PRINCESA - R.S. BOHN
She wore a three thousand dollar necklace and nothing more. In the gloom by the closed curtains, she stood surrounded by vase after vase of white flowers: lilies and roses and drooping, heavy bunches of lilac. Their scent filled the room, but despite their apparent freshness, they must have been nearly finished: underneath, the scent of fetid water, rotting petals, softened stems. She was as pale as the flowers sent by her suitors.
The door clicked shut behind me -- the maid, who had not entered, who had not said a word to me when I had arrived, announcing myself, politely, as the doctor. I assumed the woman only knew Spanish, but when I had spoken to her in our shared language, she only stared at me, mute. And now I was alone with her mistress, in a closed room that smelled of decaying flowers.
“I am the doctor, Princesa,” I said. “Senor Morales.”
In the shadows of the enormous bed, with its twisting posts thick as horses’ legs beneath a canopy of lace, she was lithe and dark-haired and with a belly only a little too plump for her frame. I wondered if I had been called here to dispose of a minor social problem. It happens. I always carried the necessary tools with me.
“May I put my bag here?” When she did not answer, I put the bag on a settee. I opened it, listening closely for sounds of breathing problems, or of physical pain, but I heard nothing in that closed room. I took out my stethoscope and approached her, slowly.
“Stop.” Her voice emerged gin-bruised and jolting.
“I must examine you, Princesa. My apologies.”
“That. That will not be necessary.” She gestured to my chest, and I held up the end of the stethoscope. Respectfully, I took it off and replaced it in the bag.
“What bothers you, Princesa? I must know if I am to help you.”
She pulled a rope of hair from behind her ear and turned her face slightly, chewing on it. I fancied I could hear the soft, crunching noise. At length, she said, hair still in her mouth, “What bothers me is that I am afraid you cannot help me.”
“Let me decide that. Let me examine you. Tell me what is wrong.”
“What is wrong?” She pushed away from the bedpost, stepping across the carpet on small, narrow feet, deliberate and slow. “So much is wrong, doctor. The sun and the ocean. And me. I am wrong.”
Ah, homesickness. Mentally, I composed soothing words designed to encourage her to return to her home and family in Spain, and I calculated the number of pills from my bag that would alleviate her symptoms until then. The naked princess approached, her nipples purple in the strange half-light, the dark line from her navel disappearing between the cleft of her sex. She followed my gaze, dipped a hand there, smiled.
I stammered, “Princesa, I am sorry.”
“No need,” she murmured. Her eyes lit in a way that I had not seen in a good twenty years, at least. Or forty, since the days I walked the streets in Barcelona a new doctor, thin and black-haired myself, the money in my pockets almost unnecessary when I talked to the young girls in the bars. That light, glowing with hunger, fringed in eyelashes that I dreamt of having dragged over my cheeks.
One pale hand reached for me, paused, wavering in the air between us. A gulf of no more than two feet, if that. Close enough to see the map of blue veins, delicate, too visible against the white of her skin. Covering her. Marbling her. Her lips were as purple as her nipples, and just as hard and dry. I shrank back.
“Princesa,” I whispered, “what has happened to you?”
Her hand darted away, a startled bird, at her mouth, her breast, and finally, held by the wrist by her other hand. She trembled.
“Three days ago,” she said, “I was here. In my room.”
“What were you doing?”
A palpable moment. “I was with friends.”
The sensitive nuances of her echelon, how I had come to navigate them with skill, though I could never properly enter their circle, never. Gently, I asked, “What did you take? Do you recall?”
“Yes, of course,” she said impatiently. That hand again, frail, lifted to her nose. “And then there was this.”
A pointed chin, raised so that I could now see the marks around her neck. Also purple, and black. The edges still ragged. She shrugged. “He preferred it like that.”
My mind reeled through possibilities. Bad cocaine? Perhaps drugs on the cord he’d used? Something else, some other chemical ingested unknowingly? Nothing made sense.
“I am unsure,” I said at last. “I might have to send out blood for tests. I do not know what to prescribe for your… condition.”
“No tests,” she said firmly. “You must give me something. Now.”
“I cannot. Whatever I give you may react badly with whatever is in your system. I suggest the hospital.”
“No!” She stepped closer, too close. The scent of rot issued from her. I recoiled, reaching down for my bag.
“You are ill, Princesa. Your maid can call someone to take you--”
“She did call someone. You. Now you must help me. Give me whatever you have with you; it won’t hurt me, trust me.” She reached for the necklace around her neck. “Here. Take this as part of your payment. It’s worth--”
“I know how much it is worth.”
“Then take it.” She fumbled with the clasp, and I did not offer to help. Touching her frightened me. Her touching me frightened me more.
The necklace at last lay in her outstretched palm, large square links, gleaming silver, set with diamonds. “Take it,” she said again.
I took the necklace, my fingertips barely sliding across her skin. She shivered and moaned. I pocketed the necklace, helplessly staring.
“Give me whatever is in your bag. Whatever will let me walk again amongst people.”
I opened the bag, careful not to have my back to her, digging out vials and bottles. I tossed them all onto a chair.
“I do not know what they will do for you.”
“I will find out,” she said, ignoring everything I had thrown down. “What is your name, Doctor?”
“Your first name.”
She reached for me. “Alberto Morales. I want to touch you.”
“No, Princesa.” But I did not move.
“Alberto Morales.” She reached up, cold, cold hands cradling my face. “Let me kiss you. Before you leave.”
“No, Princesa.” My whisper was weak. She smelled like spoiled meat. Her nakedness, so close that I could trace that dark line from her navel with my fingertips. Spoiled meat, clotting on my tongue, in my throat. I closed my eyes. “No, Princesa. Please, no.”
“Then,” she said, trembling, “get out.”
Her hands were gone, leaving behind a lingering coolness on my skin. Groping, I found the handles of my bag, and I stumbled to the door. I heard retching, and over my shoulder, in the shadows, I could barely make out her sleek form, bent over, dark liquid splashing onto the expensive carpet. She wiped her mouth and looked at me.
“Maria will pay you more. Leave.”
I hesitated. I wished to help her, even though I knew I could not. For a dizzy moment, I imagined her gratefulness, her white skin, the coolness of it.
She screamed, guttural, animal, angry, and flew at me.
I fled, ungracefully, and the sound of her slamming her fists against the door followed me down the curving staircase.
“I hate you, Alberto Morales! I hate you!”
The maid waited, quiet and still, at the bottom. Silently, she handed me an envelope, stuffed fat. I took it, barely nodding goodbye before I was gone, out those magnificent double doors and into my car.
Miami grew too hot after that. Everything began to smell like decaying flowers, sweet and cloying. I expected piles of rotting blooms in every alleyway, and found instead the pale people, standing in the shadows, hardly dressed but for their shining jewels.
I left. I had overstayed my welcome in America anyway, and home beckoned. I left behind many things: my professional title, my gambling friends, my silver Mercedes. I took with me my best suits and hats, and my alligator shoes.
And her necklace.
Sitting at a bar in the shade, I read the papers. Sometimes, there are small articles on Miami. The Scene. They are called Glitterati, these stylish people half naked who disdain the beach, preferring the salons and clubs, the private rooms. Dark-eyed inhabitants who spend exorbitant amounts on dangerous combinations of drugs, they scream over the music, spill onto the streets at night. Young people go missing. Old ones, too, I am sure, but no one notices. Everyone talks of the new Scene in Miami. Everyone wants in.
Yesterday, I walked home to my tiny apartment with a bottle of Rioja for dinner. I was thinking of nothing, enjoying the Spanish heat. From an open doorway, I smelled flowers far spent. The curtains were all drawn. Someone had vomited on the doorstep.
I hurried home and opened my bottle but made no dinner. I drank my wine without tasting it, holding the Princesa’s necklace in my shaking hand.
I am without medications of any kind these days except for one, and it is hidden in the necklace case, beneath the velvet lining. If I should take it, burn me. Do with the necklace whatever you will, but burn me until there is nothing left to rise again.