“Sam and Suki”
Sam was a large girl, big-boned, her mother would say. Others called her heavy-set. And some just called her fat. Insults were Sam’s lot. Her name made it so easy. Sam crams spam and jam. She could go by Samantha, but that felt worse that the jiggle of her flesh every time she moved. Sam’s mother was stick thin. Her father might have been, too. Any questions about him in her early life were met with shrugs. When Sam was thought old enough, she got the story from her mother’s neighbor, Layla Endicott, who made an effort to take Sam under her wing on the many afternoons when Sam’s mother was still at work, and Sam’s grandparents, with whom they lived, didn’t want her around.
Sam was the result of a rape against her mother when her mother was nineteen and on her way home from the tacky diner where she waited tables. The rapist was Henry Delacourt, the scion of a wealthy family who liked shedding all outward signs of privilege to go slumming. He enjoyed occupying the last booth in the diner and drinking coffee into which he poured whiskey from a fancy silver flask. He pulled the brim of an ancient Fedora low, so that he had to tip his head back a bit to see. His coat was torn, the soles of his boots let in the rain, and his normally smooth cheeks bristled with three day’s growth. He fooled no one. Even in the pitch dark of a starless November night, Sam’s mother made him at once from the smell of his cologne which he felt necessary to splash on himself even under such a getup. She caught it up her nose more than once at work. A pleasantry had been exchanged. A pretty flower, you are, she said. Like you, he replied. He took her for a flirt. Maybe that’s why he chose her. A natural, if overly violent following up. The cologne was imported from France and had an overlay of cinnamon, a spice which Sam’s mother had, until that night, enjoyed on winter nights in a steaming cup of apple cider. She never tasted cinnamon again.
Henry Delacourt left town not long after the incident, and settled somewhere out of state where it was said he died two years later at the hands of a jealous husband. His picture in the newspaper was in the library’s database, and Sam went there one day to look at it. She saw nothing of herself in his face. She didn’t look one bit like her mother, either. She was sure she had been cast into the water of life by some random hand, a hand that liked to turn cruel, and not always against her. Her mother, Flora, was born to strict parents who looked upon their daughter’s misfortune without sympathy. She was punished for being a sinner, though evidence of any prior sin remained absent from their rebukes and steely outrage. When they died, rather than feeling free, she withered, as if she had needed the iron law of their simple morality to hold her up. She and Sam remained in the dead parents’ tall, narrow house. When Sam graduated from high school, she moved to southern California because she needed to escape the dreariness of upstate New York and feel the sun on her skin.
L.A. was a hard place to be fat. The bodies around her were lean and tanned. Clothes were minimal. Sam cleaned motel rooms and wore black polyester pants even after work. When she walked on the beach, she cast a huge shadow that bumped along in a reflection of her own awkward gait. For along with being fat, Sam had a bad leg, a birth defect, which her grandmother, Edna Clarkson, said was the Lord’s retribution. Sam was glad Edna and her nasty husband, Hubert, were both dead. She had silently rejoiced at their passing. When her mother, Flora, broke down weeping at first one, then the second funeral, Sam’s respect for her mother disappeared. Hence, California.
Sam was physically strong. That big muscles should lie beneath her thick layer of fat both surprised and pleased her. She thought about joining a gym to get even stronger, but the idea of her two hundred and twenty pound body, shoved into Spandex, made her hesitate. The ease with which she could lift and tote came in very handy when she moved into her apartment in a mid-century building called the Betty Lou. Across the street, the tenants of the Nancy Ann were often noisy late into the night. And on the other side of a wide alley that always stank of garbage, the grandest of the three, the Shirley Lynn had a fountain with running water twenty-four hours a day. Who were these women apartments buildings got named for? Why not the Samantha Louise? Sam’s middle name was another misery inflicted upon her. Her last name, Clarkson, she shortened down at the courthouse. Sam Clark sounded as strong as she was. A big, solid woman needed a big solid name, even if it was really a man’s.
She didn’t doubt her sexual identity. She wasn’t a lesbian. She didn’t find men particularly appealing, but she wasn’t drawn to women as love objects, either. This was no doubt Fate’s way of keeping her from reproducing. All she had ever really adored, it seemed, were small treasures, bits of sea glass, porcelain figurines, the tiny pearls in a hairclip a motel guest left behind. She arranged these carefully on a sill below a westward facing window that might have given a view of the ocean and didn’t. Stingy window, Sam thought. But I’ll wash you anyway. Some people might not want to do at home what they had to do all day at work, but Sam didn’t mind one bit. She didn’t waste her time using bottled cleanser as she did at the Econo-Lodge, but white wine vinegar and a squeegee. The window was tall, the one nice feature in an otherwise bland, dingy living space. Sam didn’t need a footstool. At five foot ten, the top was an easy reach. It was there, one smoggy Tuesday afternoon, with the anticipation of eating a nice pork chop and fried rice for dinner, that Sam first saw her.
Even from that distance Sam could tell she was a tiny little thing. It touched Sam’s heart to see that she was making up for her small stature by wearing ridiculously high heels. She teetered along, a big cardboard box in her arms which she strained to see around. She stopped some distance from the door, put the box down, and removed her keys from her stylish red handbag. Then she couldn’t pick the box up again with the keys in her hand, so she placed her key chain between her teeth. The effort she made exhausted Sam to watch. Sam dropped her squeegee and bottle, lumbered out the door, banged down two flights of stairs, and out the heavy doors to the parking lot. The tiny woman up stared at her. Sam lifted the box from her. The woman grabbed her keys with her left hand and smoothed her straight, black hair with the other.
“You downstairs neighbor,” the woman said.
“What makes you think that?”
“I see you take mail from box below mine. Boxes placed the way apartments are placed.”
Sam felt stupid for not having understood that arrangement.
“I am Suki,” she said.
Suki shook her head. “Japanese.”
Again, Sam felt stupid.
“You are?” Suki asked.
Suki continued to stare up at her coolly. Sam asked what was in the box.
“Tea service,” Suki said.
Sam didn’t understand.
“Pot and cups. Also many box tea. From Japan.”
In Suki’s apartment, Sam put the box on a low table in the middle of the floor. On either side of the table were a number of large cushions. A potted orchid, its petals an extravagant fleshy pink, drew light from the same tall window Sam had one floor down. The bedroom was visible though its open door. A mattress lay on the floor, covered with a blue and white blanket in an abstract pattern of flowers.
“Sort of minimal, no?” Sam asked.
“I way of my country. American way not always better.”
And then Suki asked Sam to please leave, as it was time for her daily meditation.
They didn’t really become friends. Yet they were drawn to each other, and balanced each other out. In fact, one dreary afternoon, when the first of the season’s rainstorms had driven everyone indoors, Suki poured Sam a cup of tea which Sam would have preferred to drink standing up rather than crouched awkwardly on Suki’s cushions and said, “We are Ying and Yang.”
“That’s a Chinese idea, isn’t it?”
Suki laughed. Her teeth were as tiny as she was, and brilliantly white. Sam’s teeth were big and sturdy, with a distinctly yellow tint that no amount of brightening toothpaste could help.
They didn’t have anything to talk about, having nothing in common. The invitation to tea was Suki’s payment for the kindness Sam had done her. Sam cut the visit short. A big girl like her did badly trying to sit cross-legged on the floor, especially with a bum leg.
Then certain information began to reach Sam about Suki courtesy of the woman who lived next to Suki. She went by Mrs. Hopp. She wore loud Hawaiian dresses and green eye shadow. Her dyed hair was more orange than red. Sam admired her stacked bracelets, though. Many were bright and finely beaded in tones of blue and purple. Mrs. Hopp managed to run into Sam in the laundry room every time Sam was down there, waiting for some cycle to finish.
A small lace camisole was left in the dryer, and Mrs. Hopp said it had to belong to “that Japanese girl.” Sam agreed. Although she didn’t know many other tenants by name, she’d seen quite a few from her perch at the window where she often sat, in a second-hand rocking chair she bought at the Goodwill. The men and women who came and went across the parking lot weren’t hideous, but nor were they prime specimens, and almost all tended to be on the large side, with sloppy, elongated American builds. None could possibly own something so fine and delicate as the camisole.
“Shame to put a silk garment like that through the dryer,” Mrs. Hopp said, and tossed the camisole onto the yellow plastic table flecked with gold which the management had graciously provided for folding.
Sam continued to sort her own things, size 10 underpants, size 18 shirts and jeans, and her trusty flannel nightgown which she wore out of habit though it was far too warm for the gentle climate of Southern California.
“I can take it up to her,” Sam said.
“Oh, no, dear, you don’t want to do that.”
“She has another guest.”
Mrs. Hopp looked sly and held her tongue. Something rose in Sam’s blood that Mrs. Hopp seemed to recognize as a threat. She quickly relented. Suki, she said, had “gentlemen callers.” Young Japanese men, mostly, though sometimes an older Japanese man.
“How do you know that?” Sam asked.
“I like to know who comes and goes on my floor.”
Sam had trouble seeing Mrs. Hopp get to her feet to peer out the peephole every time steps passed her door, but anything was possible, especially for an old woman with time on her hands.
Suki’s bedroom was on the other side of the wall from Mrs. Hopp’s, and good Heavens, you should hear the ruckus sometimes! Mrs. Hopp had to actually bang her hand on the wall to say that enough was enough. She knew she was right about Suki because Suki never met her eye when they met in the hall.
“You think she’s in business?” Sam asked. She wasn’t naive. These things happened, particularly in a tough economy.
“Well, I hate to speculate, but it’s really the only thing that makes sense.”
To Sam’s surprise, Suki admitted as much after Sam invited her down for a beer. Suki sat on a wobbly bar stool that was too low for her to put her elbows on the counter.
“It not bad as you think. Men are nice men. They come here on business. Miss home. Miss their wives or girlfriends.”
“You’re taking money to have sex with them. It’s illegal. What if the building manager finds out?”
“He seldom on premises.”
That was true. Sam had trouble with her kitchen faucet, and the guy was never in when she stopped by.
Suki sipped her beer. Sam could tell she didn’t like it.
“How do they find you?” Sam asked.
“Agency? What agency?”
Suki explained that the agency was an answering service where the caller made his request, and one of the girls who answered recommended Suki, or any of a number of other young ladies, depending on the caller’s specifications.
“And how did you find the agency?” Sam asked
“I see ad in paper. Ask for Japanese girl to give lessons.”
“Language lessons,” Suki said. For the first time, a merry twinkle came into her black eyes. She even shook her finger at Sam for her inappropriate assumption. Sam was charmed! Every fiber in her wanted to be Suki. Tiny, pert, enchanting. Life was so unfair, sometimes she just wanted to kick God in the face.
“And they offered you another position. One with greater earning potential,” Sam said.
“Must be nice to have lots of cash.”
“Most pay credit.”
“My phone has plug in. I swipe card.”
Sam had trouble imagining this.
“But, don’t you mind it? I mean . . .” Sam’s experience with sex amounted to a single encounter with Jasper Kline after school one day in her senior year of high school. Afterwards, he told her she should be grateful that she wouldn’t have to go through life as a virgin. Then he told her not to worry about getting knocked up, because she was so fat, people probably wouldn’t notice. When Sam kicked him, he howled in pain, and went off limping.
“Not so much now. In beginning, I mind more,” Suki said. But Sam could see her distaste in the way her shoulders suddenly seem to harden, giving her an air of firm resistance.
She’s trapped in it, Sam thought. She wants to get out and can’t.
Suki thanked Sam for the beer and went on her way.
Sam didn’t see Suki again for a little while because one of the other maids at the motel quit and there were extra shifts to be had. Sam was a hard worker. It was suggested that one day she might be promoted to head housekeeper. Sam didn’t exactly see herself making a career in motel management. But what else the future had in store, she couldn’t say.
Suki went out of town for a few days, and asked Sam to water her plants. Along with the orchid she had a number of African violets that needed to be watched closely, she said, so their soil, once dry, wouldn’t remain so. Sam took her time with the watering. She wanted to soak up the atmosphere, and get a firm sense of Suki’s inner life.
What she found was evidence of a young woman with a taste for luxury and comfort. She had cashmere sweaters that would never be wearable in L.A. Hand painted silk scarves, French perfume, fine gold necklaces that Sam didn’t remember seeing Suki wear, mother-of-pearl hair clips, even her dishes were a designer name, so was her crystal stemware. There were no books, or magazines, and Sam assumed their absence reflected Suki’s struggle with English. There were no photographs, not of people, at any rate, only one badly composed shot of the beach. Sam wondered if Suki had taken it herself, but there was no camera in the apartment. Sam was careful to put back everything as she had found it. Sam sat a long time on Suki’s low bed and imagined, with distress, the things that went on there. Men were brutes. Her own father. Her grandfather, who had whipped her with his belt more than once while her mother cowered in the corner and pleaded. The sports nuts who stayed at the motel when there was a football game, idiot drinkers who left vomit and piss on the bathroom floor, holes in the wall, used condoms in the bed.
Once again as thanks for a favor performed, Suki poured tea while Sam bore her discomfort of having to cross her legs. Sam asked where she went. Suki shook her head. Sam guessed that the trip had been arranged by a client. Sam sipped her tea, which she didn’t care for. She couldn’t think of anything to say. Silence fell. Sam grew uneasy. Finally, Suki mentioned that she was going on another visit soon.
“Oh, where?” Sam asked.
It hadn’t occurred to Sam that Suki had a family. But that was dumb. Everyone did.
“Family very important,” Suki said.
“You no talk about family. You tell me now.”
Sam stretched her legs. What to say? There was only her mother left. They were seldom in touch. Whenever Sam had a letter from her, it was full of whining and fear about what terrible things were certain to happen to Sam out there in the wild West. Sam’s mother had never gone more than a few miles from the town she still lived in. The larger world was full of mystery and menace.
“I have a big family. Four brothers, three sisters. That’s why I left home, actually. Got tired of having to share a bathroom,” Sam said.
“You miss them?”
“Oh, sure, sometimes. Especially Adele. She’s only six.”
“You no want to stay, help raise children.”
“Hey, I may love ‘em, but they weren’t my idea, if you know what I mean.”
Suki’s eyebrows came together, causing a line between them. “Maybe one day I marry one of your brothers. My family want me marry American boy.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. My brothers are all kinda nuts.”
“You have picture?”
Sam didn’t feel bad at all. Why tell the truth, when a lie was so much more entertaining? She could go on like this all afternoon, inventing one tale after another. Suki, though, looked far away, almost sad. Sam got up to go. Suki invited her to visit a Shinto shrine over in Little Tokyo the following day.
“You’re religious?” Sam asked.
“Of course. Only empty people do not believe.”
“In anything beyond their own existence.”
Sam’s grandparents had been Lutheran. To her, the whole paradigm was cold, harsh, and dull as toast. She turned away from Christianity at an early age. Yet she found wonder and beauty in the world, and didn’t know how to account for it.
The day was stale and hot, although Thanksgiving was only another week off. The bus was slow, crowded, and gave Sam a headache. Suki sat perfectly straight in the seat next to her, her hands, with their thin white fingers and crimson nails clasped quietly in the lap of her blue silk skirt. Sam’s hands were sweaty, as always. They were damp, even when the rest of her stayed dry.
They reached their stop, got off, and made their way along a wide sidewalk with flecks of mica that sparkled. Sam’s shadow covered Suki’s completely. Sam wore a dress, one of two she owned, because of the formality of the occasion. Her thighs rubbed together. She thought bitterly of the heat rash she’d develop later, and wondered if she had any Vaseline at home.
The entrance to the shrine stood past a concrete wall, then a chain link fence. They walked through a wooden structure that reminded Sam of a door frame, into deep, cool shadow provided by a line of poplar trees. A stone column with Japanese lettering stood just beyond. Suki stopped to look at it, then ran her fingers lovingly along the carved grooves. Sam had a sudden sense of not belonging. She didn’t want to continue, and told Suki she would wait for her right there, on a bench in the shade. Suki made no reply, but went slowly through the sliding wood and rice paper doors into the shrine itself.
Sam felt like an idiot. Why come all that way, on a stinky hot bus, just to plant her ass on a bench? She should get up and go inside, too. Yet try as she might, she couldn’t reconcile herself to the calm reverence around her. Her mind was in turmoil. She was in the edge of something bigger than she was, but it wasn’t a higher power. It was something deep within her, completely at odds with any notions of peace.
There’d been an incident at work. A new girl was recently hired. She was Hispanic, and her accent was so strong sometimes Sam couldn’t make out her words. The girl, Rosalita, grew impatient at having to repeat what she said for Sam’s benefit. Most of the other maids understood Spanish, an advantage of being from a part of the country with a lot of native speakers. Sam felt like an outsider. She was also the only fat maid. Rosalita teased Sam about her weight, in a way that needed no translation. She snorted, and pressed up the end of her nose. Then she went into a fit of laughter that made Sam’s skin crawl. They were alone on an upper floor, working opposite sides of the hall. The snorting was prompted by Sam eating half a candy bar and dropping pieces of chocolate on her patterned smock. When she brushed them off, the sweat from her hands made a number of ugly brown smears on the polyester. Rosalita was immaculate, even after wrestling a disaster of beer bottles and pizza boxes, or a large puddle of vomit in more than one unmade bed. Her jet black hair was combed into a tight braid. Her make-up never ran or flaked. And worst of all, she was thin and tall, “willowy” came to mind. Sam slapped her hard enough to make her reel. With her hand to her stung cheek, and tears forming in her eyes, she looked like an animal cornered by a bird of prey. Why that image should come to Sam then, she didn’t know. But she liked it. Anger, she discovered in that instant, was a fine thing to feel. Then the anger cooled enough for her to promise Rosalita worse treatment if she had any notion of telling someone what had happened.
“I know what your brother’s been up to,” Sam said. That was a huge stretch. Rosalita had a brother, true. One of the maids said she heard he was a drug dealer, then said that Rosalita was probably just bragging for shock effect. But as Rosalita continued to cringe and looked fearful, Sam thought her guess was right. It was then that she experienced a second surge of understanding – that power was strong stuff.
Now, though, in the quiet reverential shade, the events in question took on a somewhat darker hue in her mind.
What if I’m a violent person?
As a child, Sam had thrown her share of blows, usually in self-defense, but not always. A little classmate, Alice, came to mind. She was petite and gorgeous, just like Suki, and had been teased because her math skills were dreadful. No matter how often the class recited the multiplication tables, Alice could never come up with the correct answer. Sam clobbered two boys on two different days until the threat of suspension, and the back of her grandfather’s hand modified her behavior.
As the quiet murmurs of the devoted reached her there, in the darkness of the trees, it occurred to Sam that she needed to fix her life. Her task list was long. Weight loss, a better haircut to tame her wild red curls, decent clothes to wear when she wasn’t at work, higher education, a book club. Maybe if she met new people she wouldn’t need Suki so much. She had to accept that as the genetic lottery went, Suki won and Sam lost, but that didn’t mean that Sam’s life had to suck. Ugly people lived well, too, didn’t they?
Suki returned, looked as though she’d been washed from the inside out. She strolled silently past Sam, who got to her feet and followed. Neither spoke. Around the corner a man in an ice cream truck handed a little boy a cone with two scoops of ice cream, one white, one pink. Sam desperately wanted some and suppressed the urge. Suki looked at the small curved stone she’d gotten in the shrine, which she explained was an amulet of good fortune.
They fell silent again on the bus. At the door to the Betty Lou Suki said, “I am ready now for journey.” Sam nodded dully, and went on her way.
That night Sam slept fitfully. The heat of the day seemed to soak into her skin, and she couldn’t get comfortable. The bedroom window’s small, pathetic air conditioner didn’t do anything but make noise. Around midnight she lurched to her feet and turned the damn thing off. She went to the kitchen for a glass of water. There was urgent knocking at her door. The knocking continued. Through the peephole she saw Mrs. Hopp, frantic, yet resplendent in her bathrobe and curlers. Sam opened the door, and remembered at the last moment that she was in her underwear. Her flannel nightgown was too heavy for her that night.
“There’s trouble at Suki’s place,” Mrs. Hopp said. She was out of breath. There was something odd about the way she spoke. Sam realized it had to do with her teeth, or lack thereof. She’d removed her dentures.
“Go see what it’s all about,” Mrs. Hopp said.
Sam rubbed her eyes against the glare from the hallway light. Her head felt woolly and thick.
“Oh, all right,” she said.
She got dressed. She slipped on the flip flops she used when she went to and from the laundry room, which was across a courtyard that always collected puddles from the automatic sprinklers. They smacked loudly as she went up the stairs. Behind her, Mrs. Hopp huffed step by step.
The sound of wailing was clear at the end of the hall, four apartments away. Sam told Mrs. Hopp to go into her place and stay there.
“Should I call the police, do you think?” Mrs. Hopp asked.
“Well, if you were going to, why did you come get me?”
Mrs. Hopp didn’t know. She went inside and closed her door.
Along with the wailing was the sound of a man’s voice. He was speaking Japanese, Sam was certain, though if pressed she probably wouldn’t be able to tell it from any other Asian tongue. He wasn’t angry so much as desperate. His voice dropped to something softer yet more urgent. Then more of what had to be Suki’s wails, followed suddenly by the sound of something shattering. Sam thought of the lamp by Suki’s bed. Solid crystal, it looked like.
One of her clients was acting up, and Suki was fighting back. Sam took three deep slow breaths to ready herself, then pounded the door with her fist. All noise inside stopped. She banged again. The door opened, and Suki’s head appeared.
“Make no more noise. Sorry for trouble,” she said. She looked bad. Her eyes were red, her face streaked and grimy. And she reeked of alcohol, gin to be precise.
Sam pushed the door open and went inside. The man was in the kitchen, drinking a glass of water. He was slightly built, like Suki, but taller, though not nearly as tall as Sam.
“Get out,” Sam told him.
“Sorry?” the man said.
“Bet your damn ass you’re sorry. Beat it.”
“Will not. I stay. I have right.”
“Fuck your rights. Get going.”
Suki said something in a plaintive tone. Her bad English was worse under the effects of alcohol.
Sam crossed the living room. She grabbed the man by the arm, surprised by how thin it was. Yet he put up a decent struggle when she yanked him. Even so, he was no match for her energized bulk. She dragged him to the still open door and shoved him out. She slammed the door against him. Suki resumed her wailing and Sam told her to shut up. Suki dropped onto one of her floor cushions and sobbed. Sam looked through the peephole. The man was still there. He shouted something in Japanese.
“If he’s saying he’ll call the police, tell him the neighbor already did,” Sam told Suki.
“He want jacket.”
The man’s jacket was on a stool next to the kitchen counter. Sam took the jacket and opened the door. She dropped the jacket and told the man once more to get lost. The man tried to see around her to where Suki sat, but Sam blocked him. He said something else, and Suki lifted her head for a moment. Sam closed the door. Suki wept.
“Don’t be embarrassed. One of them was likely to pop sooner or later,” Sam said.
“You know – johns, they’re not right in the head. It was only a matter of time before one of them took a swing at you.”
“He no hit me. He brother.”
“Brother. Come to take me home. Only he say I cannot go home. They do not wish me.”
Sam sat down across from Suki, forgetting for the moment how much she disliked accommodating that low table.
“He came all this way to say you can’t go home?” Sam asked.
“More honorable to say to my face.”
Sam gazed up at the popcorn ceiling. Her right leg cramped. She flexed her toes. Suki sniffed.
“You should not have pushed him away,” Suki said.
“Yeah, guess not. Look, maybe I can go after him, and explain.”
“Do not. Please go now.”
“Suki, look, I was just trying. . .”
Suki shook her head. The conversation was at an end.
Sam stood. Suki seemed shriveled by her misery. Sam wanted to help her and knew that to offer anything would be wrong. Sam left her alone. As she went down the hall she hoped Mrs. Hopp wouldn’t open her door. The door stayed closed.
Back in her own place Sam listened for Suki’s footsteps on the ceiling. She thought of her up there, unhappy and stuck. She thought of dragging Suki’s brother across the floor. She lifted her arm and flexed her bicep. She grinned. She felt strong as an ox, and liked it. She heard a distant moan, almost ghostly. Maybe Suki was weeping again. Sam wouldn’t be surprised. It wasn’t nice to be rejected by one’s family. But what else did she expect? She was a whore, for God’s sake! The only way she was going to get back in their good graces was to slowly, persistently prove that she’d changed. Maybe she didn’t want to change, though. Maybe she was just fine with her life. Maybe she even liked it. Sam had been a fool to ever bother with her, because Suki could save herself, if she really wanted. With her looks she could do lots of things, like sell perfume or fancy shoes in a high-class department store. Pretty girls had all the breaks and just didn’t know it. Suki’s problem was that she needed the ego boost from all those panting men, as if that, at the end of the day, meant shit.
Sam didn’t bother trying to sleep. She had too many plans to make. The details were fuzzy, but the gist was clear. Time to get out of LA and head for home. Then, she’d see.