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Consanguinity


by Dewi Faulkner


Her grandmother is Jackson's great-grandmother's second cousin once removed.  When Cora was a freshman in college she worked up the genealogy for the whole family, but that was years ago.  He had been very interested to know how they were related, but the whole thing was too complicated.  Lots of circles and squares and triangles all webbed together with straight lines and dotted lines and diagonal lines.  It was boring, he was pretty sure even Cora had thought so.  Jackson had expected that something that mapped out a family would look more like, well, a family and less like leftover Tinker Toys. 

"Schadenfreude."

 Nothing.  No uh-huh or even small flinch of recognition.  Nothing but more nothing. 

He was trying to get her attention.  He was past being bored to tears and into being bored loopy.  After several stalled conversational attempts to get her away from the freakin' window, Jackson was down to just shouting random foreign words at her.  He had already tried, "Your hair is on fire!" and a bit later, "Your butt is exploding!"

Jackson rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes and let out the loudest sigh he could muster.  Why did he not tell her to go fuck herself?  Why didn't he pay the extra couple hundred bucks (well worth it) and fly home early?  Why did he come here in the first place?  He stood up and stretched and decided to pretend he didn't know the answer to any of those questions.  He decided to pretend they didn't all have the same answer.

"Schadenfreude!"  Jackson was going to try passive-aggressive one more time, but this time, loudly.

"Christ!  What do you want?"  She didn't budge a speck: perched on the "couch" peering over the back of it like a sniper, hands wrapped, talon-like, around those stupid binoculars.  Everything was frozen still except her big, fat mouth.

"Don't you want to know what it means?"

"What what means?  What the hell are you talking about?  I'm trying to concentrate here!"

Jackson grunted to himself (but loud enough for Cora to hear).  "Concentrate."  This was absurd.  Even for Cora, this was absurd.  Jackson reached into his pocket and pulled out the small pink rubber ball he bought at the market for 2 yuan.  It wasn't any different from a pink rubber ball you could get in America.  It didn't have a dragon or a snake on it or anything.  Jackson didn't buy it as a souvenir.  He bounced it off the floor and tried to get a solitary game of catch going.

"Are you pouting, Babydoll?" Cora purred.

Nothing.

"I can hear you pouting."

"You can't hear someone pout."  Jackson dug his nails into the ball and watched the little half-moon shapes appear and then disintegrate.  He was pouting.

"I can hear you pout."

Babydoll.  She still called him that, even though he hadn't called her Kewpie since she was twelve years old.

"Okay, okay, tell me what your little word means."  Cora's mouth, but nothing else, continued to move.  Jackson figured it was better than nothing.

"Schadenfreude is the German word for deriving pleasure from the suffering of others.  Not huge sadistic pleasure or anything, not being excited somebody's puppy got ran over.  But just that little prick of relief we all get when there is some tragedy that we managed to avoid.  That "thank-God-it-didn't-happen-to-me" feeling.  Not a bad thing, really, just human nature.  We don't have a word like that in English.  We should, though.  You're certainly enjoying my suffering."

"I think you're a little prick of relief.  Well, a little prick, anyway."  Jackson saw the corner of Cora's mouth turn up.  The binoculars moved up on her face a little, pushed by those cheeks that were chubby and pretty damn adorable.  He watched her in profile for a moment.  Her shoulders bounced in quiet laughter.  Everything about Cora was big and loud except her laugh.  Her laugh was whispery, barely there, like a secret she promised not to tell.

"Proud of yourself for that one, are you?"  Jackson couldn't help but smile any time he heard that quiet little laugh.

"Kinda." 

Jackson threw the ball against the "wall" across from him, knocking down a piece of "wallpaper" in the process.  It fell to the floor in one solid flake.  There was almost as much "wallpaper" on the floor as on the "wall."

"This is getting go-od, Jackson.  You're missing a really good sho-ow," Cora beckoned in sing-song.  She hunkered down into the "couch" even further, even more sniper-like, and waggled her rear end like an excited puppy.

Jackson tossed the ball against the "wall" to himself a few more times until he noticed that it wasn't just "wallpaper" falling to the ground, but pieces of the actual "wall" itself -- or rather pieces of the rotting pressboard that passed for a wall to everyone in China except Jackson.  He walked over to the "couch" and pushed Cora's feet out of the way to make some room.  He sat with his back against the window.  Cora huffed and moved her feet back to where they were, jamming them under Jackson's thigh.  She had the lenses of the binoculars pressed up against the window pane.  Her breath was steaming up the glass.

Jackson folded his arms and stared at the floor and tried not to think about Cora's feet tucked under his leg.  He could feel his heart beating faster, thudding in his chest.  He took a deep breath and tried to move away to give her more space.

"No, don't.  My feet are cold.  Please Babydoll."

As soon as Cora had reached an age where it occurred to her to find the nickname "Kewpie" demeaning, she sought revenge by permanently dubbing Jackson "Babydoll."  It was the most horrifying nickname for a fifteen year-old boy she could think of.  It stuck, too.  Even a few of his friends now don't seem to realize that his actual Christian name is not Babydoll, or The Baby, or B.D., or Ken Doll, or Baby Ken, or Kenny Rogers, or any of the other variations that have sprung up over the years.

Jackson didn't move away.  What he did was push her feet further under his thigh and pat the backs of her legs a little.  It nearly killed him, but he did it anyway.  She was cold.  He rubbed his hands together and put one on each of her calves.  "You want a blanket or a pair of my sweats?"

"No.  Thanks, though.  This is great."

Great.

 "Ohmigod!  It's happening!  Her shirt is totally on the floor.  Jackson you've got to see this!"

Oh, Jesus Christ.  Jackson had almost forgotten why it was imperative he not let himself enjoy himself, even for a minute.  He had forgotten why they were there in the first place.  It wasn't a honeymoon or a vacation or even a wacky adventure.  They were there because Cora was insane, plain and simple.  Cora was on yet another quest to dive-bomb her life.  And this time, instead of trying to stop her, Jackson had gone along for the ride.

Jackson stood up and went over to the "kitchen."  Nothing in the cooler.  He took a quick breath, squared his shoulders, and threw the door of the cupboard open--much like the way a cop, gun drawn, will kick down the door to a criminal's apartment.  If Jackson had a gun, it would be drawn.

Four days, seven hours, and forty-five minutes ago, Jackson had opened this very cupboard (the only one in their "room") and found not one, not two, but three little pairs of eyes staring back at him.  He had so badly wanted them to be the eyes of tiny people, sort of a Gulliver's Travels kind of a thing.  That would have been preferable.  But, opening the cabinet door just enough to let the "light" from the overhead "lamp" shine in, Jackson saw that the eyes belonged to the more probable and much feared creatures, mice.  He hadn't opened the cupboard since.

Cora had done little more than roll her eyes and laugh at Jackson's proclamation that the mice had won, the cupboard now belonged to them, and he would never, in a million years (which he was beginning to suspect was the length of time before he would be able to return to his clean, familiar bed in his clean, familiar country) open it again.  Cora had refused to open it for him.  They were only mice, she had said.  A part of nature, she had said.  And she was positive they had been scared away when Jackson had opened the cupboard.  Jackson hadn't even bothered to ask how she could be positive of this.  Cora was positive of a lot of things.

Cora also had nothing to gain from opening the cupboard.  She had been living almost exclusively on local food bought at either the market or from the handful of street vendors near their apartment "building."  There were only two things left in the cupboard (besides vermin): Jackson's last tube of Pringles and his last can of Progresso minestrone soup.  These items also represented the last remains of his food from home.  Since everything in the cooler had either melted or rotted, it was either pay a visit to Fievel and his clan or start eating the bright red and green slithery mash Cora referred to as "delicious and full of color."  Jackson did not value color in his food, and he found Cora's claim to deliciousness highly suspect.

No mice.  No mice, but lots of little black, pellet-shaped reminders that mice had been there.  Thankfully Jackson's food was air-tight and vacuum-sealed; the way God intended food to be.  He popped open the Pringles and pushed the bothersome thought out of his mind that after about five chips he was going to desperately need a drink of water, and that his only option would be the last of the melty ice chips in the cooler.

"Hey let me have some."  Cora extended a hand in what she thought was his direction, over by the cupboard.  He had actually walked over to the couch and was standing right behind her.  He leaned in close so that he was almost touching the back of her head.

"I'll give you a Pringle if you can pry yourself away from Shanghai Suzy and her little Tiananmen Square."

"Don't be culturally insensitive.  This is my work, Jackson.  My work.  You know how much this means to me; please don't be an asshole about it."   When Cora felt Jackson's breath on her hair she tried to bat him away without turning around.  How was Cora managing to keep her hair smelling so good when neither one of them had showered in five days, six hours, and eighteen minutes?  Jackson jerked his head back when he realized he was smelling her hair.

"This is going to be big, Jackson.  Big."

Here we go.

"Anthropologists have fixated on sex and sexual taboos from the very beginning of the modern cultural anthropological movement.  Before the more tribal cultures, what uneducated over-fed white people would call "primitive" cultures, were all westernized and sanitized, anthropologists out in the field could sometimes get a glimpse of people engaged in coitus.  Right out in the open, with only some sketchy-assed hut separating them from nature and the gods and anyone else who might care to watch...

But now everyone's suspicious of academics busting in on their culture and taking notes and shit.  They're aware, see.  Everyone's got access to CNN now.  Fucking tribesmen from the heart of the Amazonian jungles, hanging out with Sting.  It's screwing everything up.  A real anthropologist has to be covert, invisible.  It's true.  And do you know how many anthropologists have studied the mating habits of inhabitants of major urban centers?  I mean, in more than just hypothetical speculation?  None, Jackson.  I'm the fucking first.  Do you know what this will do for my career?"

Cora was full of shit.

Jackson popped a Pringle in his mouth and begrudgingly settled in for another one of Cora's speeches about her many significant past, present, and future contributions to the field of cultural anthropology.  But apparently the show, or rather "field work" got too good and Cora changed course.

"Finally.  Finally this joker makes a move for the clasp on her bra.  Come on Jackson, take a look already!  Aren't guys supposed to be supremely into this stuff?  Damn!  Damn it!  He's just rubbing her back.  You would think one of the straps would have at least fallen off her shoulder by now--all that rolling around."

Jackson wasn't hungry anymore.  He set his Pringles down on his backpack, the one clean thing in the entire province, and sat down.  He brushed a few remnants of the "wallpaper" back against the "wall" and stared into the bare light bulb on the ceiling.  He closed his eyes and watched the millions of rainbow-colored pinpricks dance behind his eyelids.

Nightfall was a couple hours away, and the miniscule amount of natural light that graced their room during the day was dwindling.  The hairs on Jackson's bare legs prickled into goose bumps, but his face was sweaty.  He felt nauseous.  All he could do was try to fall asleep, or at least convince Cora that he had.

As Jackson lay still with his eyes closed and Cora remained fixated on the people across the way, there was no sound except that strange audible silence that comes when two people in the same room are not speaking to one another.  The street was still abuzz down below, but both Cora and Jackson were long used to the constant white noise of shouting, laughing, arguing, and shrieking that filled the city at all hours.  Well, Cora was more used to it than Jackson.  That weird unquiet silence lasted for some time.

"You should really get over here, Babydoll.  This is getting fucking hot."  Cora took her eyes, briefly, away from the binoculars to give him a sly smile.  When she saw he was leaned up against the wall with his eyes closed she said, "Oh Christ, Jackson!  Stop pretending to be asleep so you don't have to deal with me.  Come on!  Let's have some fun.  I think we're finally through this interminable over-the-clothes petting phase.  I'm giving you the chance of a lifetime, here, Babydoll.  Why would any guy in his right mind turn this down?"

Despite the wrench in his gut, Jackson had almost fallen asleep.  He startled at Cora's voice, and the first few words she said swirled incoherently around the periphery of his consciousness.  He was freezing.  Jackson stood up, stretched, and touched his toes.  He stretched some more.  His back ached from sleeping on the crappy foam "mattress" on the floor. He walked over to his rucksack, pulled out a pair of sweatpants and threw them on over his shorts.  Cora watched him stand up, but when he didn't say anything she shrugged and went back to her "observation."

"Hellooooo, Mr. willy-woo!"  Cora shifted and wiggled her feet in excitement.

"Willy-woo?  And I'm the culturally insensitive one ..." Jackson went over and picked his ball up and plopped down on his "bed."  He was thirsty but too tired and cold to do anything about it.  He went back to digging his nails into his little 2 yuan ball and watching the moons appear and fade away.

"Damn!  He whipped those pants off fast.  And he's finally--would you believe it?  This whole time and he's just now getting around to sliding his hand up her skirt.  I mean, what an idiot.  Don't Chinese guys know that when a woman wears a loose skirt on a date it means she's hoping to get laid?"

Jackson stopped working at the moons and looked up at Cora.  "Really?  Is that true?"  Jackson's brain immediately began a spontaneous, astoundingly efficient catalogue of the specific times, dates, and places in the past seven years Cora had worn a loose skirt in his presence.  Maybe she was right--his brain could only remember four, maybe five times--tops. 

Not that they ever went out on an actual "date."  They had always just been around each other, since Jackson was seven and Cora was new.  He named her Kewpie right away.  She looked exactly like the little doll her mom kept on the nightstand, giant cheeks and enormous eyes, and a little tuft of strawberry blond hair that came to a peak at the top of her head.  Jackson and Cora were like brother and sister, except not.  But he remembers the first time Cora's mom brought her over to his house.  Jackson looked into that tiny peach pie face and fell in love.  It was going to be Jackson's job to take care of her.  And he did.  For many years he was able to, but lately, it was getting complicated.

Jackson remained fixated on the loose skirt conundrum.  Cora favored overalls.  Loose, pale denim ones.  Generally with tank tops that exactly highlighted the curve where her tiny, smooth waist met her full, round hips.  Jackson wondered what overalls meant.

"You should really get over here, Babydoll.  This is getting fucking hot."  She took her eyes, briefly, away from the binoculars to give him a little wink.  "I have to tell you, I'm getting a little moist here."

Jackson was about to bounce the ball again when Cora said this, but that wink and that smile and those round peach-colored cheeks coupled with the unsolicited update on her moistness status caused his arm to tense and he ended up hurling the ball straight at the floor.  The force and speed with which he released the ball sent it ricocheting all over the room.  Chunks of "wallpaper" (and "wall") flew in every direction.  Jackson could feel the blood racing up his neck into his face.

"Nice going, maynard."  Her back remained blessedly turned to him. 

"You're totally killing the three-way fantasy I've got going on here.  I mean, you've seen this chick, who wouldn't want to fuck her?"

Jackson collapsed down on to his "bed" and settled back on his elbows. 

"Hey, Cora.  Who is that chick--the Samoa one, the 'Mother Of Cultural Anthropology As We Know It'?"

"Margaret Mead, duh.  And how many times do I have to tell you she isn't known for Samoa, her seminal work was among the Tchambuli in Papua--

"And her position on three-way fantasies involving research subjects was?" Jackson interrupted.

Cora slowly extended her arm and raised a perfectly manicured middle finger.  Even here, even here where Jackson couldn't locate a damn can of Pepsi, Cora had managed to find someone who would buff her nails to a perfect sheen before coating them in shiny polish the color of dried blood. 

She jerked her hand back and grasped the binoculars with even more ferocity.  "Ohmigod, that's like the coolest underwear I've ever seen.  Are those beads sewn along the top?  They can't be real crystals, not on her salary."  Cora pressed her face into the binoculars even harder, as though if she just pushed hard enough she might be able to actually force her face through the window.  "I wish I could get a closer look.  These damn things don't have enough zoom.  What I need is a telescope."  She took the binoculars away from her face and whacked them a couple times, the way people used to whack TV sets that weren't getting good reception.  Did she really think whacking binoculars could give them stronger magnification?  Did she really think she needed a telescope so she could have a better view of Chinese peasants fucking?  Maybe she was losing her mind.

"Too bad Jimmy Stewart is dead.  You could borrow his."

"Oh, go to hell.  Just because you don't want to enjoy the show doesn't mean you have to ruin it for me."

Jackson stood up and jammed his hands in his pockets.  He needed some air.  Where was his parka?  Had he actually managed to lose something that big in this wretched little cell? 

The day Cora was scheduled to be moved from her regular room at the neuropsychiatric hospital into the acute wing Jackson's Aunt Lucille had pulled him aside in the waiting room and thanked him for being the only calming presence in Cora's life.  Jackson hadn't felt calm that day; he had felt angry, especially at his aunt.  He hadn't responded to her comment.  Instead he folded his arms and walked over to the frosted window, the kind with the little gray filaments that run through the class in interconnected "X"s, and watched for Cora to come through the door to spend her allotted thirty minutes with her family.

Jackson spotted his giant yellow parka stuffed under the "couch" "cushions."  He was about to give Cora shit for messing with his one decent piece of clothing here but thought better of it.

"Hey."

Nothing.

"Hey, Ms. Mead," Jackson called softly as he tried to pry his jacket out from under the "couch" and Cora's legs.

"What?" Cora hissed, trying to kick him away.  She sounded tense; it was good Jackson was going out.

"Nothing, I just wanted to tell you I'm going--

Suddenly Cora let out a yelp and dropped her binoculars.  She sprang backwards from the couch like someone had shot her in the stomach with a sawed-off shotgun.  The binoculars teetered on the back of the couch and then fell to the floor.  Cora jumped at the noise and began to look all around, wild-eyed.  Jackson cupped her face in his hands and looked in her eyes.  She was a sickly shade of white.

"What's the matter?"

Nothing.

"Cora, what is it?"

"Close the curtain, Jackson.  Please."  Her voice was shaky and little, like her laugh.  Jackson stretched his arms out and pulled the curtains together in one fierce yank.  They tore in two places and Jackson was worried the sheer little wisps of material would fall down altogether.  It was time to get Cora out of there.  It was time to get her on a plane.

"Stop, Jackson.  Please close the curtains."  Cora's voice broke. 

"Cora they're closed.  I'm right here."  He lowered her gently on to the couch and put his arm around her.

"Don't look.  Promise me you won't look."  She buried her face in her hands.

"I'm not.  I won't."  He had no need to.  Jackson began to rock Cora softly. 

 Cora looked up at him and he didn't see her twenty-four year-old face, he saw the same face that looked up at him fourteen years ago.  The face of the five year-old girl that begged him to ask his mom if she could stay over at his house, just one more night.

"What do you need to say right now to make you feel better?"  He felt like an ass as soon as he said it.  It was one of Cora's "centering questions" a stupid thing her shrink had recommended to "neutralize" any potential "episodes."  Another one was "Where is it you need me to be right now?"  Such bullshit.  But Jackson was grasping at straws, he had no idea what was going on.

"No, Jackson.  Not that crap, please.  Not right now."  Cora drew her knees up to her chest and kept her face buried.

She was right.  It was crap.  But it was also something.  And some of it had actually helped.  It was following their rules, taking their little pills that had got Cora well.  It was deciding she was well enough to ditch the meds and the therapy and everything else that had landed them in Tianjin.

Jackson wrapped his parka around her shoulders.  "Come on, Kewpie.  Let's get you into bed--you haven't been sleeping, you need to sleep.  It's not healthy--

"Please don't play doctor right now ...or therapist."  She didn't raise her head.  Everything was frozen still except her mouth.

"I won't.  Come on."  She reluctantly stood up and let herself be led to her mattress.  She lay down on her side and Jackson settled in next to her.  He pulled her close to him, gently positioning her head on his shoulder.  How many times had he laid with her exactly like this?  How many times had he told her it was going to be okay?  How many times had he let her down? 

Both of them were quiet for a while.  That same strange mannered silence from earlier in the evening filled the room, amplified by the sounds below the apartment, the nighttime vendors shouting at the drunken passerby.

"Don't you dare blame me for this Jackson.  I mean it."

"Cora--

"No, I'm serious.  I don't want to hear it from you.  This is in no way my fault.  And I'm not sick.  This was still a good idea."

Jackson stroked her hair and brushed it away from her forehead, that beautiful strawberry blond hair.  "Cora, what are you trying to prove?"  A tiny piece of ceiling drifted down and landed on Jackson's forehead.  He brushed it away, ran his hand through his hair, and then rested it under his head.  His hand had served as his pillow for the last four months.  "Why are we here?"

Nothing.

A few of Cora's centering questions flitted through his mind, but he let them pass.  None of them fit for what was going on right now.  Centering questions didn't work in China. 

Cora turned her face into Jackson's shoulder and began to cry.  Her cry was loud and rich, nothing like her laugh.  The baritone vibration of her sobbing seemed to shake the room.

Jackson held her close.  "It's time to go home, Kewpie.  You know that, right?"

Nothing.

Jackson felt her tears soak through his shirt and wet his skin.  He hated himself for it, but he had missed this feeling.  He had missed feeling something from Cora's body that close to his own.

"But my work ..." she said into his shoulder.

"Cora."

"It is important to me.  I know you don't take it seriously, don't take me seriously--

"Kewpie, I'm here aren't I?"  Jackson propped himself up on his elbow and turned Cora's face to his, he let his hand rest on her cheek.  "If I didn't take you seriously then why am I here?"

Cora looked up at him with that tear-stained five year-old face.  "Why are you here?"

Nothing.  For a long time, nothing.

Jackson lay back down, hand rested under his head, and stared at the ceiling, the cracked old moldy dripping "ceiling."  He pretended not to know the answer to her question.

"To teach you about schadenfreude, of course."  He gave her shoulder a squeeze.

She laughed her little angel laugh.  "You were wrong, you know.  It isn't a normal feeling.  It's bad.  It's a bad thing to feel.  And it does have an English equivalent ...sort of.  'Epicaricacy' from the Greek epicharikaky.  'Epi' meaning 'upon,' 'chara' meaning 'joy,' and 'kakon' meaning 'evil.'  It's an evil joy you feel at somebody else's tragedy."  She was quiet for a moment.  "Evil joy."

Jackson smiled.  Cora was okay; she was letting her brain power down and release its death-grip on whatever had spooked her across the street.  He closed his eyes; maybe they both could get a little sleep before dawn (and the morning vendors) hit the city. 

 Cora didn't budge.  Everything was frozen still except her lovely Kewpie-doll mouth.  "It wouldn't be wrong, Jackson, you and I."

He opened his eyes and propped up on his elbow again.  He searched Cora's face.

She looked into his eyes.  "I mean, if it's really what you want--I just.  Look, the blood thing doesn't matter.  It's hard to explain, but ...every culture has taboos but the taboos aren't all the same and plenty of people in plenty of cultures don't have taboos against cousins.  I mean, second and third and so on.  Consanguinity isn't always a problem.  Some even do first cousins.  Seriously, Jackson, to this day.  Certain parts of Australia, I think.  I mean our babies wouldn't be deformed or anything--" Cora rolled her eyes and turned her face into the pillow.  When she looked up again she was bright red.  "Not that we're going to have babies, of course.  I just--maybe this is right.  Here.  Right now.  You want me, right?"  Cora rolled on to her side to face Jackson.  She put one blood-colored fingernail against his lips and let it rest there before letting her finger slide down his chin, chest, stomach before hooking it in his belt loop and pulling her closer to him.  Jackson felt turned inside-out.  He closed his eyes for a moment, lost in the slow rhythm of Cora's breath against his throat.

Jackson let himself reach out and caress Cora's cheeks (the cheeks he fell in love with twenty-four years ago) and neck.  For two or three blissful minutes he allowed himself the fantasy that Cora could be his.  She closed her eyes and sighed, her breath came out in a small shudder, the last remnant of sadness escaping from her throat.

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