saliva on the lip of a bottle. He embraces the woman. No fear of sexual contagion either, I guess. How often has he sworn to me, to Sheila, that his friendships on the road are just that -- friendships, merely platonic?


      My palm itches for a stone to hurl at him. But I don’t move, don’t even breathe because for a long moment it seems to me that Douglas is looking straight at me. Can see me. I stare at the frozen ground. When I look up, Douglas and his friend are gone.


      I consider throwing up, then realize that it’s too late. The toxins from the meat are already in my circulation. I am grateful that I have a few more weeks before I have to face Monica.


      Monica, whose hair is redolent of vines and apples, whose eyes are clear as tropical waters, whose smooth belly and breasts smell of new mown grass heaped up with flowers. . .


      I go back to the bench. In the filtered light of the park lamp, what’s left of the meat in the box looks naked and small as a stillborn. I decide to bury it. Bury it deep, away from rooting animals. The earth will cover it, will clean the flesh from the twigs of bone and join it with eternal things -- rocks and stones and trees.


      I poke at the hard ground with a stick. The stick breaks. The heel of my sneaker is equally useless. I find a stone full of mica that glimmers in the lamplight. Using the stone and my bare hands, I manage a shallow hole. As I dig, I choke back tears and curse Monica, a world away, asleep in our bed on unbleached, 100% pure cotton sheets.

Luba Burtyk holds a MFA from Brooklyn College and has completed two novels Solstice (thesis), and Spontaneous Combustion. Losing It, a short story collection, was a Bellingham Review Tobias Wolff Award finalist and a semi-finalist in the St. Lawrence Book Award. Several stories from the collection have been finalists in literary contests including Mississippi Review and Glimmer Train. A native New Yorker, she can often be found walking with her Boston terrier, Blue.

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