by Adam Ehad
“Mark but this flea, and mark in this
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be…”
(From “The Flea” by John Donne)
“…because at the end of the day, sex is just like a mosquito bite”.
“Just like a mosquito bite?”
“Uh-huh.” I nodded. “It’s an itch that just keeps coming back.”
We were talking – Shira and I – under the porch of the Nargillah Cafe in Rurrenabaque. We had met on the propeller plane from La Paz, and during the forty minute journey, I had got to know various things about her; the plump sensuality exuding from her sun-kissed skin, the Russian childhood that gave that charming tang to her lazy voice, and the fact that, having grown up in an entirely secular part of Tel Aviv, I was the first “dos“* she had actually met. As soon as she had told me this, of course, I knew that sooner or later we would have the conversation that I had already had with several others of similar background to hers. All of those questions that they had long harbored about the lives of the religiously-affiliated – “Is it true that you only eat kosher? You have never eaten non-kosher? Never?”, “Tell me, how many times a day do you have to pray?” and “Is it true that, until you are married, you don’t do sex?” – all these questions were now uncorked.
It was the last of these questions that concerned them most, of course, and Shira was no exception. “Is it true?” she asked. “Is it true that you don’t even -” she left the question dangling with a little smile. Even Israelitas, for all their notorious frankness, will only go so far. And so I tried to explain the way that I saw it; desire like an itch – you scratch it and it gets worse, you ignored it and it remains…either way, it doesn’t go away. But I was dimly aware, as her grey-green eyes flickered over me, that this was not the answer that she wanted to hear. So I gently steered the conversation into another channel.
“You know, there’s only one thing I don’t like about this place.”
“Really?” Her cat’s eyes regarded me with amusement. “Not me, I hope?”
“No, it’s all these fucking mosquitoes. That was the only thing I liked about La Paz. Not a single one.”
There are no mosquitoes in La Paz.
Coming up from Buenos Aires, the buses had traveled for three days up hill, the air getting thinner and colder with every hour that passed, until we finally arrived in one of the highest cities in the world. La Paz sits in the hollow of a crater-topped mountain, its brown slopes, pixellated by a tapestry of brown box houses, trapping the petrol fumes which choke it’s already thin air. It is no surprise that no mosquitoes survive within this cauldron of bad air. Even humans have a hard time of it. The slack-faced, thin-lipped natives, who seem to have evolved both the lungs and the grim temperament to survive here, know better than to run in the streets. As for us foreigners…well, within an hour of arriving we had all developed persistent hacking coughs, and over the next few days, you could see the natural rhythms and drives of our bodies slowing and cooling, as we adapted to an oxygenless pace of life. The boys and girls moved gradually away from each other. Relationships became more platonic. And so when Ortal, slim brown limbs and bright brown eyes, sidled up to me one evening in the restaurant and softly suggested that I come on back to her hotel room, it didn’t take too much effort to refuse, despite the fact that she was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen.
Ortal. Over that last evening in La Paz, I got to know her fairly well. I liked the calm softness of her voice, the intelligence in her self-conscious smirk, and the fact that she quite patently was not a slut. That ambiguous little suggestion earlier…it had just been part of her earthy, no-nonsense Israeliness. But as the clock crawled towards midnight, I realised that I had to cut our conversation short if I wanted to be packed and ready to go in time for my flight to Rurrenabaque the next morning. It hardly mattered. She would be flying in only a day later.
Flying from La Paz to Rurrenabaque constitutes possibly the greatest climate change that it is possible to experience. You lift off from the high, cold, airless Plateau on which La Paz is situated, sail for half an hour over a cold black range of mountains that rise in sharp stabs at the sky, and land on the other side, in a world that had plunged down into a green and tropical chasm. You step out of the plane onto a bank of fresh green grass (it is an ´airfield´ in every sense of the word), in a deep humidity scented with all the trees of the rain forest. Your “La Paz-cough” dries up instantaneously in the warm air, and sweat pops out all over your skin.
To take this journey after a month or so in the acrid airlessness of La Paz is something like going through a second puberty. During the taxi ride from the airfield to our hostel, I watched the changes taking place in those around me. Layer after layer of clothing were shed in deference to the heat, the guys swatted at insects and wiped away sweat, and the girls opened like flowers. Couples became suddenly more tactile, new glances, bright with meaning, were exchanged. More than anything else that happened during my time there, I will remember that taxi ride…the way we came to life, felt our bodies straightening and stretching in the heat.
The next morning, I awoke with my arms, legs and forehead covered in mosquito bites. There is something with me and mosquitoes. Not only do they seem to find me irresistible, scoring bite after bite on my skin whilst others sleep untroubled just meters away, but I am also very allergic to them. For others, a mosquito bite is just an irritated pin-prick; for me, a red and angry sore. It’s a double-whammy that smacks of a brutal sort of irony on the part of the Higher Powers. There was a time when I spent hot and sweaty nights in a dedicated fight, swiping viciously in the dark, cursing my invisible foes and their buzzing whine. But now I just let them do their worst. Even when I tried my best to placate them, it did little good. That first night in Rurrenabaque, I had coated every limb in my body in repellent, but left my back untouched and bare, an offering which I hoped meant that the rest of me would me spared. When I woke, I found that my back was the only part of me not scored with little nipples of irritated flesh.
Shira found the story very amusing when I told it to her that morning at the Nargillah cafe. She inspected the line of bites machine-gunned down the length of my wrist. “Look at what she did to me!” I complained. “I can understand them getting thirsty. But why don’t they just stay in one spot and drink their fill? Why did she have to make such a lot of separate bites?”
“How do you know it’s a she?”
“Oh, only female mosquitoes drink blood” I told her. “Scientific fact. I’m an expert on the damn things. For instance, did you know…” But Shira hadn’t sat down next to me to talk about mosquitoes. She steered the conversation in the direction of religion, and began pumping me for all the information she had so long wondered about. But she could see that she had lost my attention. While I was explaining about eating Kosher, about prayer, about sex, I had caught the far-off roar of the airplane, and realised that Ortal was probably on it.
It was because of Ortal that I went over to the Moskitto that night. Everyone goes to the Moskitto in Rurrenabaque. It’s one of only two Gringo pubs, and the other one is quite a formal affair, patronised by older travelers. So when the sun goes down, that is where everyone under thirty goes, and that is where I hoped to find Ortal, who I hadn’t seen all day. I had even wondered if she had perhaps had missed her flight, but I saw her as soon as I entered the pub, surrounded by a tight little knot of Israelis, her back towards me, that long brown hair curling down between her bare shoulders. I stood watching her for a while, then caught sight of Shira waving from another corner. I waved back, and after I had ordered a drink, I went over to join her.
The Moskitto is aptly named. The multitude of pot plants hanging from it’s walls harbor a whole army of mosquitoes that drift down after sunset, flicking among the bare legs under the tables, under loose T-shirts, over bare arms, raising welts and itches. Notwithstanding this drawback, however, there are two things that stand in its favor. Firstly, its an absolutely horrible soundtrack, the full gamete of heavy rock from Led Zep onwards. Secondly, its varied and professionally prepared range of drinks. It’s an interesting cocktail…alcohol and hard rock, twin intoxicants that I had been starved of during all those dry, music-less weeks in La Paz. I had ordered a long, cool mix of vodka, rum and coke, and took my first sip just as the DJ got down the first track of the evening, the hard, wicked burn of the alcohol hitting at the same instant that a raw slice of electric sound coursed through the air like acoustic energy: the opening riff of Led Zeplin’s “Been a long time”.
It was around the time I was on my third drink, and Shira and the table between us had begun to recede on that familiar tide of alcohol, drifting further and further away whilst staying fixed in space all the while. It was then that the conviviality began to dissipate. Israelis don’t drink, really, and Shira began to look disturbed at this new brooding version of the friendly young dos she had, after all, only just met. She told me she was going to the ladies, and as she got up and began to weave her way through the tables, a waiting shadow detached itself from the group at the far end of the bar and made its way towards me: Ortal.
She smiled and the music lurched. Who, I wondered, granted a crescent of enamel such semi-mystic power? But there was no time to think, as she slipped into the seat next to me and wrapped a friendly arm around my shoulder.
“I hear you’re staying at the Lobbo” she said.
“Erm…uh-huh”. The music’s rip-snorting electric pulse, I dimly noticed, had taken on a new and deep significance. “Hold on, how did you know?”
“The register. I saw when I was signing in. You’re in room seventeen, right? Well, I’m next door – room sixteen.” And oh Christ, there it was, that smile again. I was wondering what the hell to say when the music suddenly stopped, replaced by an old familiar tune, the tinkling strains of “Happy birthday to you…”
“Oh G-d” – she stood up – “Be right back”, and she hurried back to where the cake was already being cut amid the celebratory flash of cameras. And I was out in the hot, humid night, the old cobbled road a moonlit white beneath my feet, the Lobbo, the stairs, my key clacking in the lock, a gulp from the vodka bottle beside the bed burning down my throat with a bang. Lights out.
Sleep. Sleep, coming and going, the alcohol and the aching exhaustion of my body dragging me down, the stifling heat dragging me back, I lay drifting between sleep and wakefulness, the heat like a body laid across me, a line of sweat inching down my ribs and across my stomach, and I was drifting down, drifting down, only half aware of the flurry of voices out on the stairs, goodnights and see-you-in-the-mornings, of Ortal’s door softly clicking to. Sleep. The gritty snap of a lighter, the sound of her softly exhaling coming through the cardboard-thin walls, and as the faintest tang of cigarette smoke tickled my nostrils, I knew exactly were she was sitting, with her slender brown legs dangling, out on the balcony, watching the river with a cigarette between her lips.
When I awoke again, it was by the wind, a cool rush snapping back the drapes and cooling the film of sweat gathered on my skin. My body tensed at the sudden cold…tensed and relaxed as the cool wind receded as quickly as it had come, and the room was suddenly stifling hot again. G-d knows how many minutes, hours passed that way, half asleep in the sultry heat, vividly aware of Ortal stretched sleeping in the next room. The dark in my room textured by the wet heat into a stifling velvet blackness, and in that blackness…
A pin-prick of sound.
A high tiny point of sound.
aaaaa… rising… falling… growing… like an approaching but distant siren.
That sultry stuka-whine, oozing out on the hot air, catching the ear and not letting go, a certain beauty in the rise and the fall… and I felt it then, the tiniest of feather brushing my chest, and working down. Even I know when resistance is futile, and as sticky sleep rolled over me I felt the slow, itchy burn of the bites beginning to swell. When I awoke in the morning, I knew, and looked with rimmed and bleary eyes into the bathroom mirror, I would find the bites, like hickeys, scattered all over my chest and neck.
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